Fraud and Conscience – ‘It’s OK if Everyone Else is Doing It’

I’ve just read an account by Tyler Hamilton of his career as a drug-boosted (and eventually drug-busted) world-class professional cyclist  – The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France. His confessions, and others’, provided the evidence that nailed the world’s most famous doper – Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour de France and seven times loser (all seven titles were eventually stripped form him).

So prevalent was drug use, so essential if you were to stay amongst the world’s most successful riders, and so much part of what it meant to ‘belong’ to the heroic, winning fraternity, that to those in the game it seemed entirely justified. And so strongly was this felt that riders could lie for nearly a decade, with complete equanimity or outraged aggression, to the media, to the sport’s governing bodies, to their friends and family, and even when undergoing lie-detector tests.

‘Everyone is doing it,’ they said to themselves, ‘so it’s ok. It’s a level playing field.’

Indeed, large swathes of the public thought so too. When I was in the USA three years ago and Lance Armstrong had just admitted doping on prime-time TV, there were many Americans I met who thought he was being unfairly treated ‘because, after all, they were all doing it.’

But it was no level playing field. The best drugs were available only to those with money, guile and influence. It was a risk to the riders’ health, and clearly against the rules. It was cheating, pure and simple.


When I get phishing emails telling me I’ve won an obscure lottery in Lesotho, when I hear about the cruel deceptions practised on vulnerable people (the elderly, in particular, are viciously singled out by telephone scammers) I try to understand the mentality of scammers, fraudsters and cheats. How does it feel like to them, how does it look like to them, as they rip people off, humiliating and impoverishing vulnerable people? How do burglars feel when they empty or trash an apartment?

Surely, all of these unusual creatures must have a special way, as dozens of top cyclists and other sportsmen and women have, of justifying it all to themselves. Or am I too generous in supposing they think and feel at all?

‘These people have plenty, and I have nothing. They won’t miss what we steal from them.’

‘I have to feed my family.’

‘If I didn’t do it, someone else would.’

‘If I don’t do it they’ll hurt me or my family.’

We’ve all come across similar justifications in more mundane areas of life and business.

‘Everyone cheats when they claim their expenses.’ (Even the UK’s MPs fell foul of this self-serving justification.)

‘You’ve got to bribe if you want to win a public tender. Everyone knows that.’

‘No one pays all the tax they should. I’d be a fool if I were the only one.’

‘If I didn’t take cash and were to issue an invoice instead, I’d be paying much more tax, I wouldn’t be able to compete and I’d soon be out of business. I have a responsibility to my employees.’

How do people get started with fraud or other kinds of crime? How do they manage their consciences? How do they come to believe they’re justified in what they do? How do they acquire the necessary moral agility?

Well, none of us is an angel. It probably starts with just a penny here or there that no one notices or cares about, and then it grows. Finally, for a few, it’s out of control.

But, as Tyler Hamilton explains, the worst situation is one where there’s peer pressure to join in. It became a rite of passage in the world of top-class cycle racing to accept the testosterone, the EPO and all the other stuff. You were ‘in’. You were good enough to win. It’s probably peer pressure rather than greed that gets most people started on a life of deception and crime.

To this day I remember stealing sweets from a shop in a small town in Germany. I was about ten, and I was ‘made’ to do it by a rather delinquent friend. I regretted it even then, which is probably why I remember it now. I wish I had been more priggish and goody-goody (well, that period, together with excessive church-going came later!).

Serious wrong-doing often starts with small misdemeanours and the encouragement of others. The academic, novelist and religious writer C S Lewis puts it well in his Screwtape Letters – Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…”

There’s a stark difference between those who are mildly sinful and those who are steeped in crime, but to those who travel the path from one to other it must seem like a gentle, if slippery, slope. I can only suppose that if they are human and possess the same mental landscape as the rest of us, they feel the same to themselves at the end of it as at the start, hardly having noticed the subtle and gradual erosion of their conscience.

The English at Ebbsfleet

It seems frivolous to complain about a single and comfortable journey from London to Avignon when thousands are struggling across the entire continent, on foot, by train, by bus, by any means at all, to reach a safe haven called Germany. So I’ll complain only quietly about the mishaps that befell my friend Caroline and me at the hands of Eurostar and SNCF. en route to a bicycling holiday in the south of France. We chose to travel by train this year rather than by low-cost airline (never Ryanair if we can avoid it). Trains are comfortable, fast, civilised and you can eat in style as the scenery whizzes by.

I’ve only two observations to make. The first is about cheerfulness, the second about superstition.


Things went wrong from the start, our Eurostar train halting at Ebbsfleet, just outside London, fifteen minutes into the journey. There was an announcement about technical problems. Eventually disgorged onto the platform, we waited an hour or so for a ‘rescue set’ of carriages. Two hours meant that we would miss our connection at Lille. But what was remarkable about the whole experience was the cheerfulness with which the English reacted to this minor inconvenience. True, in our carriage they were mostly elderly passengers on a Saga holiday, with all the time in the world (or less, depending on how you look at it). But you’d think that the adversity were some kind of bonus, something they would even pay for if they could. You could feel the mood lift and camaraderie set in as the situation worsened. It’s as if the English take pleasure in inconvenience as long as they can all be in it together.

We switched to a later train at Lille, and sped towards Avignon just two hours late. Two hours into the four-hour journey we slowed to a crawl and the driver announced there were problems with the track. We were three hours late at Lyon, where we remained in the station for a further two hours. Track problems further slowed our journey so we were seven hours late at Avignon.

We couldn’t then leave the car park because another passenger was blockading the exit, protesting at the extra hours he’d been charged because the train was late. Remonstrations, threats, made no impression, but this insane man eventually gave up, and finally we arrived at our hotel eight hours late at two in the morning.

My second point is about superstition. It’s hard to resist the feeling that bad luck is sometimes personal, caused, or planned for a purpose, the effect of divine or satanic interference, or witchcraft or wizardry. Bad things come all at once. But it’s nonsense, of course. A bad run of luck at the roulette wheel is precisely that. But even so, I can’t help feeling we were meant to arrive late, but whether so that we should be delivered from disaster, or into it, I don’t yet know.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

I was thinking of this loathsome cliché when I was bicycling in Hungary a week or two ago. (Apparently it’s one of the sayings of Confucius.) Each day in the saddle began with a first and easy revolution of the pedals, and then another 40,000 or so, every one a little more difficult than the last. I can’t say that this glib little saying, which kept coming to mind in the most irritating way, offered a moment’s consolation, knowing that I had another 85 km to go. I can assure you that it’s the last ten thousand that make a journey difficult, not the first.

A single step

Yes, I do understand what this silly truism is trying to say, but I just don’t find it inspiring.

  • If it’s saying that a journey is easy because it’s just a lot of little steps, then that’s obviously untrue. Difficulty has to do with the total number.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without a commitment to completing it (because it’s pretty easy to give up after the first step or two) then that’s not encouraging either, and not always true.
  • If it’s saying that you can begin a long journey without knowing where you’re going, then that’s patent nonsense. A long journey needs a good plan and the determination to complete it.
  • If it’s saying that you should begin a journey without thinking of your final destination, then that’s foolish.

If setting out to do something valuable depends on your assenting to this cosy platitude, then I would question your motives.

Imagine Winston Churchill in May 1940 wondering whether to fight on and resist the Nazi domination of Europe.

‘I’m in two minds,’ he might have said, swigging a tumbler of brandy. ‘Can we really take on the German juggernaut or shall we make a coward’s peace?’

And someone lowly but presumptuous raises a timid hand and says, ‘Mr Churchill, just remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

‘What a splendid thought. Never occurred to me. We will fight them on the beaches…..’ And so on. And the wheels of history turned the way they did.

Not likely!

The fact is that a journey of a thousand miles usually ends with exhaustion and not always where you wanted to be, even if it’s a worthwhile trip. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Here’s some similar-sounding silliness that’s equally banal:

  • A large number begins with a single digit
  • The longest novel begins with a single word
  • The most potent drink begins with a single sip
  • The biggest explosion begins with a tiny spark
  • Death begins with your very first breath
  • Idiocy begins with a single small cliché
  • Obesity starts with a single grain of rice
  • A journey by train begins with the purchase of a ticket

…and so on.


Reach for the sick bowl.