Thursday, October 19, 2017

Competing by Cheating: An Interview with Former Cyclist Joe Papp

naples-herald-dot-logo-20x20 (1)As a follow-up to a recent column regarding professional athletes who bend the rules…break the rules…outright cheat (“Cheating in Professional Sports: What do our Children See?” Naples Herald, May 18, 2015), I was afforded the opportunity to speak with and interview former professional cyclist, Joe Papp, who was banned from his sport as a result of use and distribution of performance enhancing drugs.

While the aforementioned column discussed athletes who distinctly lack remorse and appear to revel in the bountiful lives that cheating has provided for them, I had a unique opportunity to speak openly and candidly with a young man brimming with remorse and ardent about cautioning young athletes about the perils of cheating.

Joe Papp was a member of the U.S. National Cycling team who began cycling at age 14 in Western Pennsylvania.  Papp graduated, Summa Cum Laude, from the University of Pittsburgh and, through his writing, became a voice in the cycling community.  His cycling successes afforded him the opportunity to race worldwide, including Italy, Monaco, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Brazil, Australia, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, France, Cuba, Ireland, Korea, Panama, Macau, Venezuela and Uruguay.

A urine sample submitted after the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey in 2006 tested positive for prohibited performance-enhancing substances and Papp was suspended from competitive cycling for two years.

In February of 2010, Joe Papp plead guilty to two counts of Conspiracy to Distribute Performance-Enhancing Drugs and sentenced to six months of house arrest followed by a probationary period of two and a half years.

Since that time, rather than taking the “fly beneath the radar” approach, Papp has shared his story with those interested in learning from and understanding his experiences.

In a recent film, “(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies,” Joe Papp openly and sincerely discusses the ease in which one becomes involved in this type of deception and duplicity.  The film…which I found to be a captivating discussion about the awkward components to lying and deception…is a documentary “that explores the human tendency to be dishonest.”  It is a fabulous compilation of material “inspired by the work of behavioral economist, Dan Ariely…the film interweaves personal stories, expert opinions, behavioral experiments, and archival footage to reveal how and why people lie.”  (Opened in LA May 15, 2015, in NYC and on VOD May 22, 2015 and will be broadcast on CNBC May 28, 2015.  Additionally, the film is available on iTunes

I had the pleasure of discussing these matters with Joe Papp last week.

Gary Levine:  Joe…bending the rules and cheating have been part of competition forever.  Do you believe that cheating, as a whole, has worsened over the decades or do you believe that advancement in technologies such as blood testing, video capabilities and social media have made exposing it easier?

Joe Papp: “Technology to document…and the willingness of investigative journalists to actually look into it and write about it can make bad behavior seem more prevalent when in reality they are writing about things that have always gone on.  But then the second thing, and this specifically in the context of cycling, is that the doping products that have become available in the past twenty years have had such an exponentially greater impact on the performance of the athletes who use them that one can’t help but to look at that and not feel that something has gotten worse…even though there isn’t necessarily any greater frequency of use.”

While researching the subject of doping in professional sports, I found studies that document a performance increase as great as 15% through the use of performance enhancing drugs.  Papp indicated that the 1990’s brought forth “cancer drugs” that, should you have chosen not to use them, you were categorically unable to compete with those who did.  He reminded me that in a sport decided by seconds, a 13% to 14% increase in performance was immensely significant.

I mentioned, in our conversation, that he had indicated that without the use of PEDs, he was entirely unable to compete with a field clearly using them.

Papp indicated that with so many around him choosing to boost their performance by way of doping, he legitimately became inhumed in a dope or die quandary.  The USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) and the World Anti-Doping Agency investigations were discovering and exposing wide-spread doping within the sport of cycling…verifying Papp’s dilemma.

While I am cautious to avoid approving his decision, I freely offered my empathy.

It prompted me to consider what I would opt to do if my livelihood demanded me to cheat, so as to allow me to be competitive, or to choose to quit or retire.

We continued…

Gary Levine:  Please comment on this statement:  The respect and admiration that Americans once held for professional athletes are gone.

Joe Papp:  “If that’s the case, I wouldn’t single out athletes as the only ones who are being rendered non-heroic by an increased and justifiable cynicism.  The same kind of cheating and generally bad behavior that we see in sports is as prevalent in the corporate world…in the entertainment industry.”

Papp then inquired…”should athletes be heroes to kids?”  He went on to point out “there’s a lot of money in sport now.  Kids get huge pro contracts without the wherewithal or know-how to manage that money and behave appropriately and may not even understand the degree to which they are role models.”

Gary Levine:  You began cycling competitively as a middle-teen.  The sport has afforded you quite a bit including the opportunity to travel the world.  You have done quite a bit of writing and have been a voice in the cycling community.  Do you believe that your decision to compete unfairly betrayed your sport and your fans?  And, if so, how?

Joe Papp:  “Oh sure, all of those.  The decision to…even though when I made the decision, I was pretty well convinced that almost everybody that I was competing against was doing the same things…I gave the sport a black-eye by being one of the people who did it, cheated, and got caught.”

Throughout the conversation, it was difficult not to detect Papp’s regretful resonance.  I pushed my list of questions aside for a moment…

Gary Levine:  Joe, this must be difficult for you…being interviewed and approached…the derogatory media attention…always being asked about cheating and deceit rather than being asked about cycling victories and events.

Joe Papp:  “Boy, if you read the e-mails that I started getting after all of this came out from people who I never knew personally who were not just disappointed but furious.  Some read ‘I hope you go to prison and get sexually abused there.’”

Papp had mentioned that his father had passed away when he was 13 years old.  Papp’s best friend of 20 years…who was like a “surrogate father” e-mailed him after the news was released.  The message read “don’t ever call me again…I don’t want to see you again.”

He went on to say “living this life is definitely difficult.  It’s certainly not what I ever would have wanted or ever would have imagined.  Actually, engaging with the media and fans and talking about how I ended up in the situation…why I did what I did…is not something that I feel bad about…because I wish there was a conversation like that going on when I was just getting into sport…because maybe I would’ve been aware more and thinking more long-term what the consequences could be.  I went down a path, through sport, that branded me as a felon…and it has lifelong implications.”

If Joe Papp’s impetus is to teach relevant and beneficial lessons, he succeeded today.  I learned that not all who cheat are “cheaters.”  I learned that life has an unethical way of contorting our values.  I learned to be cautious about labeling another human being.

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