Deep Trust, the Cornerstone of Orienteering

The various reactions received after pointing out that the results of the EOC 2021 did not look good on the face of it, were akin to ones one may receive on a Sunday Mass after pointing out that some events in the world may give the impression that God does not exist. “How dare you???”

That made me realize that there are two important cornerstones of major international orienteering events: deep trust in Fair Play, and willful blindness to acknowledge that this trust is supported only by a near religious belief in this very trust itself.

Deep trust that makes international orienteering so special and so different compared to other sports. Deep trust is also the Achilles heel of international orienteering that will bring it down in the quest for more money, more fame, and the Olympic dream.

In this post I write about the nature of this trust at individual level. In my next post I will write about the nature of this trust at institutional level, including the dangers of trying to build an ever larger house of cards of international orienteering anchored on this trust.

Of course, trust in Fair Play is an essential element of all sports. Without trust in fair competition, few honest sportsmen would invest time and effort into training. There could be anomalies on some events, but those are typically detectable and rectifiable. Rogue players and referees can be banned, inspection of equipment and doping tests can be stepped up.

What differentiates orienteering from other sports, is that some of the most impactful methods of cheating – certain forms of information doping – are both unpreventable and undetectable by practical means.

Nobody can stop an organiser to give a map with a course to their favourite athlete, or stop an athlete to visit the competition area with that map. These days athletes can also make highly accurate maps from publicly available Lidar data, and no organiser can stop them visiting the terrain in secret. Even worse, nobody can prove under normal circumstances that this has ever happened.

We can only rely on trust in the ethical standards of organisers and athletes. We have to maintain this trust despite knowing that there is increasing temptation, especially for professional and semi-professional athletes, to do everything possible for better performance that brings in more money through better sponsorship contracts.

Despite the cardinal importance of this trust in Fair Play, there was little attention paid to the nature of this trust within orienteering circles. It is taken for granted and no effort was made to understand the way it works in an environment where we can only trust in trust.

For lack of time (rather than lack of interest) to write a PhD thesis on this topic, I would like to call attention to three aspects of this trust at individual level. Trust of this kind is a very complex phenomena, but I hope that calling attention to it, orienteers will start to think a bit deeper about the way it works.

The three aspects discussed below are
– trust as a key tribal identity attribute for orienteers;
– the way affective and cognitive trust works, and;
– the imperative for our tribe to dismiss any doubt about this trust.

These points may help to understand why this trust evaporates quickly in relationship to China and remains unshaken in relationship to Switzerland, irrespective how things may look for an outsider to orienteering.

trust as Tribal identity

Tribalism is a key feature of sport. Athletes and supporters identify themselves with their clubs and national teams often at levels comparable only to religious devotees. If you have any doubt, you may want to spend some time with a supporter of Liverpool, Fenerbahce, or Boca Juniors.

What makes orienteering special, is that one of the key identity attributes of our tribe is Trust in Fair Play without being able to verify the basis of that trust.

Although orienteers are far from being immaculate in practice of Fair Play, there were multiple laudations of the high ethical standards of orienteering after the Unfortunate Events in China. The CEO of the IOF was talking about the strong ethical value of fair play which we have in orienteering that was expected to be “automatically transmitted to new orienteering nations and across cultures”. Andreas Kyburz, a world class elite athlete, also wrote about pure trust as the differentiating factor between the tribe of orienteers and the rest of the world. He was quite emotional in his post on “Not a happy end” and about his anger, and concern if orienteering can remain a fair sport if different cultures involved in the tribe. (unfortunately, his website suffers from some technical issues, but you can read his post on the Wayback Machine)

It is important to note, that some of the most successful organisations in human history were built on trust supported only by belief. The Roman Catholic Church is probably the best example. Yet, there is a crucial difference:

Catholics believe that mortals are fallible and will succumb to temptations. Orienteers trust you unconditionally, if you can read a map while running at your limits.

Identity and trust are both very emotive subjects. No surprise that so many people at the top of the sport got so emotional after China. The world of elite orienteering was falling apart. The dream of a unique global brotherhood of orienteers was shattered. How could anybody who does not practice the highest moral standards dare to infiltrate our religion of orienteering? How can they join us in our search for little orange-white salvations in the forest every Sunday morning?

But wasn’t it us, who actively sought the involvement of very different members in our tribe of orienteers? Were we blinded in the chase for more money, worldwide fame and Olympic glory for orienteering? Was the blind missionary zeal to convert everybody to our religion of orienteering stronger than our understanding what keeps our tribe together, and what differentiates it from others?

Affective and cognitive trust

To understand how trust works, one has to recognize that there are two major types of trust: affective (i.e. emotional) trust and cognitive (i.e. logical) trust. These two types of trust are distinctive and work very differently.

Affective trust, or the trust of the heart, is based on perceptions that generate positive feelings. The feeling that the other person has similar intrinsic motivations strengthens affective trust. It comes from interactions, it is based on personality cues and sensory connections. It is characterised by the feeling of openness, sharing and care.

Cognitive trust, or the trust of the mind, is based on specific connections and shared experiences. It comes from accumulated knowledge on the predictability and reliability of the partner. The reputation of the partner may provide a very strong foundation for cognitive trust. It is characterised by professionalism, dedication, and competence.

Affective trust correlates very well (inversely) with cultural distance, i.e. the larger the differences in language, religion, values, wealth and lifestyle, the smaller the trust becomes. Cognitive trust correlates well with similar thinking to achieve similar goals.

All works reasonably well within the flying circus of top elite athletes coming from a small part of the world and spending lots of time together on various events and training camps over many years. But trust is difficult to build, easy to break, and nigh impossible to rebuild between groups as different as Europeans and Chinese, especially when contacts between them are very limited.

The nature of trust is a serious barrier to growth for international orienteering, but it is apparently not acknowledged, or maybe not even understood, by the IOF when it comes to strategic plans and the Olympic Dream.

We must believe

We must believe in the Trust in Fair Play in orienteering. We have no choice. It cannot be verified independently. Drug cheats can be caught. Violations of Fair Play in most sporting situations can be observed in a way or another. But information doping in orienteering cannot be proven when intelligent athletes are involved.

This has resulted in a ruthless approach to heretics, who dared to point out that things may not always look good. Most reactions to my previous post on the, shall we say, funny looking results of the EOC 2021 were not along the lines of “How could this happen?”, but “How dare you?”

It is imperative to dismiss any doubt about Trust in Fair Play in orienteering, because questions cannot be argued objectively.

If we allow any doubt to creep up, we are lost. There is no rational way one can reassure a sceptic. Any attempt to argue for trust may result in further damage, and a more conscious realisation that there is no way to find objective assurance. So the best way for the mind to handle this is to reject any doubt off hand.

Of course, the human mind still wants some reassurance, so a number of “objective” support was brought forward. Some of them were stated explicitly, and some of them were strongly implied, also related to EOC 2021:

  • Top athletes do not have to resort to unfair methods (a favourite of Lance Armstrong, the 7 time Tour winner who was never caught, but admitted to using doping throughout his career)
  • Athletes from nations with higher ethical standards would not bring shame on their country (an argument that covered for a while the Lahti Six, the members of the Finnish cross-country team that was caught using banned substance on the on the World Championships in Lahti in 2001)
  • It is unthinkable that a well respected member would betray a closely knit and supportive community (the cornerstone of Bernie Madoff’s $64bn Ponzi scheme that stole many billions from the Jewish community in New York by an absolute “insider”, a most trusted member of the community)

All the right arguments used to strengthen the trust in high performers.

– * – * –

Of course, trust based on pure trust is great. It provides a very comforting feeling of tribal cohesion. That is why we love being members of the orienteering community, as described also by Andreas.

The sad reality is that when it comes to ever larger monies, when the livelihood of professional athletes and professional organisers is at stake, then ethical standards provide only a flimsy defence against cheating. In an environment like orienteering, where certain forms of cheating are undetectable, the temptation is even greater, and serious cheating with information doping is unavoidable.

It is not a matter of if, but when.

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