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The Edge, by Roger Pielke Jr

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The Edge, by Roger Pielke Jr
The Edge, by Roger Pielke Jr

Title: The Edge – The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports
Author: Roger Pielke Jr
Publisher: Roaring Forties Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 327
Order: Roaring Forties Press
What it is: Sport governance in the twenty first century
Strengths: While Pielke is more than happy to offer solutions he seems more concerned with ensuring that people actually understand what the problems are in the first place
Weaknesses: I do worry about people who tell me that Arthur Linton died in 1886 during Bordeaux-Paris

Sport, on the field of play, is governed by rules and norms. Rules, they're the things that keep the lawyers in business arguing, for example, that the UCI's commissaires were in error when they turfed Peter Sagan off the Tour de France earlier this year. Norms, they're the things that keep the journalists in business arguing, for example, that Fabio Aru was wrong to try and attack the yellow jerseyed Chris Froome during the Tour when he was summoning assistance.

Rules and norms, they're not set in stone, they evolve over time. Next season, the peloton will have to adapt to new rules dealing with things as different as team sizes, race furniture, and sticky bottles. The etiquette of not attacking the race leader when he has a mechanical, I'm not aware of it being an issue before the 1921 Tour, when the maillot jaune, Léon Scieur, was attacked by Hector Heusghem after puncturing on the roads between Nice and Grenoble.

There are consequences when you breach rules and norms. But should such infractions be considered cheating? In The Edge – The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports Roger Pielke Jr argues that it is only the breach of particular rules that should be considered cheating:

In sport, some rules are meant to be broken. Breaking rules is in fact often part of the game. Athletes calculate costs and benefits of breaking rules and the chance that a penalty will be enforced. Should a cornerback on a football field commit pass interference on a long pass down the field? Should a centreback on a soccer field foul a striker heading toward her team's goal? Should a basketball team start fouling at the end of a game to try and catch up? The breaking of rules is an essential part of the fabric of sport norms and rules. So the act of breaking the rules, even intentionally, is not by itself enough to qualify as “cheating.”

Cheating, Pielke argues, is the breaking of a particular kind of rule, a constitutive rule (the rules for a game), as opposed to a regulatory rule (the rules of the game):

Ultimately, the decision to define an activity as against the rules of a game versus the rules for a game is the result of a negotiation among those who have a stake in the the game, along with those with authority to make changes. Sport is a constant negotiation between fans, administrators, athletes and others. We change rules all the time, both rules for the sport and rules of the sport. Sometimes we even move rules from one category to the other. Cheating is thus a moving target rather than something to be defined once and for all.

Let's try and apply that to a practical problem that's been in the news recently: is the use in cycling of Therapeutic Use Exemptions to gain an edge cheating (the breaking of a constitutive rule) or is it something lesser (such as cynical play or gamesmanship)?

In trying to answer that question, consider the case of the Harlequins rugby team, discussed by Pielke in The Edge. Playing against Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in 2009 they faked a 'blood substitution' late in the game and when trailing 6-5, in order to replace a wing, Tom Williams, with a goal kicker, Nick Evans. There was no specific rule against faking medical need in order to invoke a 'blood substitution' but when the ruse was discovered the authorities felt that such behaviour was misconduct “prejudicial to the interests of the Union or the Game.” Williams was put on the naughty step for four months. Off the field the consequences were more severe: the club was fined more than a quarter of a million pounds, the chairman, Charles Jillings, fell on his sword, the rugby director, Dean Richards, and physiotherapist, Steph Brennan, received bans of three and two years, while the team doctor, Wendy Chapman, was suspended for most a year while the General Medical Council investigated her actions.

Is it likely that the authorities would consider faking medical need in order to obtain a TUE to be misconduct prejudicial to the interests of cycling? Well, Craig Reedie, the head of WADA is unlikely to think that, given he is of the view that the current rules applying for TUEs are robust. The same can be said of Katherine Grainger, the head of UK Sport, who seems to share Reedie's view of the current system. To acknowledge a problem here would be to acknowledge a wider problem within the anti-doping system. And nobody in authority seems to want to have to do that.


In The Edge, Pielke is more interested with the big governance issues than with the cheating of individual athletes. Should college sports in the US drop the pretence of being amateur and, like the Olympics in the 1990s, embrace the reality that they are professional? Are sporting bodies right to be worried about the threat of match fixing? Is anti-doping working? Can sport bodies cope with changing technology? What does gender mean in twenty-first century sport? At first glance this might seem like a strange hodgepodge of topics. They are, though, all linked by being at the edge of sporting legality: America's amateur college athletes currently receive compensation but not payment; match fixing is the bogeyman du jour in international sporting circles; five decades after sport was forced to adopt an anti-doping stance, the system we have today seems to do nothing but create scandals; technological change is a double-edged sword for sport, offering new ways to mediate the sporting experience but also challenging what it means to be an athlete; sport's nineteenth century approach to gender is struggling to cope with the modern understanding.

The latter three problems in particular have received a lot of attention in recent years, personalised as they are by the cases of Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, and Caster Semenya. The three share a common focus: what does normal mean? Armstrong claims he was merely levelling the playing field, putting himself on the same tier as everyone else. The IAAF failed to demonstrate that Oscar Pistorius's prosthetics gave him an advantage over others. And sport's preferred solution for dealing with cases like Caster Semenya seems to be therapy to 'normalise' their levels of particular hormones.

So what is normal? Was Eero Mäntyranta, the Finnish skier who in the 1960s won three Olympic gold medals, normal, despite his naturally high levels of EPO? If a golfer gets laser surgery on his eyes in order to enhance his vision, is that normal? If female athletes can be forced to lower their testosterone levels to what is considered normal, should male athletes be allowed enhance theirs to what is considered normal?

The fact that our answers across these and related questions tend to be inconsistent suggests we no longer understand what it is we are trying to achieve. As Pielke points out in The Edge, most of sport's rules are founded on principles that come from the nineteenth century. Most sports have, over the years, built up a façade of myth in order to hide the roots of their rules: amateur athletics in the US, for example, was founded on the same principles of amateurism as ruled in Great Britain at that time (the system was about class structure, designed to stop working class oiks from showing-up upper class gentlemen) but today pretends that its stance against professionalism is really about purity.

How sport can address issues like this is one part of The Edge, with Pielke proposing that sport bodies should embrace the values of professionalism, pragmatism, accountability and transparency. The core of the book though is how Pielke gets to those solutions: he talks the reader through the problems, often showing them in a different light. How often, for instance, do you find someone willing to admit that many of the problems being discussed can't actually be solved, can't actually be got rid of? But that is what Pielke does:

'Wicked problems' are ones that, in the words of a classic 1973 article that explained the concept, 'are ill-defined and they rely upon elusive political judgement for resolution.' Such problems are 'resolved,' not solved. They are called 'wicked' because they are 'malignant' (in contrast to 'benign'), or 'vicious' (like a circle), or 'tricky' (like a leprechaun), or 'aggressive' (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb). By definition, we can never really solve a wicked problem; we can only do better or worse at trying to manage it. And better or worse depends on what we think is a problem in the first place, or whether we think that there even is a problem requiring action. Wicked problems can be addressed only through negotiation, and negotiation can't solve the problem. An oft-cited example of a problem of this sort is crime, which is never solved completely; we just do better or worse at tackling it, depending on the responses that we put in place through our political and social systems.

How do we know if we are doing better or worse at tackling the problem of crime? Annual crime statistics help. How do we know if we are doing better or worse at tackling the problem of doping in sport? We don't: the annual statistics served up to us are meaningless and we have no idea what the true extent of the problem really is. This is true of many of the other problems facing sport today, from match fixing to the role of technology. Take this back to the issue introduced earlier, TUEs: there are no reliable, meaningful statistics issued concerning the use of TUEs.

Crime statistics are, of course, partly about perception management. And in order to 'solve' some of sports problems, it is we who are going to have to change. Are we ready and willing to allow para-athletes to compete in the Olympics? Are we happy to celebrate genetically 'gifted' athletes while punishing those we think of as genetically 'cursed'? Are we happy to allow nebulous concepts such as purity and the spirit of sport to define our understanding of doping or should we focus on protecting athletes from dangerous products and practices? Are we willing to admit that many of our problems lack clean and easy solutions?

The only way we are ever going to get answers to these questions is by discussing the problems. And there we should be grateful for the opportunities afforded to us by the many scandals blighting sport:

Crisis may cast a cloud over sport, but the resulting debates are its silver lining, offering the promise of new paths forward and a chance for values to change and for changed values to have impact.

More than for its efforts to point out what sport bodies could be doing to improve their governance, The Edge is a valuable read for the way it asks you what the actual problems are and challenges you to consider how far you are willing to go to resolve them. The answers may surprise some.

The Edge, by Roger Pielke Jr
The Edge, by Roger Pielke Jr