Category Archives: Olympics

Sportsmanship at the Olympics

One week in and I am enjoying these Winter Games. Plenty of exciting moments! (Warning: clear US bias in what follows)

There have been some disappointing moments for many heralded US athletes. Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller all failed to medal in events in which they were expected to medal (even win Gold). Hannah Kearney won a bronze in the moguls but she was clearly gunning for Gold. What I found heartening about all these cases was although these athletes were visibly dissatisfied with their results, they demonstrated great sportsmanship. In each case, the athlete congratulated and in many cases hugged the winning athletes. These moments seemed to be quite sincere. Each knew they had been bested on this day and acknowledged their competitor’s victory.

Olympics athletes work their whole lives often for one moment, one chance to medal. This is a tremendous investment of one’s resources, efforts, time, and emotion. The moment comes and for many it doesn’t pan out as they hoped. The pain, sadness, frustration, and disappointment, I have to guess, are unimaginable. And yet, most of these athletes face these moments with grace and honor, as White, Davis, Miller, and Kearney did.

Other positive examples that come to mind are figure skaters Jeremy Abbott and Evgeni Plushenko. Abbott took a devastating fall in his short program. Lying on the ice for several seconds, everyone assumed that his performance was done. Abbott got up, however, and finished his routine in excellent fashion. Plushenko aggravated a back injury during warm-ups. The Russian gold medalist realized he was not going to be able to compete and told the official he was withdrawing. Though in obvious pain (physically and emotionally), Plushenko handled this unfortunate moment with grace. He acknowledged the audience and took his final Olympic bow.

This is the core of what sportsmanship is: the virtuous balance and control of one’s emotion and action in challenging conditions. Whether in the middle of game or at the conclusion, whether the victor or the defeated, the individual who displays good sportsmanship is one maintains the appropriate balance and control of him or herself.

This doesn’t mean the absence of emotion. Hannah Kearney was near tears, but I don’t think that is inappropriate or bad sportsmanship in the least. Her emotion and tears are appropriate for the context (in the mix here is that she is retiring after these games). Similarly with Plushenko, the visible disappointment at not being able to compete one last time for an Olympic medal is entirely appropriate for the moment. The ability to maintain both the honest expression of one’s disappointment and the composure of a professional is what is so admirable about the sportsmanship of these athletes.

 

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Boycotts and the Sochi Olympics

The Winter Olympics start February 6. I love the Olympics, both the summer and winter games offer excitement and inspiration. I learn about new sports and see athletes perform feats I never dreamed possible. The games are beautiful and fun. They give us a space to see heroes and achievements from all walks of life and from all over the globe.

But as my friend Craig and I discussed on The Sports Ethicist Podcast a few weeks ago, the Olympics always seem to come with controversy. These Sochi Olympics are no different. There are many controversies surrounding these winter games: security concerns, preparation worries, cost overruns. One of the biggest controversies, though, is the increasing legal discrimination and persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. In the run up to the games, Russia has signed into law many restrictions against homosexuals and homosexuality: including prohibitions on adoption and even on appearing ‘pro-gay.’ This prompted many to call for a boycott.

The boycott never materialized. While I vehemently disagree with the anti-gay legislation, I don’t think a boycott was the way to go. First, I am skeptical that boycotts in general are effective. In this case, I do not think that a boycott of the Sochi Games would have done anything to change the laws in Russia or make the situation for gays and lesbians better. Second, boycotts harm the athletes and spectators the most. A boycott wouldn’t affect Putin and his autocratic regime. But it would mean that men and women who have trained and worked their whole lives to get to the Olympics would miss out on potentially a once in a lifetime chance.

One response to this is that while the boycott wouldn’t be directly effective at changing the law, it would be important in terms of withdrawing our moral sanction of the rights-violating regime. By taking part in the Olympics, we give legitimacy to such a regime. The leaders of despotic regimes use this implicit acceptance to embolden and extend their power. By withdrawing from participation, we signal our refusal to take part of this charade of legitimacy.

I have strong sympathy for this view. It is a dangerous thing to give these regimes an air of acceptability. At the same time, I think it can be far more powerful to engage while expressing disagreement. For example, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany was a situation where the moral legitimacy argument held a lot of sway. Hilter certainly was using the Berlin Olympics both to legitimize his power and to display the Nazi racial supremacist ideals. Many at the time called for a boycott, though it doesn’t seem to have been ever seriously considered by the US Olympic committee. As I mentioned in the podcast, I think Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in Berlin sent a more powerful and longer lasting symbol (both home and abroad) against Nazism and racism than any boycott would have. It is not too much of a stretch to draw a line from Owens to Jackie Robinson to Brown vs. Board of Education.

I think participating in the Olympics while expressing our concern and outrage at the anti-gay policies in Russia is the better strategy. It calls attention to the issue and forces Russian politicians to be on the defensive which often leads to the exposure of their hypocrisy and irrationality on this matter (as when the mayor of Sochi claimed there were no gays in Sochi). It allows openly gay athletes to compete (and win) which can help undermine homophobia. And many of the western nations are engaging in a protest of sort: several heads of state (including President Obama) are skipping out on the opening and closing ceremonies. This sends the signal of disapproval while not denying the athletes a chance at competing.

I, for one, look forward to seeing the USA Hockey Team standing on the medal platform wearing both Olympic Gold and rainbow ribbons.

 

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The Sports Ethicist Show: Sochi Winter Olympics and Boycotts

The Sports Ethicist Show airs this Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

The XXII Winter Olympics start in Sochi, Russia in a few weeks. The Olympics can be exciting and inspirational, but they always seem to come with controversy. The Sochi Games are no different. One of the most disturbing controversies for these games is the increasing discrimination and legal persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. This has prompted many to call for a boycott. But are Olympic boycotts effective or justified? Craig Carley, a philosopher at Phoenix College, Arizona, joins Shawn Klein in discussing these questions. They also discuss predictions for the Ice Hockey Gold, the Stanley Cup, and the Super Bowl.

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central):
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/ (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.
http://www.rockfordcollegeradio.com/category/thesportsethicist/

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Olympics: Morality and Rule-breaking

As I said in this NY Times article, “Shades Of Gray On Way To Podium” by Karen Crouse, this Olympics has several incidents that raise important and interesting moral questions. Most often when we think of the Olympics and unethical behavior, doping is the first thing comes to mind. But this year, we have several examples of a different sort of ethical breakdown: not clear cut cases of rule breaking, but ones of stretching the rules or taking advantage of vagueness in the interpretation or application of the rules.

As noted in the article, here are several examples: badminton and soccer teams trying to lose or draw to set up more favorable seeding in the next round of play; a cyclist allegedly crashing on purpose to get a race restart; a goal keeper in soccer holding the ball too long to burn out the clock and the opponent player counting out the time to get the referee to make the call on a rule not often enforced; and a swimmer who openly admitted to taking illegal extra kicks in his world-record, gold medal race.

In the article, I am quoted as saying “It is a kind of naïvete to think all medal winners are moral saints. We might have grown up thinking the athletes we were watching were all upstanding and abiding by the rules in every way. There’s so many eyeballs on the athletes now, we see things we didn’t see a long time ago.”

I then go on to say “that in some way, sport is probably cleaner today because there are so many more people watching.”

There is this sense that since we hear about these scandals so much more than we did in previous decades that the athletes today are less scrupulous and are so much more willing to flout and violate the rules in order to win. Many seem to harken back to a bygone era of the Olympics that were purer and where the athletes were more honorable. I don’t think such an era ever existed. We see more today because there are more officials, reporters, and spectators watching every match, every competition. And with 24hr news stations and the internet, we hear about every transgression in detail.  Back in the 40s and 50s, for example, this kind of stuff was not reported, maybe not even looked for, but that does not mean it was not going on. As the old saying goes: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. More likely, as I say above, the fact that there are so many more people watching, the competitions are probably cleaner today than they ever were.

The author of the article and I had a good conversation about these incidents and what they mean for the ethics of sport. While most of it understandably didn’t make it into the article, it did spark for me several ideas on these issues.

One of the main points of the article was the idea that athletic excellence is not the same as moral excellence. I agree with that fully. Just because one is athletically excellent does not mean they are also morally excellent. That is the ideal, of course, for which to strive, but one does not necessarily follow from the other. Nevertheless, many of the same qualities and capacities that lead to athletic excellence are a part of moral excellence: self-discipline, goal-setting, the hard work of putting theory/principles into consistent action, attention to context, awareness of others, and so on. The practice of one set of excellences can help improve the other set of excellences.

There are two important points I want to make here that were not mentioned in the article. First, incentives matter. A lot! Second, moral sainthood should not  be the goal.

Incentives

Humans have free will. We are not determined to act by our environment, our genes, our culture, our god or gods. Though each individual makes his own choices, this fact does not mean that we are not influenced by or shaped in various ways by external forces. The incentives set up by the rules and structures of the institutions or practices in which we partake are one such influence. In sport, as in other domains, the rules create an incentive structure that encourages certain actions, while discouraging others.

Take for example, the badminton teams expelled from the Games. The structure of the tournament led to matches where at least some teams had nothing to gain, in terms of advancing towards the medal rounds, by winning such matches. Moreover, given the way the seeding for the next round was set up, such teams could actually worsen their chances by winning this match in the first round. This set up an incentive for the teams with reasonable chances at medaling to try and lose these matches to better their seeding—and that is exactly what happened. Though there is no specific rule they violated, they were expelled for so obviously flaunting the spirit of the Games.

Similarly, the rules of swimming set up incentives that unintentionally encouraged rule violations. South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted openly that he took extra and illegal kicks. But because the rules offer little in the way of enforcement, this practice of extra kicking is, according to van der Burgh and others, widespread. The swimmers are incentivized by the inconsistency in the enforcement of the rules to cheat (though of course not all swimmers do).

This is not to absolve the athletes in these cases of their moral failings. But these incentives that end up, unintentionally, leading to less than honorable actions are an important part of the story. The committees and associations that lay out the rules need to pay attention to how the rules are going to incentivize certain kinds of actions. They deserve as much moral approbation because they are the ones that have, intentionally or not, put the athletes in the profoundly immoral position of having to choose between winning and integrity.

Moral Sainthood vs. Moral Excellence

This leads me to another key take-away from these cases. We ought not to be creating rules and sporting structures that require the athletes to be moral saints. By a moral saint I mean one who goes far beyond what is and ought to be reasonably and morally expected and required. The moral saint is not the equivalent of the morally excellent individual. That is, each of us ought to be and has the power to be a morally excellent individual (within the limits of one’s abilities). Few of us can be moral saints—moreover, I am not sure any of us should be.

In the context of sporting rules, we need to find the balance between moral sainthood and rigorous legalism: we want athletes who can develop and exercise their moral capacities and judgment in sport (and life). Rigorous legalism is where we try to legislate for every possible situation and define as precisely as we can what one ought to do. But, if the rules are trying to cover every eventuality and circumstance, they cut off the individual’s need for moral capacities. Moreover, they lead athletes to think that they only need to follow the specific rules and do no more. It encourages the attitude that so long as one has followed the letter of the law, there is nothing more required of them. This does not leave room for the kind of noble actions taken by Dana Torres in the Beijing Olympics (she got all the swimmers in her race to step off the blocks until one of the competitors could get a new suit after a “wardrobe malfunction”). Rigorous legalism encourages athletes to find loopholes and gaps in the rules to gain unfair advantages.

On the other side, we don’t want rules that require the athletes, in order to play with honor and integrity, to sacrifice their goals and ambitions in the sport. These athletes train their entire lives for a chance at an Olympic medal. It strikes me as grossly unfair and immoral to then force them to choose between this life-long, worthy goal and their honor. Athletes should not have to be moral saints, but they should strive for moral as well as athletic excellence: that is, we need to work to create rules that make it so playing with honor and integrity is the best way to win, to achieve their goals, and to be excellent in the sport.

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Lack of Munich Memorial Undermines Olympic Spirit

One of the story-lines going into the London Olympics is the refusal of the International Olympic Committee(IOC) to include, in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, any kind of tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games. Moreover, the IOC has refused for 40 years to include a memorial within the official ceremonies.

To be fair, IOC officials, including current IOC president Jacques Rogge, have participated in various tributes and memorials that have taken place in London and at previous Olympic sites. Many, including myself, do not think this is sufficient.

The reasons given for the refusal have focused on two claims. First, the IOC says it does not want to politicize the games. Second, the IOC says the Opening Ceremony “is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”

On the surface, the first point seems valid. Who wants the games politicized? But, then, that ship has sailed, has it not? The games have long been political. The host countries and politicians use the games for political gamesmanship. This is not new; the Nazis used the games as political propaganda. The IOC itself has used the power of the games for political reasons. Apartheid South Africa was, rightly I think, banned from participating in the games until 1992.

But more to the point, it is simply not a political act to honor and remember Olympic athletes who were killed at the Olympics. As ADL’s Abraham Foxman says: “It is an act of common human decency, not politics, to take a moment to commemorate those who died as Olympic athletes.” The refusal to include in the opening ceremonies a memorial of the Munich Massacre is what seems to be politically motivated. The IOC seems more concerned about how Arab countries would respond to such an official recognition than honoring fallen Olympic athletes. Maybe the IOC fears a boycott by Arab or Muslim countries. Maybe they worry athletes from a country, like say Iran, would refuse to compete against Israeli athletes. (Oh wait! Iran already does this.)

Maybe the issue is just, as Rogge has said, that the Opening Ceremony is not the proper place for a memorial. That would be more convincing if the IOC hadn’t included memorials and tributes in previous opening ceremonies. As Foxman notes in his article, the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 had tributes to the victims of 9/11 and the 2010 Vancouver Games held a moment of silence for the Georgian luger who was killed while practicing prior to the games. It quickly becomes unclear what makes the inclusion of a memorial of the Munich Massacre so inappropriate.

The refusal to honor, in its biggest forum, these slain Israeli athletes and coaches is shameful and hypocritical. This is not about the Israeli-Arab conflict. This is not about giving sanction to either Israelis or Palestinians. It is about honoring athletes who came to participate in the Olympics and sought to embody the spirit and hope of the Olympic movement. What are the Olympics about if not peaceful, fair competition among the best athletes from all over the world? Like all athletes who compete at the Olympics, these were the goals of the Israeli athletes. They were savagely cut down by those who did not wish to seek peace, by those who did not believe in the values of fair play, mutual respect, and justice that underpin the Olympic movement. In shirking a tribute in the Opening Ceremony, the IOC undermines its own commitment to these values.

Foxman makes this point nicely:

The IOC’s failure to commemorate the Munich Massacre on this 40th anniversary would be hypocrisy and politicization enough just looking at these double-standard examples. But the hypocrisy is hugely magnified by virtue of the fact that the Munich terrorist event was by far the greatest assault ever on the Olympics themselves. The cold-blooded murder of Olympians at the hands of Palestinian terrorists completely undermined the competitive spirit of the Olympics, and one would think that the organizers, without prodding, would have long ago seen the need to commemorate this unique event, upholding the deep integrity of the games.

The terror attacks did not end the Munich games in 1972, and have not brought an end to the Olympic movement. Indeed, the Olympics are as strong as ever. Instead of cowardly avoiding a memorial, the IOC ought to embrace this as an opportunity to show how the Olympics have triumphed over hatred and violence.

Nizkor (We Will Remember):

The names of the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered in 1972 at the Munich Olympic Games:

  • David Mark Berger.
  • Ze’ev Friedman.
  • Yossef Gutfreund
  • Eliezer Halfin
  • Yossef Romano
  • Amitzur Shapira
  • Kehat Shorr
  • Mark Slavin
  • Andre Spitzer
  • Yakov Springer
  • Moshe Weinberg.

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The Fastest Man on No Legs

The 2012 Summer Olympics start July 27. Like most sports fans, I always get excited about the Olympics: the pageantry, the athleticism, and the glory of achievement. But this year, there is something else that will be amazing to see. The Fastest Man on No Legs will be racing in London.

Oscar PistoriusThis is the nickname of South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius had both his legs amputated as a baby because of a birth defect that left him with no fibula bones. Instead of legs like the rest of the Olympic field, Pistorius will be running on prosthetic devices called “Cheetahs.”

I am just fascinated by this story. It raises so many interesting issues!

There is the obvious ethical and legal question: should an athlete that requires a technical device to compete be allowed to compete against athletes that do not?

But it suggests several other philosophic issues as well:

  • Is Pistorius actually running? That is, does the movement that he engages in count as a kind of running or is it something else?
  • What is and ought to be our relationship to technology? Does it enhance our humanity or undermine it? Is Pistorius less human by needing technology to compete or is this a deeper expression of his humanity?
  • What is the nature of an advantage and when is it to be counted as being an unfair advantage?

These are not questions with easy or uncontroversial answers. They also bear on other ethical issues; for example, the issue of unfair advantage is relevant for the arguments regarding PEDs—and also for political and economic arguments more generally (how should we deal with unfair advantages in the market?).

A quick search on Google or an academic database will turn up many articles tackling aspects of these issues. I am not going to get into them here in this post. I just want to highlight the issues raised by the Pistorius case. But more than that, I want to call attention to the fact that Pistorius will be in London for the Olympics.

It is such a great story. Pistorius has overcome challenges and obstacles with which no other Olympiad as ever had to deal. There is the obvious challenge of not having legs and running on prosthetics. The challenge of using prosthetics just to walk is probably hard enough for most people, let alone running, let alone running at times that qualify for the Olympics!

But Oscar also had to fight a legal battle just to get the opportunity to compete in London. Initially banned from competing in the Beijing Olympics by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), Pistorius fought a legal battle to overturn the ruling. Oscar won the battle for Beijing, but was not able to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. On July 4, South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) announced that Pistorius would be included in its Olympic squad. He will run in 4×400 meter relay and the Men’s 400-meter.

Pistorius is to be admired and lauded for his ability and perseverance. He is a role model not just for disabled-athletes and individuals, but everyone. Through hard work, discipline, and training, he has made his dream come true. He has not let ignorance or prejudice stand in his way. He has not let his lack of legs keep him from pursuing his dreams or living the life he chooses.

For these reasons alone, I will be rooting hard to see Pistorius upon his blades standing proud on the medal podium.

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