So you hear about a 41-year-old swimmer making the Olympics eight years after retiring and two years after giving birth. You immediately think:
A. What an inspiring story!
B. It's got to be performance-enhancing drugs.
That's what it's like to be a sports fan in 2008, torn between awe and mistrust.
"Any time an athlete does something extraordinary anymore, it's, 'How can that be?'" said Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychology professor. "Because it's happened so many times. The heroes keep crumbling under the weight of scandals."
Dara Torres, who set American records and qualified for her fifth Olympics in two individual events at the U.S. trials, is the latest athlete to attract both amazement and suspicion by accomplishing the seemingly impossible.
"I have the perception that you want to believe and you should give someone the benefit of the doubt," Torres said. "But, unfortunately, other athletes in the past have ruined that for a lot of people."
Measuring fan reaction
The Beijing Olympics will measure how fans burned by doping scandal after doping scandal will react to such a tale. Will 40-something moms crowd around the TV to cheer on Torres?
Or will most people shrug, unwilling to believe? They may decide they can't take another disillusioning revelation, after putting their faith in Mark McGwire or Floyd Landis, in Roger Clemens or Marion Jones.
"It's interesting to me how effective sports fans are at being in denial," said Daniel Mahony, a dean at Kent State who has done sports management research into fan behavior.
But, he added, "Now it's become harder and harder for people to do that."
Mahony joked that as a New York Giants fan, he knows with absolute certainty that all their players were clean when they won the Super Bowl this year. He's not alone in his faith. Fans might be cynical toward athletes in general, but they make exceptions for their own team — or for an inspiring tale.
"We all are a forgiving nation, too," said Edward Raymond Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University. "We like those comeback stories. We like people overcoming odds."
Daniel Cox has seen how even non-swimmers can relate to Torres' story. Knowing that he's the president of OHIO Masters, a Cleveland-area swim club for adults, friends kept calling to ask, "How can someone that old do that?"
"Everybody in Masters that I've talked to is just ecstatic," said the 47-year-old Cox, who also serves on committees for United States Masters Swimming, the national governing body. "It's just phenomenal what she's done for a lot of us being older athletes. It shows we've still got it, baby."
Whether in sports or other fields, research shows that people are supportive or suspicious depending on how appealing they find somebody.
"With any kind of scandal or allegation, if you like the person, you think it's so unfair to jump on them or make an assumption," Hirt said.
Smiling on the medals stand with her 2-year-old daughter in her arms at the Olympic trials, Torres projected a bright persona nobody would confuse with the brooding Barry Bonds.
It helps that swimming has not been besieged by major doping scandals recently like track and baseball, although American Jessica Hardy withdrew from the U.S. swim team after failing a drug test. Nor has Torres' name popped up in grand jury testimony or federal investigations, as have Bonds and others.
Torres even volunteered to take part in a stringent pilot drug-testing program administered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
"That's crucial public relations on her part," said Bob Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse.
Hearing about the drug-testing program certainly eased Cox's mind. Even he couldn't help but wonder about doping before he learned that Torres had volunteered for it.
"That was something in the back of my mind, that, 'Wow, she's really at that level, at that age?'" Cox said.
Jones frequently was mentioned as the athlete who might have destroyed people's faith once and for all. To many, she seemed so convincing — a charismatic star who vehemently denied doping. Now Jones is an admitted drug cheat, in prison for lying to federal authorities.
"I've had doubts in general about a few athletes," Torres said. But with Jones, "I had no idea."
Level of passion
For people to persuade themselves to believe in an athlete, a certain level of passion is required.
Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State psychology professor, has studied how fans promote their connection to their favorite team when it's winning. But if they fear association with an athlete will end in disgrace, he said, their loyalty might not take root.
Need an example of doubt dulling interest? Look no further than Torres' feelings toward Bonds' pursuit of the career home run record last year.
"I didn't follow it at all," she said. "There was too much evidence there. There was too much pointing to him, and so I became disinterested.
"I'm a Yankee fan, anyway."
Still, proving that fans are cynical is far easier than proving it has influenced their viewing habits.
"All that having been said," Thompson noted, "there seems to be a willingness to say, 'OK, I've got suspicions this may be happening, but now let's play the game and see who wins.'"