James Diamond ©ITG

If I may, let me tell you a story from 1950s America.

In 1954 in Minnesota a woman named Dorothy Martin became convinced that the world would end in the early hours of December 21 of that year.

She claimed to have made psychic contact with a god-like figure from another planet, who had told her the world was set to be ravaged by an apocalyptic flood but that she, and any other true believers, would be saved.

She prophesied that at midnight on the 21st an alien spacecraft would swoop down into her back garden and take her and anyone else with her to safety.

As is often the case with prophecies of impending doom, some chose to believe it. In fact, some became so convinced Martin’s claim was true that they left their jobs and their families behind, to go and live with her.

All so that when the time came, they would be saved.

However, when the 21st did roll around and no space ship, or indeed flood of any kind emerged, rather than coming to their senses and concluding Martin was clearly crazy, many in the group became more convinced, not less, that the threat had been real.

Instead of leaving Martin’s home and attempting to patch things up with their families, the cult members rejoiced.

Instead of labelling their leader a fraud and themselves as fools for believing her, they concluded their faith must have been so strong that in the end the god-like figure chose not to destroy Earth.

They believed they had saved the world.

A Minnesota woman Dorothy Martin was convinced an alien spacecraft, perhaps like the one pictured here, would save her from a apocalypse in 1954 that never arrived ©Getty Images
A Minnesota woman Dorothy Martin was convinced an alien spacecraft, perhaps like the one pictured here, would save her from a apocalypse in 1954 that never arrived ©Getty Images

Now why, I am sure you are all wondering, is a 65-year-old story about aliens who never appeared, relevant to an Olympic news website in 2019?

It is relevant because it provides an example of a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, which I cannot help but think could be at play across the world of sports governance .

I first came across the theory - and indeed the above story - in a book by the British sports journalist Matthew Syed called Black Box Thinking, which if you have not read by the way, I would thoroughly recommend.

In brief, it states that when a person is confronted with evidence that contradicts a deeply held belief, they are more likely to reframe, or even totally ignore the evidence, than change their views.

As soon as the world was not destroyed on December 21 in 1954, it would, seemingly, have made perfect sense for the cult members to reject their belief that an alien had ever planned to destroy Earth.

But instead, because they had bet their lives on it, they became more, not less convinced, that they had been right all along.

And the fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it actually makes such a seemingly irrational reaction more likely than just accepting the facts.

Could a similar thing be happening across the Olympic Movement?

Regularly those in power make statements that seem to clearly contradict the evidence available.

For example, on Friday (February 1) Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō claimed there is no reason for Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda to step down, even temporarily, despite him being embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Regarding the race to host the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the IOC have claimed it is good they only have two candidates because that way, less campaigns will lose.

But that comes even though the system clearly isn’t attracting hosts as it is supposed to.

Calgary joined a long list last year of cities to vote against hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Twitter
Calgary joined a long list last year of cities to vote against hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Twitter

At the Esports Forum organised last year by the Global Association of International Sports Federations the late Patrick Baumann, who was thought to be the driving force behind the IOC’s flirtation with esports, suggested esports players are as fit as traditional Olympic athletes.

That statement came even though the only example provided during the forum of an esports player doing physical training to directly benefit their gaming, was a girl who said she does wrist exercises in the gym to avoid repetitive strain injuries.

After Pyeongchang 2018 there was the claim from IOC Athlete Commission chair Kirsty Coventry to justify the ending of Russia’s Olympic ban, that their neutral team at the Games was the cleanest of every team, even though two of their athletes tested positive for drugs when many other countries failed no tests at all.

And the examples go on.

At the turn of the year there were the repeated insistence's from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that their hard deadline for Russia to hand over data from their Moscow Laboratory was indeed hard, despite the fact it obviously wasn’t.

And amid ticketing issues at the 2018 Asian Games a member of the Organising Committee insisted you would struggle to spot empty seats at any venue, when in reality many were largely deserted.

Of course, some of these statements could have just been spin. One would like to think that those in power are capable of spotting problems when they arise and do try and deal with them accordingly, even if publicly they play down their significance.

But the frequency at which these kinds of claims are being made, suggests to me that another factor is at play. 

And if any of you are thinking the above examples all target the so called "establishment", well there are others from their opponents too. 

Take the reaction to WADA's handling of the Russian doping crisis.

The most ardent critics of the anti-doping movement appear to have reached a point where nothing done to combat doping will ever be enough. For example yesterday I saw a tweet from once such critic, who tried to claim WADA's reaction welcoming the Court of Arbitration for Sport sanctions introduced against 12 Russian athletes, was somehow further evidence of anti-doping's problems not successes.

Both the World Anti-Doping Agency, led by Sir Craig Reedie, and their critics, seem to have become totally entrenched in their views on the Russian doping scandal ©Getty Images
Both the World Anti-Doping Agency, led by Sir Craig Reedie, and their critics, seem to have become totally entrenched in their views on the Russian doping scandal ©Getty Images

The point is, humans are inherently bad at accepting being wrong, to the point that often we refuse to admit we ever made a mistake without even realising it.

To use a sporting analogy, how many times have you either said or heard the excuse, "it just wasn’t my day," or, "I got unlucky" to justify a loss rather than analysing what actually happened?

I find myself saying it practically every time I step off a golf course, and at most I'm only ever playing for a bit of pocket money or a pint off a friend. 

But in contrast, if your name is Thomas Bach and the state of the Olympics is in your hands, or If you’re Sir Craig Reedie and bringing Russia into line is down to you, the stakes of the decisions you make are obviously much, much, much higher.

Considering cognitive dissonance can come into play even in a scenario that realistically means nothing, is it not highly likely that it is also effecting decisions made by those with serious influence, where the consequences of admitting failure could be huge?

If they make a claim that comes back to bite them, or take a decision that ends up having a negative impact on the very thing they're trying to improve, how likely are they really, to admit it?

Not only that, how likely are they to then learn from their mistake?

All of us would like to say we are capable of admitting our errors, but in reality, the truth is that often we don’t.

Cognitive dissonance dictates that the higher the stakes, the more likely we are to convince ourselves the mistake never happened. The more likely we are to fish around for anything that could justify our original stance.

I’m not suggesting the flaws of human psychology are always to blame for questionable decisions taken and statements made, in the Olympic Movement. 

But can we be sure that cognitive dissonance is never in play? Can we all be confident, that when a mistake is made, it is even recognised, let alone tackled?

I'm not sure we can.