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Celebs and Politicians Can’t Stop Stealing Athletic Valor

Rep. Madison Cawthorn isn’t the first and won’t be the last. When the stakes are low and the going gets tough, the weak get deceptive — especially when they think no one will bother investigating

Congressman Madison Cawthorn arrived straight out of central casting, with a chiseled jawline redolent of a young Tom Brady. At 25, the Republican freshman from North Carolina’s 11th congressional district is the youngest elected official in D.C., and aside from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, the most high-profile wheelchair user now holding public office in the U.S. He also presented himself as an against-all-odds athletic success story, claiming he had rehabilitated so effectively from the 2014 automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed that he was on the cusp of qualifying for the Paralympics and setting records in a pair of wheelchair sprint events.

A great story, except for the fact that a recent article in The Nation attempted to substantiate Cawthorn’s Paralympic claims, and found no evidence whatsoever of his involvement in a competition in which he was supposedly preparing to break world records. On the basis of the available evidence, writer Sara Luterman concluded that Cawthorn had lied about his wheelchair training regimen and record-setting potential because the Paralympics, impressive though its competitors might be, is a fairly low-profile event, and therefore something that an individual habituated to lying like Cawthorn — who had already fudged his dismal academic and business records — would recognize as a safe bet in terms of public exposure and its possible consequences.

Such athletic deception, though, puts Cawthorn in heady company, alongside a rogue’s gallery of other politicians and celebrities who have been desperate to enhance otherwise-insubstantial backgrounds with a soupçon of sporting glory.

“The older I get, the more everybody I meet tells me how great at sports they were 10 or 20 years ago,” says my cousin Cody Klempay, a two-time Pennsylvania state heavyweight wrestling champion who competed at 285 pounds for the University of North Carolina, where he achieved comparatively less success before completing his career at local Waynesburg University. “There are not many people at that next level, and everyone who is [in NCAA Division I athletics] is already very good, a fact I learned pretty quickly. But to hear about it later, at the gym or wherever, tons of random couch potatoes were only a knee injury away from the Olympics. Talk is really cheap, and most people think you’re not going to look up PDF records or videos or whatever backing up what they’re saying, even though that’s easy to do now, because most folks are under the impression you’ll take them at their word.”

For every actor, politician or public figure whose track record belies their modest self-presentation — like the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, whose unassuming, nerdy exterior contrasted sharply with the hard-nosed champion wrestler he had been at the University of North Carolina, or Ed O’Neill, who unlike the failed high school jock Al Bundy he portrayed on Married… with Children was actually a top-notch college football player at Ohio University — one can find a dozen who are fudging the record or simply lying through their teeth.

Case in point: President Joe Biden, who had some brief involvement with the University of Delaware’s freshman football team following a solid high school career, raised eyebrows in 2012 when he talked about participating in a 1960 football game against Ohio University despite not being on Delaware’s active roster.

This sort of thing enraged my father, who enjoyed an easily verifiable varsity football career at West Virginia University and remained far pricklier about such instances of athletic “stolen valor” than his own father, who had spent three years on a submarine during World War II, was about the real thing. “These armchair quarterbacks want you to think they were a bunch of rough tough cream puffs when they hadn’t played anything harder than pin the tail on the donkey,” went a refrain repeated throughout his lifetime, which ended in 2014.

But I get where Biden and others are coming from, even if I’m unwilling to similarly stretch the truth. I discussed this in the context of folkstyle wrestling and swimming with Ian Douglass, a masters-level swimmer and wrestling autobiographer. When I mentioned that I could conceivably claim to have “lost a fairly close decision to an All-American wrestler” because I lost 7-1 in the first round of a 2003 open tournament to former Boise State All-American heavyweight Boe Rushton, Douglass took it a step further. “I love pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette’s quote about this process,” he says. “‘Tell them the truth at A and B, so that when you swerve them at C, they’ll believe it because A and B were true.’”

Pro wrestling, Douglass notes, is a world in which the “athletes” — performers whose jobs are to simulate a high-level, competitive athletic contest — frequently have their credentials inflated through creative use of Cornette’s logic. “Jim ‘the Anvil’ Neidhart was billed as an anvil-throwing champion, because he had won an anvil-throwing contest wrestling promoter Stu Hart sponsored to take advantage of his real skill, which was shot-putting. If I was a wrestler in Florida in the 1970s, they would say I was an All-American swimmer at Michigan because I was a state qualifier in high school and then went to Michigan,” he explains. “In fact, I did compete against an NCAA All-American in swimming, 12 years after the fact at a masters meet. He slaughtered me.”

But some of the exaggerations utilized in wrestling were, almost of necessity, stretched far beyond mere fudging. “Roddy Piper was said to be a ‘Golden Gloves champion,’ but there are no records of him winning any of those contests. The original Sheik, Ed Farhat, didn’t play college football at the University of Michigan, although this claim was repeated frequently. Dick Murdoch didn’t play football for West Texas State, but somehow worked his way into an alumni game because he knew so many of the pro wrestlers who did play there.”

Someone like Murdoch was at least tall and athletic, perhaps perfectly capable of playing college football had he possessed the requisite study habits and discipline to bother attending school. Piper, if nothing else, knew the basics of amateur wrestling and boxed well enough to make Mr. T look silly in their WrestleMania 2 encounter, as well as fashion the greatest extended fistfight scene in movie history in They Live. They could, on some level, appear to do the work — like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was shaving an hour off his marathon times but nevertheless completing them.

However, there are always those stories that go beyond the pale. Cawthorn’s is one of them, because despite a relatively fit physique, he appears to be nowhere near capable of performing the athletic feats about which he boasts, even as he purloins the spotlight from Paralympic competitors who have devoted lifetimes to pushing their limits. The same goes for Donald Trump Jr., next in a long line of dissemblers who has no compunction about claiming to have completed the CrossFit endurance workout “Murph” — consisting of a mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and another mile run, all while wearing a 20-pound vest — in a shade under 32 minutes, a 34-minute improvement on his posted 2012 time of 66 minutes, albeit without wearing the vest (the first place time at the 2015 CrossFit Games was 38:56).

Ben Labe, an economics PhD and business analyst, sees the deceptions of these inveterate liars as well as the more modest “fudgers” as an indictment of a super-heated meritocratic system. “Whenever you set a target meant to approximate some correlated but unmeasurable good, then people will necessarily find ways of hitting the target without delivering the good,” he argues. “The more complex the meritocracy, the more elaborate the deceptions.”

Sports journalist and steroid expert Anthony Roberts puts the matter more bluntly: “Lying is the oldest and most effective performance-enhancing drug there is. If you can lie and avoid detection, or mitigate the fallout after the deception is uncovered, then the benefits of lying exceed the costs.”

For someone like me or Mitchell Sahlfield, an All-American hammer thrower at Fort Hays State, the costs of deception will always be too high. Surrounded by other athletic individuals throughout our lives, we find there is a certain joy in reporting powerlifting numbers with rigorous exactitude, in part because it discomfits others who won’t do the same. “Many people expect you to embellish your numbers as well, so when you don’t, they get confused and start to realize the con is out in the open,” Sahfield says. “It’s like, ‘Shit, this guy knows. Let’s double down on the lie.’”

But for someone like Cawthorn, who appears to utter falsehoods in the daily order of business, like Donald Trump before him, doubling down on the lies is the optimal way of hedging one’s bets. By tossing out the untruths one after the other, daisy-chaining them together or weaving them into an elaborate web of deception, one can make a lie out of the idea of meritocracy itself. By way of contrast, the most accomplished athlete to sit on the Supreme Court, ex-Pittsburgh Steeler and college All-American halfback Byron “Whizzer” White, rarely spoke of his gridiron days. According to White’s biographer and former clerk Dennis Hutchinson, “Whizzer” had already lived through the truth, and felt comfortable letting the record speak for itself.

That, of course, is something a canny deceiver playing the long game simply cannot afford to do. Cawthorn has to keep talking, and only by saying anything and everything that comes to mind can he keep people from realizing there’s actually nothing there, nothing at all save for the hot air powering his ascent into the halls of power.