Making sense of fairness in sports.
|Abstract:||Cheating evolves constantly. Dozens of athletes were barred from the Winter Olympics for taking banned substances. Gene doping is on the horizon. Questions have arisen about which athletes count as "female. " What does it take to keep sports fair? And what does fairness require?|
Drugs and athletes
Sports (United States)
Sports (Ethical aspects)
|Author:||Murray, Thomas H.|
|Publication:||Name: The Hastings Center Report Publisher: Hastings Center Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Hastings Center ISSN: 0093-0334|
|Issue:||Date: March-April, 2010 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 2|
|Topic:||Event Code: 200 Management dynamics; 290 Public affairs Advertising Code: 91 Ethics Computer Subject: Company business management|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
From the steroid scandals of major league baseball to analysis of
Oscar Pistorius's cheetahs to the sex-verification test of Caster
Semenya, questions today about what constitutes fairness in sports are
wide-ranging and varied.
It's easier to see what's unfair in sports. Suppose that the judges award the Olympic figure skating gold medal in Vancouver because of the skaters' wacky costumes--all feathers, sequins, and teasing glimpses of skin. Or that they choose based on their views on the skaters' countries of origin, or because they were bribed, or by tossing a coin.
All these are unfair (and some have been documented, or at least suspected, in past competitions). How do we know they're unfair? Because everyone who understands figure skating--or alpine skiing, or bobsledding, or, for that matter, baseball, cycling, or any other competitive sport--knows what's supposed to separate winners from also-rans. Among the countless differences between competitors, from eye color to favorite food, only certain differences are meant to be highlighted in each particular sport.
Successful short-track speed skaters possess explosive strength, finely honed technique, and the courage to face the possibility of serious injury from razor-sharp blades. Nordic skiers must have astonishing stamina. Each sport calls upon its particular mix of physical talents. Every sport requires the commitment to perfect those talents and to learn how to employ them skillfully and strategically. It may not be easy to say exactly what fairness means, but the ease with which we can call out unfairness suggests that the task is worthwhile and far from hopeless.
A match that should never happen is a one-on-one basketball game between LeBron James and me. When LeBron trounces me--as he assuredly will--it may be uninteresting, probably comical, perhaps even YouTubeable, but it will not be unfair. He is simply a superior player, not merely to me but probably to every other person living on this planet. (Kobe Bryant is likely to disagree.) The playing field, or court, is level. Talent and dedication determine the winner.
The first thing to note is that a fair sports competition does not require that athletes be equal in every imaginable respect. Some basketball players are taller, stronger, quicker, or more agile than others. No one--well, almost no one--regards such differences in natural talents as unjust or unfair. Some have better coaches or more favorable training environments. At what point such differences cross the line from inevitable and acceptable to iniquitous and deplorable is something to be debated and settled by the people who participate in, understand, and love that sport--not by distant and disinterested philosophers. Debates such as this go on regularly in sports over new equipment, rules, strategies, and the like. Take the recent kerfuffle over the super-slippery, buoyant full-body swimsuits. After initial dithering, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA)--the international governing body for swimming--last year banned many suits on the grounds that they changed the nature of the sport by allowing bulky athletes to float on top of the water rather than having to push through it. Whatever one thinks of FINA's ruling, it was right to focus on the meaning of the sport and on what characteristics lead to excellence and success.
Then again, the most gifted, hardest-working athlete or team does not always win. A random bounce, a slip, a hesitation can give victory to the side that might lose nine of ten matches. That's why we play the game.
When it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, gene doping, and the panoply of manipulations banned widely in sports, the challenge is less about fairness than about meaning. If the rules ban performance-enhancing drugs, then using those drugs to gain an advantage over athletes who refuse to cheat is unfair. Simple enough. Antidoping skeptics, however, often proclaim that the problem isn't with the drugs, but with the ban on drugs. It would be fairer, they argue, to give all competitors access to the same drugs. If everyone had ample supplies of anabolic steroids, erythropoietin, growth hormone, or whatever drugs boosted performance in their sport, then--they claim--unfairness would be eliminated along with the nuisances of drug testing, adjudication, and enforcement.
One response to the skeptics is to ask a different question: Is it not unfair to put the athletes who want to compete without drugs or gene doping at a competitive disadvantage by permitting everything--to tilt the playing field in favor of the drug users?
Any serious ethical commentary on the uses of performance-enhancing technology in sports must confront two compelling realities. First, sports science has provided a great deal of information about how to optimize training and performance. It has also led to a plethora of technologies and methods to enhance performance, from altitude chambers that allow athletes to gain the benefits of "training low, living high," to ice-filled vests runners can wear before a long race to cool their core temperatures, to esoteric measurements of muscle and organ function. Why, the skeptics ask, should we distinguish between these technologies of performance enhancement on the one hand and drugs like steroids on the other?
Part of the answer to this challenge is to recognize that sports are about what can be accomplished under specific limitations. Soccer players, other than goal tenders, may not use their hands or arms to direct the ball, even when that would be far more convenient and accurate than one's foot or head. Golf imposes strict limits on balls and clubs. Marathon runners may not use wheels, whether attached to their shoes or, as Rosie Ruiz did, to subway cars.
The other piece of the answer requires an understanding of what that particular sport values. What makes a great weightlifter does not make a great distance runner. Bodies that possess massive explosive strength are rarely the lithe, sinewy bodies best suited to run great distances. The limitations each sport chooses for itself reflect a shared understanding of what that sport is meant to display and reward. The rules of sports are arbitrary in the sense that they could be otherwise, and, in practice, sports modify their rules in response to changes in equipment, tactics, and athletes' abilities. But in another sense, the rules and the changes wrought in them are far from arbitrary: they must pass muster with the community of those who play and love that sport. The community must be satisfied that the new rules keep alive what it values, what natural talents enable athletes to excel, and what, in the end, is meaningful about participating and winning.
The second reality is the ineluctably comparative nature of sports. Athletes compete against other athletes. Winners and losers may be separated by fractions of a second. A drug that gives a 1 or 2 percent performance boost can be decisive. When some athletes use such technologies, all athletes feel the pressure to use them, merely to avoid losing ground. So the notion that we should just leave it up to each athlete to decide whether to use drugs is naive. When the lid is blown off, all athletes will feel the pressure to dope.
One proposed solution is to continue to ban some drugs--those deemed to be particularly harmful--but allow athletes free reign to use all others. Consider what is likely to happen. We'll continue to need drug testing and enforcement to deter athletes from using the substances on the banned list, so all the complaints about the inconvenience and intrusiveness of testing will remain. And now athletes will feel pressured to take ever more drugs, often at higher dosages, in untested and possibly dangerous combinations. It's hard to see that scenario as progress.
Whether performance-enhancing drugs or gene doping should be permitted in sports is, in the end, a matter to be decided by the communities of athletes and those who understand and love each sport. The dynamics of competition mean that, if doping were permitted, athletes would confront a terrible choice: refrain from drugs and give up an edge that will often be decisive, or join in an ever-rising spiral of drug use. I fear a public health catastrophe in the making if we choose the second path. I also would grieve for all those athletes who desire to compete without doping but who will mostly lose to their pharmacologically amped competitors.
Opening the doors of sports to drug use will also accelerate the dominance of doping gurus over the athletes who succumb to their sales pitches. An athlete's performance will become more and more a function of expert manipulations, and less of the athlete's talents or dedication. I cannot see that as a good thing for athletes, for sports, or for all of us who care about them.
Thomas H. Murray, "Making Sense of Fairness in Sports," Hastings Center Report 40, no. 2 (2010): 13-15.
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