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.


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.



Filed under Olympics

2 responses to “Olympics: Morality and Rule-breaking

  1. Pingback: Shawn Klein Interviewed by The New York Times » Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship

  2. Pingback: Kaizen Weekly Review » Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship

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