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Philosophy of Sport

Limits to Growth in Elite Sport - Some Ethical Considerations

Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian State University for Sport and Physical Education

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ABSTRACT: The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the ethical implications and problems in elite sport as it gets closer to the human performance limit. Modern elite sport must be viewed on the background of the idea of systematic progress. The Olympic motto, 'citius, altius, fortius'-faster, higher, stronger-gives a precise concentration of this idea. Modern sport is also influenced by the liberal idea of a free market where actors can perform, compete and be rewarded according to performance. However, one may ask why and how athletes are willing to risk their health and even their life on the free market of sport when they do the extreme: push limits, break records, set new standards, develop new events. This paper discusses what may be the result as sport moves toward the limits of human performance. The ethical focus on the development of the elite sport should not be restricted to the individual athlete, but should also include the various systems that make up elite sport. Other actors, like coaches, leaders, sponsors, medical personnel, service people, etc., are taking part in the same development. One problem in the modern context is that society is divided into different moral sectors. What is accepted in entertainment or art may not be accepted in sport. It is suggested that we should develop a common ethic for all performance-centered activities like music, painting, science and research, acrobatics and stunts, acting, top politics and business. Or one could include all situations and events where people are put under extreme stress and have to perform well, like during expeditions, in idealistic humanitarian work, during hazards, and catastrophes. At the same time, one should not develop a sort of elite ethic. We need a new ethic that defines the ethical tolerance level in elite sport and that also points to some of the possibilities for development of both character and virtues under extreme pressure.

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The Olympic motto «citius, altius, fortius» - faster, higher, stronger - gives a precise concentrate of the strong belief in eternal progress. To break barriers, to push limits, is very important and central in elite sport; to be the first under 10 seconds on 100 meter sprint for men, the first under 4 minutes in one English mile, the first over 6 meter in pole-vaulting or the first over 9 meter in long jump, and so on.

Modern elite sport was for a long time considered as a contrast to original Greek sport with its weight on harmony between body and soul. According to recent research this is a myth that was developed in the Bourgeois discussion clubs and salons in Europe in the 19th century. Greek sport was desperately focused on the importance of winning and felt a corresponding shame over defeat. It was very individualistic, often brutal, with use of doping, with high money prices and rewards, with professional athletes, with worship of the heroes, with show for the masses, and so on. Already Homer had stated that the point in life was «to win and to surpass all the others» (Young, 1984, Finley & Pleket, 1976).

Modern elite sport has many parallels to Greek sport. But there are also important differences. One important characteristic of modern sport, that distinguishes it from the Greek, is the belief in continuing progress and the quest for new records. My aim in this paper is to state some of the important questions relating to the character and ethical content of modern elite sport as it developed towards breaking barriers, pushing limits, surpass records and invent new forms and disciplines. Following a good philosophical tradition I will try to formulate important questions, but not be able always to give the right or satisfying answers. I will first question some of the ideological premises of modern elite sport, the idea of progress and of liberalism, and then discuss some aspects of the ethical content and context of elite sport.

Modern elite sport is intimately tied to the idea of progress.

According to Robert Nisbet the idea of a systematic progress, of a development from the worse to the better, originated in Europe around the 15th century and was systematized during the Enlightenment period through theories of rational, global, technical development (Nisbet, 1980). The new use of reason and science should improve the conditions of all men. Earlier theories had been theories of rise and fall or of a steady decline. In classical times there had been in Greek and Roman culture a focus on the original state, the Golden Age, that was followed by a steady decline. The Hebrew tradition showed the ups and downs, the oscillations in the chosen people's relationship to God.

The idea of a continuous progress has in recent years come under heavy attack. With the Second World War and Holocaust, the cold war and the atom bomb, population explosion and lack of resources, food problems and ecological disturbances, many people have come to question the idea of progress. The Club of Rome and its study of «limits to growth» has encouraged studies of growth and crisis in several areas. Maybe there are not only ecological limits to growth, but social, cultural and personal limits. (Harvey, 1989). In sport there must be limits somewhere. With increasingly better performances and new world records one seems to get asymptotically closer and closer to an imaginary limit that marks the boundary for what is possible for a human being. But what will happen when performance stagnates, when no new records are set for years? A central problem is whether the idea of a linear progress should be given up, in sport as in other areas, and exchanged with more flexible, dynamic, stability-oriented paradigms. Or, if the idea of progress is maintained, how should sport be developed to avoid becoming stagnant and sterile in its pushing of limits?

Elite sport is a child of liberalism

Liberalism, as it was developed in the tradition from John Locke, contained the idea of a free market with free access for actors who compete and are rewarded according to effort and skill. Sport is a legitimate child of liberalism with in principle free access for athletes to test their skills against others under equal conditions, according to prescribed rules and with rewards according to performance. The liberal society is an achieving society. So is sport. Or the other way around. Some philosophers think that sport in many ways represent a perfect model for the achieving society. No other place gives a better opportunity to test one's skills and abilities in a hard, fair, and open way, and with a reward according to performance (Breivik,1973). Other philosophers maintain that sport just copies the models and rationality of the work sphere, especially the efficiency models of industrial work (Breivik, 1973). I think one's view of elite sport in many ways is strongly influenced by one's view of liberalism and especially the idea of hard competition and rewards according to performance. Recent studies of fairness in sport suggest how sport could improve its role as a good model for justice and fairness.. The liberal heritage needs to be supplemented with a framework of well tested good norms and rules (Loland, 1989).

The breakdown of global maximization

The faith in a heaven often includes a notion of a complete and simultaneous realization of all types of goodness. Our experiences in the real world often points in an opposite direction. Progress in one area must be compensated by decline in other areas. Or expressed in a more precise way: It is impossible to optimize all parameters at the same time, global maximization is impossible.

Let us suppose that elite sport is evaluated according to the following parameters: performance, joy, cultural value, health, morals, social community. In some elite sport organizations there seems to be a sort of convergence model where all parameters are thought to be converging towards a common optimum. The elite athlete and his or her maximum performance is supposed to be in the center and all the other evaluation parameters are optimized at the same time. The elite athlete should be healthy, happy, moral, social and so on. Models of this kind have to be well founded if they are going to look plausible. How plausible are they?

Performance will most likely grow according to the S - shaped growth curve which we find in several areas of life (Modis, 1992). A slow increase in the start is followed by an almost linear growth and then a slowing down as the growth curve gets closer to the asymptotic limit. This means that as increase in performance in the end will become rarer and smaller. Improvements in performance will then have to be bought at higher prices, with new and more distant factors becoming affected. We know that both health and ethical values have become problematic in elite sport (Hoberman, 1992). The standard of morals seems to be inversely related to level of performance. The health problems probably follow an algorithmic increase model as the performance limits are approached, at least in all sports with heavy demand on speed, strength or endurance, as well as sports with high speed or risk and acrobatic sports (Breivik, 1973; 1987).

What will happen when the performance level in sports gets close to the limit? There are several possibilities? Let me mention a few:

If the rewards (money, prestige, honor, media focus) are high enough even small and rare improvements can be enough to fuel continuous efforts.

If the improvements (performance, quality of play, records) become rare and stagnation occurs, a demoralization may be the result and the interest in elite sport, both among athletes and the public (followed by mass media and the market), will wither.

If elite sport performance become stagnant in some existing events, the focus may shift to other events or new events. One could think of new distances in running, in swimming, new exercises and events in gymnastics. There could also be a shift from record-oriented or absolute events to relative or winning-oriented events like the team sports.

There may be a heavy loss or decline in other parameters than performance. The health or life quality may be too strongly affected in a negative direction. Or the existential poverty in elite sport may be too burdensome, with a lot of routines and an artificial life combined with media and public hysteria.

One central problem is whether elite sport will behave like a self-regulating system if it is left alone, or whether it will grow beyond all limits, both in achievement, morals and health. Will it become a «panem and circensis» for the people, extreme and ugly? Is sport a healthy self-regulating organism or an abnormality, a cancerous tumor? Studies of the political and social reality of elite sport suggests that sport is not an autonomous institution and therefore not a healthy organism. Sport is rather, especially at elite level, invaded and exploited by other social institutions like market, business, media, and also education and politics (Morgan, 1994).

Elite sport; the individual and the system

Modern elite sport is completely dependent upon the system of people and resources around the athlete. There is system upon system in ever widening circles, starting with 1) the athlete 2) the coach 3) the medical personnel, equipment support. It goes on with the wider circle of 4) science, technology, 5) leaders, organization, 6) sponsors, marketing, business, and with 7) media people, journalists, 8) fan clubs, public. The development of sport into systems, called the «totalization process», makes the athlete a part of huge teams or organizations that fight and compete with each other in various ways, not only in the sports arena, but also in the press, in the sponsor market, in the politics. This means that if one wants to develop and direct the sport towards certain goals, one should not only and probably not first address the athletes. For instance, when it comes to ethical standards there are more problems with the authoritarian and ambitious coaches, the cynical doctors, the partial judges, the black transfer money, the fixed games, the sensation-hungry journalists, the spectator hooliganism, the power-hungry leaders. It seems a bit naive if one, seduced by the media focus on athletes, lets the moral blame be on them only. The problem for the athletes, however, seems more and more to be their increasing lack of autonomy, their inability to lead their own life. The athletes seem in many cases to be spectators to their own career development.

Sectorized or common morality?

There is another interesting problem about morals that surface in elite sport. Are all people in a society committed to the same universal morality or are there different moralities in different sectors of society? According to deontological theories of a Kantian type moral rules must be universal. No private morality! However there are obviously important differences between sectors. In an interview with a newspaper some years ago Graham Greene told that he daily smoked his opium pipe with great satisfaction. There was no reaction in the public, no angry letters in the press. If however an athlete takes just a minute amount of a trivial substance like ephedrine found in nasal medicine then he risks being on the first pages of the big newspapers, which actually happened to a elite diver at that same time. In many countries novelists and painters are almost supposed to be amoral or immoral, to have bad health and family life problems. The athletes are supposed to be healthy, honest and clean. What seems to have happened in recent time is that elite sport has moved into the artist sector and more and more seem to move «beyond good and evil». This will however break with a more than hundred year long ideological tradition where sport was supposed to be suffused with morality. Sport not only developed one's skills and talents, but also one's person and character. I think this transfer from one sector to another caused by factors like the professionalization of sport, it's role as show and entertainment, and to the fact that it is long since top level sport had anything to do with health. But where do we go from here? Should we accept that sport is being transferred from one sector to another? Is it impossible to think that morality and health flowed back into sport and from there into other sectors, like entertainment, circus and art?

A common morality for hard achievement work

Elite sport is professional in many senses of the word. It includes hard training, it has high quality of performance, and it is a often a full time job. Sport is now included in the group where other full time achievement-oriented professions belong, like musicians, painters and sculptors, researchers and scientists, acrobats, stuntmen, and circus artists, business leaders, top politicians, leading actors.

I think it would be fruitful to develop a common work ethic for all people that work hard to push limits, do the impossible, break new barriers. It is long since elite sport was an innocent amateur pursuit. But many of the rules of conduct, the ethos, the regulations belong to the old ideology. Should we allow people in some areas to develop another type of values and rules, another ethos and morality than ordinary citizens? Probably not if morality is defined as something that regulates human interaction and obligation to others. However the obligation to oneself may be different. People in these areas will often drive themselves harder, push limits, risk something that involve different values than in ordinary life. There is however a temptation here that is dangerous, to develop a special morality, a unique value system for special groups of people. I think, however, that there is a need for a discussion of ethics in the zone close to the performance limits.

Maybe the problems have less to do with certain occupations or pursuits but rather with situations in life that everybody may enter. Examples are extreme situations or crises like the one people faces in catastrophes, in war, during extreme expeditions, through idealistic dedication to a cause (revolution, mission, hunger). If so, does that mean that the psychology of sport more and more will look like the psychology of the extreme as we know it from the climber Reinhold Messner's books (Messner, 1993)? Is it possible to use the ethics of daily or ordinary life in such situations? Again we are confronted with the problem of ethics. Do extreme situations demand a special ethic?

The ethical tolerance level

Suppose ethical actions can be placed in a space where there is positive and negative sector, and between them a sector of ethical indifference (What the Greeks called «adiafora»). In the positive sector you have ethical actions that are just above minimum and others at maximum. «You shall not kill» exemplifies the minimum limit and «You shall be perfect like God» would point to the maximum limit. In a similar way there are negative actions that are just below minimum and further down actions that we find in Holocaust environments (see figure 1).

Figure 1

What should the ambition be of the ethic in elite sport? British sport as it was developed in the 19th century attached moral norms to sport. Sport practices were imbued with norms like fair play and generosity. Sport was also supposed to develop the moral character and to forward virtues. Both the norm ethic and the virtue ethic have in the recent elite sport development been supplanted by a utilitarian attitude, where the athletes and the whole system try to maximize their subjective expected utility. In most cases winning is supposed to be the highest utility that will outweigh health and fairness to the point that doping is widespread.

Should one try to develop virtues in elite sport or is the problem rather to avoid vices? Should one accept the use of the neutral sector, what is also called «the gray zone», or should the limit be what is the minimum right or good? Are the more or less accepted use of rule-violations in for instance handball or soccer, examples of actions in the negative sector or do they represent a strategic or explorative use of the neutral sector?

Elite sport is a good setting to test how our ethical values, norms and actions influence the whole ethos of the sport practice. Elite sport needs to define its lower limits of acceptability, the minimum good. Even if a neutral sector may be unavoidable I think one should try to make it smaller so that some of the practices that now are in the gray zone are made legal or illegal, for instance the use of pressure chambers or sugar drops in endurance sports. But elite sport should have higher ambitions. The building of character, the development of virtues, have a place also in elite sport. Otherwise elite sport is easily degraded into pure entertainment These problems needs to be addressed as elite sport approaches the limits of human performance. Elite sport should be characterized by style and ethos even at its most extreme level. But we still have a way to go before we are there. The world records in most sports still show an almost linear increase. But from now on it will be harder, as the curve flattens out in more and more sports. It is therefore time to decide what kind of ethic and ideology we should accept, whether the Nietzschean or Lombardian where to win is everything, or whether we want a humanistic and fairness-oriented where the good game is as important as the winning, and where the result can never be isolated from the way one reached it (Gibson, 1993). After all sport should be put in perspective. On one hand one could cite the football fan who said: «A victory for my team is not a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that». On the other hand one could cite the runner who said: «When I have improved my personal best on 800 meter with one second, what do I do with the extra second»?

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Breivik, G. (1987) The Doping Dilemma. Sportwissenschaft 17 (1) 83-94

Finley, M.I. & Pleket H.N. (1976) The Olympic Games. The First Thousand years. Claroe, Irwin & co. London.

Gibson,J.H.(1993) Performance versus Results: A Critique of Values in Contemporary Sport. SUNY Press. Albany

Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity. Basil Blackwell Ltd. Oxford.

Hoberman, J. (1992) Mortal Engines. The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport. The Free Press. New York

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Loland, S. (1989) Fair play i idrettskonkurranser - et moralsk normsystem (Fair Play in Sport Competitions - a Moral Norm system) Unpublished PH.D. -thesis. Norwegian University of Sport

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Modis, T. (1992) Predictions. Society's Telltale Signature Reveals the Past and Forecasts the Future. Simon & Schuster. New York.

Morgan, W.J. (1994) Leftist Theories of Sport. A Critique and Reconstruction. University of Illinois Press. Urbana and Chicago.

Nisbet, R. (1980) History of the Idea of Progress. Basic Books. New York.

Young, D.C. (1984) The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics. Chicago.

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