Performance focus vs doing the right thing - what does sport teach us?


Ever wondered how athletes who take banned substances to win races live with themselves afterwards? When Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, or Dwain Chambers deliver literally superhuman feats of sporting accomplishment, can they look at their medals and believe they earned them?


The answer to this question has been examined in a new book by Christophe Brissonneau and Jeffrey Montez de Oca - Doping in Elite Sports - Voices of French sportspeople and Their Doctors, 1950-2010 

The book explains how and why sportspeople justify their cheating. The authors found that cheats claim there is no level playing field in sport. Everyone is bending the rules to varying degrees, so if they choose to dope, they are simply trying to compete equally with their peers.

This was illustrated when disgraced former US cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed his doping sins to Oprah Winfrey in December 2013.

"I looked up the definition of cheat," Armstrong said. "The definition of a cheat is to gain advantage on a rival or a foe. I don’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field."

Ben Johnson won the 1984 100m Olympic title, but subsequently tested positive for a banned steroid. His argument? “It’s only cheating if you’re the only one doing it. ... Almost every professional athlete does something."

Elite sport is about finding a competitive advantage. Whether it’s better training facilities, funding or coaches – the argument goes that there’s no such thing as a level playing field. Doping is simply the logical extension of that.

‘Everyone’s doing it’ has always been the defence of the cheats, whether in sport or business: the LIBOR scandal in London banking, where it was found lending rates were being fixed; or the Volkswagen emissions scandal whereby cars were fitted with a device that distorted their emissions to pass regulatory testing.

In a competitive marketplace with less and less consumer loyalty, it’s critical to push every facet of performance to get ahead.

In my sport of rowing, it’s all about making the boat go faster and this was the only thing I thought about. In your business, you will be utterly focussed on your sales targets, or growing turnover by a certain percentage year or year.

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It’s so easy for this laser focus on performance to obscure the way things are done. If you’ve hit on something that achieves extraordinary growth, then whatever it takes to achieve that growth and close the sale becomes normalised. “A, B, C: Always Be Closing!” famously said Alec Baldwin’s character in the film Glengarry Glen Ross.

But herein lies the problem. Not everything should become normalised. In sport, there are clear and obvious lines between legality and illegality. In business, there are clear and obvious lines between your company operating according to its values and ethics and simply being focussed on “A, B, C.”

Because it’s not true that everybody is doing it. In cycling, Christophe Bassons refused to dope. He was shunned by the peloton and was virtually bullied out of the 1999 Tour De France as riders, team officials and organisers closed ranks and turned on Bassons – the only rider who would speak the truth about what went on.

There have always been people who have the courage to say ‘no’.

Secondly, doping isn’t a natural extension of sporting performance. The reason that certain drugs end up on the banned list is because they are dangerous to your health. Doping is not the same as being able to afford a better coach.

The answer to how scandals occur is that deviance became the norm. Good people do things they previously would never have countenanced, because that behaviour seemed right. How can you ensure deviance doesn’t become the norm in your company?

Do you have a Christophe Bassons who can provide that cultural health check? You will have standard systems to monitor your KPIs built into every part of your business. It’s worth also building in systems to check and challenge how you are practising your values, ethics and modus operandi to the same degree.

In business, increasingly employees and consumers are asking questions about the ethical performance of businesses rather than just being interested in the products that they create. There are nearly 3000 B-Corporations spread across 64 countries worldwide – and rising.[1]

With expert intervention and support from our team at Sport and Beyond, we can ensure you focus on getting this area right.  How would you categorise your current culture? Is this the culture you need to achieve your organisation’s goals? If not, what’s the best way to go about altering it? And what is best practice approach to ensure that your culture is embedded throughout the organisation.  These are all areas where we have helped clients drive performance in a sustainable way. As a well known CEO recently said: “strategies are just a guessing game for a future reality that is impossible to predict. With the right kind of culture we can handle anything, come what may.”

The postscript to cheating scandals, in both sport and elsewhere, is that Armstrong and Johnson would probably have won anyway; VW would still have been a market leader in cars; inter-bank lending would still have generated huge profits for banks. But the focus became on deviating from the norm in order to get that competitive edge, rather than simply harnessing existing strengths and making them better.

Are you focussed on making your existing workforce as good as it can be, rather than trying to find a shortcut that is contrary to your values and ethics?

Annie Vernon, Guest blogger

Author, 'Mind Games: Determination, Doubt and Lucky Socks - an insider's guide to the psychology of elite athletes' (Bloomsbury, 2019).

(Rowbottom, Mike “When dopers tell the truth about cheating - if that’s what it is…”’, Inside The Games, 9 May 2019).

[1] B-Corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.