The medal. Is this still what sport is about?
The sporting ideal is to have a fair competition in which no opponent or team has an advantage over the others taking part. A sporting competition aims to test, as accurately as possible, who is the best, and the only sure way to do that is to use ‘a level playing field’, as it is known.
For this reason, most people would probably agree that cheating in sport is wrong. Of course, the odd prank here and there can be part of the fun of it all when the activity is a kick around in the park with friends, but that kind of messing about is a far cry from a genuine effort to secretly cheat in a serious and prestigious competition, which is attempting to officially judge who is the best.
Sadly it is a fact of life that some people are so driven to be crowned ‘the winner’ that they care not how it is achieved, and will resort to whatever underhand tactics they think they can get away with to reach their goal. Fortunately most cheating can be checked fairly easily. If someone starts racing before the gun, for example, it is easily seen and policed. Similarly, if a punch lands below the belt in a boxing match, the referee should be in a good position to spot it. As for equipment, it can be weighed, tested and verified.
Drug taking, on the other hand, is much harder to police. Sporting bodies have only relatively recently managed to crack down on it, progressively widening their remit to cover anything which might be used to enhance a performance. Although it may not be possible to prevent every participant from getting away with drug taking to enhance their performance, setting a standard is easy. Each sport lists the substances which it has officially banned and then clearly documents the penalties the athletes face if caught taking them. It is also not acceptable to miss testing, as that too usually results in penalisation.
In theory, a clear line can be drawn between fair play and cheating: those who abide by the rules of the game are honourable and fair, those who break the rules in order to obtain an un-fair advantage over their competitors are cheating. Once cheating is ruled out, the competition can be regarded as a reasonably accurate measure of the competitors, within the bounds of its rules. In other words, the winner is, at least at that moment, the best, and the other contestants take the positions fitting their performance and ability.
What sport does not do, however, is say very much about fairness in general, for there is no way for a competition to measure or compensate for other factors outside of the rules. The rules, of course, only go so far, and do not democratise every aspect of competition. They are, in fact, fairly arbitrary and broad, and it is outside of the restrictions of the rules where advantages are sought and had.
These days sport is big business and a lot is at stake for a great many people beyond the athletes and competitors themselves. In big competitions like the Olympics, for example, national pride is at stake if performance targets are not met. Just as a business might have a strategic plan, in international competitions countries set themselves medal targets, and if they are not met, questions are asked, fingers pointed.
Scientists are brought in to study every aspect of the athlete’s body; making sure that each movement they make is optimised. They control the food the athletes eat, the air they breathe, and determine where, when and how they train. There are trainers helping with psychology, motivation, fitness, strength, not to mention the physiotherapists and medical experts keeping the athlete’s bodies in check, or the sports gear manufacturers supplying state-of-the art sweat-removing, friction-reducing clothing and equipment.
And it is all done to gain every possible advantage for the athlete so that they can bring home the prestigious prize for the good of all those concerning themselves with the event.
Of course, the argument is that every other team is doing the same, so it is necessary to match their efforts in order to compete on ‘a level playing field’, but the reality is that each team is trying to find an advantage over the others before the competitors every reach the field. At that level, the competition starts to become more about the cunning of rival training camps and sport science expertise, than it does the performance of the athletes.
And so the following question arises: what exactly is sport measuring?
The natural ability of the athlete?
The ability of the athlete to improve their performance?
The coach’s ability to get the best from their athlete?
Sports scientist’s ability to analyse data and provide solutions?
The success of the nation’s training program?
The ability of the nation to provided the best opportunities to its subjects?
The athlete’s parents’ success in imbuing their child with the desire to succeed?
Or, perhaps, some strange mixture of the above?
Here follows a scenario illustrating how it is unclear what a competition actually measures. Let’s say, for example, that Jake can run 100 meters in 13 seconds without training whereas Pete, who also hasn’t done any training, can do it in 12 seconds. After training, Jake improves his time to 10.50 seconds and Pete reduces his to 10.00.
In this example, it is Jake who has improved the most on his natural ability, chopping 2.5 seconds from his personal best, compared with Pete’s 2 second improvement. Jake is the one who has worked harder, or more intelligently, and his ability to improve is the greater of the two, even though his time is still not as good. Therefore, if ability to improve is being measured then Jake is the clear winner. Pete, after all, could not help being naturally faster, so why should he be given credit for it?
If, on the other hand, the fastest time is considered on its own, then it is Pete who is better because 10.00 is half-a-second faster than 10.5. Of course, in this case it is Pete’s natural ability which has made the most important contribution to the win, so it is that which is really being measured and rewarded.
And if measuring raw ability alone is the most important thing then the ultimate test would be to establish the genes responsible for sporting prowess, cross reference their occurrence in the athletes with known physical indicators, such as the index and ring finger ratio (determined by the level of testosterone a foetus receives in the womb) and let the calculations prove who is the fastest. The result would not be skewed by anything external and the athletes would not need to complicate matters by competing at all!
Bearing these arguments in mind, the question that has to be asked, what is the award for? Is it a measure of someone’s efforts, or the ability they were born with?
The answer may be that it measures both in some unspecified proportion, in which case the thing a sport measures is immediately unclear even before any other factors are considered.
Consider also this question: If a woman has such an abnormally high level of naturally-occurring testosterone in her body that she is suspected of being a man, does that diminish her athletic achievements?
Even the conclusion that Jake worked harder than Pete is dubious, for it might just be that Jake’s training regime was superior, or that Pete’s was faulty, in which case, the competition measures the relative methods rather than labour.