In today’s world of sports, it seems that anything done for an advantage, is fair game – as long as you don’t get caught. These days track and field is making big headlines, revealing a large number of athletes who have been caught cheating.
Athletes are considered role models, meaning they serve as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others. Their values not only shape our culture, they actually reflect it. Bending, evading and breaking the rules, is not a value we want to exemplify to society.
The International Olympic Committee stats “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport.” (Fundamental Principle 6)
When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by track and field. In my eyes it was one of the purest sports. It seemed so simple: whoever runs fastest or jumps further, wins. There is no big technology or equipment involved, but willpower, dedication and hard training. I looked up to athletes like Carl Lewis and Bob Beamon.
But the faster athletes ran, the more people had to question how naturally these performances were achieved. In the last few years the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) revealed more and more athletes associated with doping. Big names in the world of track and field got caught using unfair methods.
In the Paralympic world we have an additional issue. Technology advancements leading to techno doping is becoming a problem. Some athletes use special equipment only available for themselves, double leg amputees are running on disproportionally long legs to increase their stride length and some athletes even pretend to have a bigger disability in order to get in a “slower class”.
Where does cheating start and what is just clever play? There is a wide disagreement on what is “part of the game” and what is unsportsmanlike conduct. Many people trivialize the discussion of ethics in sports. Playing fair is much more than just playing by the rules. While illegal conduct in sports is unethical, an act is not necessarily ethical simply because it is legal. There are dual concepts of duty and virtue. While duty suggests a minimal, mandatory aspect of ethics, virtue requires moral excellence. It takes a strong character to perceive and deal with ethical decision. As athletes (and even coaches) are continually faced with opportunities to cheat, the price of doing the right thing seems sometimes out of proportion and it is hard to resist the temptation and pressure to do otherwise. Of course winning is important. Athletes and their coaches devote a huge portion of their lives to being the best they can, in order to win and break records. Trying to win is essential, without passion and enjoyment of victory the spiritual value of sports would be lost.
The concept of fair play though is fundamental to sports too. Cheating violates the spirit and the integrity of the sports. The rules do not only establish standards of fair play, but they also define the game. Sports should be a contest of athletic skills. It’s a duty to show respect for ones opponents, including pre- and post-game rituals such as hand-shaking, bowing and demonstrating grace and respectful civility whether they win or lose. In general a competition is more enjoyable when it is balanced enough to make the game competitive and give all athletes a chance to win. If athletes search for unfair advantages this balance is no longer given and the sport is losing its attraction.
„Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example, and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.“ (Fundamental Principle 2)
A great example of virtue is from the 1936 Olympics:
“In the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Adolf Hitler said, „Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be worn by Negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.“ Jesse Owens, the great American track and field star had already embarrassed the German dictator by winning gold medals in the sprint and relay. But in his first two attempts at the long jump, he stepped over the foul line. He recalls being scared stiff that he would foul on his third attempt and not make it to the final. His fiercest rival in the event was Luz Long, the German athlete. Despite the risk of infuriating Hitler and the chance that Owens would beat him, Long took a towel, laid it down a foot before the foul line, and advised Owens to use it to assure he would qualify. Owens did, and he ultimately defeated Long to win the gold medal. Long’s extraordinary display of sportsmanship and courage went well beyond duty but demonstrated the highest standards of ethical virtue in sports. Aftermath: Luz Long was sent to the Russian front where he was killed. When his daughter was married years later, Jesse Owens walked her down the aisle.”
Fair play means much more than playing within the rules, it is a choice and an attitude. I choose to be at a reasonable height (I am actually shorter now than before my accident). I choose to not take any performance enhancing drugs but focus on a good and nutritious diet. I choose to run on knees and not on stiff pylon legs, in order to make equality to my competitors and keep it comparable. I try to win by training hard and not by gaining a technical advantage. All together I strive to have a fair competition trying my best to keep it fair. I believe ethics is essential to true winning and sportsmanship. The best strategy to improve sports is not to de-emphasize winning but stick to ethical standards and sportsmanship and give victory its true sense. It is one thing to be declared the winner, it is quite another to really win.