Commentary

Some folks play unfair even at the fair

Updated: August 10, 2007, 12:29 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

SPRINGFIELD, Neb. -- Mia Bella is a sheep with wide, friendly eyes and a hankering for treats. She's harmless, lying there in a pen at the county fair, carefree and content save for the occasional fly.

But if the stakes were higher, Mia Bella might have to pee in a cup and submit to a drug test.

That's how serious some states are taking cheating at what once was considered possibly the purest slice of Americana, the county and state fairs. Amid the mechanical bull rides, pancakes on a stick and the soaped pig contests lurks a dark underbelly of cheaters -- a world of animal doping, swine switching and fake cow fur.

"You wouldn't believe some of the things people do," says LeeAnne Mizer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. "It's very bizarre, and for someone who isn't involved in the agriculture industry, it's even more bizarre."

In small Midwestern towns, fairs are almost like an Olympics. Young 4-H competitors feed and nurture their animals for months before that one week in the summer when townsfolk gather in the stands to watch nearly a year's worth of blood, sweat and raw carrots. Old ladies keep pie recipes under lock and key, competing with neighbors to find out whose is the best. Gardeners search for the perfect squash.

Cow
Tim Graham/Getty ImagesThe cow is no longer just a cow but a means to victory. Cheaters have been known to attach fake fur to make Fluffy seem more fluffy.
At county fairs, they're rewarded with ribbons, the occasional belt buckle and a year's worth of pride. Some cattle owners hang their winning banners for a town to see.

Others slink away from a fair in shame.

Like the guy in Ohio whose swine won grand champion, only to have the top prize stripped away when he tried to switch his animal postfair to keep it and make a profit. Or the adults who glued fur onto cows' necks to make their coats full and lustrous.

One of the more infamous cases involved an Iowa teenager and her grand champion steer named Pickles.

Pickles made statewide headlines when his keeper, Jenna Sievers, was accused of switching the animal in 2002. More than a year after the controversy, the steer's carcass still hung at the Iowa State University meat lab.

Sports psychologist Jack Stark, who works with a number of NASCAR drivers, says he isn't surprised that cheating has seeped into mom's apple pie. He cites a study that says 30 percent of college students cheat. He says they're learning from some of the best in corporate America -- businesspeople who are driven by jealousy and immense competition.

"I think cheating is rampant in our society today," Stark says. "It's higher than ever. In the old days, 50 or 100 years ago, you had people cheating then. But the payoff was in small percentages. Today, you can make an awful lot of money, a lot of gains, by cheating.

"A number of people have the attitude that, 'Well, we don't have it and we worked hard, so we're going to take it.'"

Enter the animal showing contests. Because money is at stake, it's these events in which you'll find the most cheaters at the fair. The owner of a grand champion in 4-H could stand to earn a few thousand dollars. Some teenagers use that money for college.

And the adults cheat in state fairs because the purses are much higher.

"It's big business," says Barney Cosner, executive director of the Nebraska State Fair. "It doesn't take long to figure that if you can sell an animal worth $2,000 for $100,000 that there is some incentive to gaining an edge over the competition."

Pig
Tim Graham/Getty ImagesYou see a cute piglet. A fair cheater sees a pork payday.
When a young person cheats, Cosner says, the finger often can be pointed at an overzealous parent. The 4-H program is supposed to teach kids how to care for a living thing, how to compete and how to prepare for the animal's death. (Most animals are slaughtered and served up for meat after the state fair.)

It was a lesson Cosner wanted to teach his teenage son Zack when they lived in Wyoming last year. Zack had a pig named Puddin he wanted to show at the Wyoming State Fair. Somebody -- possibly a disgruntled fair contestant -- slashed Puddin's throat. Zack nursed the Yorkshire gilt back to health, and she ended up a reserve champion.

The boy decided not to participate in this year's fair.

But a new legion of cheaters will. Some will try to juice their steer or pigs with clenbuterol, which promotes muscle mass and is used by some human bodybuilders. Whether the drug causes enlarged heads and irritability in livestock is unknown, but a study shows it does cause testicular damage in pigs.

In small towns, fairs are run by the honor system. Many times, a cheater is ratted out by another participant. That's how a cake decorator who passed somebody else's work off as her own was busted in Wyoming. That was one of Cosner's weirder cases.

"Any time you have guidelines, somebody [tries] to take advantage of the rules and regulations," Cosner says. "It's just like the posted speed limit. If it's 75, why do people drive 80? Why would somebody take advantage of the system? Most of us do it to try and gain an edge, to gain notoriety."

At the Sarpy County Fair, where Mia Bella is putting in an apparently honest, clean day's work, a man eating a sloppy joe in the middle of the funk of about a dozen cows is incredulous when the topic of cheating comes up. It doesn't happen here, he says, in a town of about 1,200 and a county fair that is homespun and by the book.

"I'd be very shocked if any illegal drugs were used here," says Monte Stauffer, who coordinates the livestock program. "It's not nearly as competitive as some of the state fairs. We give out ribbons. We've never had any problems."

Iowa State Fair
Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesTeens like these, who showed livestock in a contest at the 2003 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, compete for cash prizes. They learn how to care for an animal, compete and prepare for its death.
A few steps away, in the barn where the baking and quilting contests are judged, Barb Mills stands behind a counter as a hot wind blows through a sleepy Friday afternoon. Here, everybody knows everybody, she says. And the cheaters are handled discreetly, with a smile and a quiet "nice try."

She's not going to name any names, but there was the sneak who tried to enter something into the food contest that was at least a year old and had won a ribbon the year before. It was threshed grain, so it wouldn't poison anybody. Then there are the city slickers from Omaha who try to slide in an entry in the hopes of winning at a much smaller fair.

"If it's something [small], we just let it slide," she says. "It's friendly competition for the most part."

But in bigger corners of Anytown, USA, cheaters are taken far more seriously. Mizer has sat with prize-winning animals after a state fair, waiting, as she says, for the lamb of the hour "to take a whiz." One time, she waited 15 minutes. The sample is labeled and taken to a lab, much as with an athlete's drug test.

It's a wild, sometimes woolly job, and Mizer has learned that the motives are similar to those of a pro athlete who decides to cheat: money, pride and the desire to win.

"For some of these families, this is literally their life," she says. "It is everything to them, personally and professionally."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.