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Fair play and the competitive spirit


Present-day competitive sport has lost its ethical substance. The ideal that sport should contribute to the emotional, psychological and emotional well-being of individuals is dying. Sport has become a breeding place for people who will sacrifice moral values just to win.

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'YES, sport is an order of chivalry, an honour, a code of ethics and aesthetics which recruits from all classes and all peoples, mixing them fraternally together throughout the entire world. . . . Yes, sport is education, the most concrete and the truest form of education, that of character. . . . Yes, sport is culture, because the ephemeral gestures it describes in time and space--for nothing except the sheer pleasure of it, as Plato says--bring into broad daylight, by dramatizing them, the most elementary values (which are nevertheless the most profound and all-embracing) of the peoples and of the very race itself; culture, finally, because it creates beauty, and creates it above all for those who have the least opportunity to feast thereon."

With these words, in an address delivered in 1963, UNESCO's then Director-General, Rene Maheu, evoked the great themes of sporting mythology, which associate with the word sport the values of loyalty, purity, beauty, morality, and fraternity, and ascribe to it a vocation that is both aesthetic and ethical.


A recent arrival in the world of business, the notion of ethics appears to be inherent in sport, which could be said to be essentially ethical. It rests on a series of powerful myths: the myth that sport has always existed (that it is non-historical); the myth that sport and human nature originated in very early times (man as a sporting animal); and the myth that sport has somehow been led astray, perverted, hijacked. The distinction made between sport practised for its own sake and sport exclusively geared to success makes for all kinds of hair-splitting about the extent to which an ideal--which was wishful thinking in any case--has been corrupted.

What do we mean by sport? A common-sense definition might include all forms of activity requiring some degree of physical effort, ranging from cycling with friends to the World Cup final. But this definition is too broad to be useful. A stricter definition would have us see sport as an institutionalized competitive physical activity that is structurally and historically linked to industrial society. As a physical pursuit that is most prevalent in societies where competition is widespread, sport is simultaneously a contest governed by rules and a system in which human bodies are ranked according to their performance. Competitive sports involving physical activity whose prime feature is a systematic striving for achievement are thus a relatively recent social phenomenon. Sport as we know it today has not always existed. We therefore have to ask ourselves what values present-day sport really embodies and whether there is not an unbridgeable gap between the values it purports to represent and those which it actually brings into play.


Kant said that the postulate of morality is the existence of God. Pierre de Coubertin, the man who revived the Olympic Games, also took the idea of religion as a basis for moral precepts. In A la jeunesse sportive de toutes les nations (1927), he states: "By renovating an institution twenty-five centuries old, we wanted you again to become devotees of the religion of sport as envisioned by our great forebears. In the modern world, so full of challenging prospects yet so beset by the perils of decline, the Olympic movement can become a school as much of high and pure moral principles as of endurance and physical energy." Coubertin was convinced that sport, like religion, was

"closely bound to morality". Like religion, sport offers reassurance and consolation. Widespread practice of sport would be the foundation of far-reaching social and ethical reform capable of shaping a new civilization. Sport was to rid society of ills such as alcoholism, moral depravity, wrong-doing, idleness, and wanton eroticism, and bring about harmony within nations, by settling the question of the class struggle once and for all.

What Coubertin called his philosophico-religious doctrine has inspired the vast majority of thinkers, journalists and writers past and present who believe implicitly in the therapeutic virtues of sport and its purported ability to "perfect the soul by perfecting the body". In 1942, in the middle of the war, Maurice Baquet, the theoretician of the French Communist Party, wrote that competitive physical activity brings us closer to "the creation of the ancient ideal of man as beautiful, good and brave both on and off the sportsfield". Some twelve years later, at the other end of the French political spectrum, the Gaullist Essai de doctrine du sport noted that "the moral essence of sporting activity is not unselfishness but loyalty. . . . Fair play is the basic tenet of sport. . . . Fairness guarantees the authenticity of the values established on the field. It brings a human quality to the world of sport. . . . As a factor of individual self-fulfilment and as an indispensable element of social organization, sport contributes to human advancement".

When people talk about sport, they always seem to be talking about what ought to be rather than what is. Sport has always been in jeopardy. The hour of its birth was the hour when the first symptoms of its sickness appeared and the first anguished calls for a cure were made. As long ago as 1902, Pierre de Coubertin denounced the immorality of row-dyism and pleaded that sport should be allowed to flourish in an atmosphere of disinterestedness and chivalry. Institutionalized sport is being undermined by money, violence, cheating, politicization, nationalism and doping. But those who worship sport regularly demand that "this scandalous state of affairs should be brought to an end and the moral code of sport should be defended". Perhaps this is a good moment to ask point-blank whether here is a morality of sport.


From an ethical standpoint, it is impossible to justify an action solely on the grounds of its effectiveness. This being so, does it make sense to talk of ethics in competitive sport? Athletes, whatever their level, are trained for the single-minded pursuit of victory--victory over an opposing team, victory over themselves or the weather, or victory for their country. This gives rise to sport's great illusion--the omnipotence of the athlete's body. Yet competitive sport above all entails dispossession of the body, which is dragged into the maw of the system too soon (the problem of intensive training at an early age tends to be overlooked), roboticized by attempts to achieve maximum efficiency, bruised and scarred by self-inflicted suffering, risk-taking and injury, dominated, regimented, alienated, and turned into a commodity. In this mad race for achievement, instrumentalized athletes will do anything to see the colours of their country, region or village hoisted atop the flagpole.

The moral code governing competitive sport is one of effort, sacrifice and violence, symbolic or otherwise. In the sporting system, athletes are sorted and classified, singled out, eliminated and selected. Athletes, whether they are champions or run-of-the-mill performers, have a kind of love-hate relationship with their bodies. They have to go to the limits of their capacities in order to experience intense joy in the midst of agonizing pain. This is "asceticism in joy" but also a form of moral indoctrination, since it imposes values like elitism, abstinence, submission, obedience and deprivation that are the cement binding our society together.

To talk of an ethic of competitive sport is to express a belief in the innate purity of sport, in an ideal perverted by society and the use that is made of it. It is also to refuse to see that sport has all too often been an accomplice of human rights abuses. In 1936, the sporting movement, supported by political circles and the press, had no scruples about holding the eleventh Olympic Games in Berlin. In 1956, the Melbourne Games were inaugurated at the very moment when Soviet tanks were "pacifying" their fraternal state of Hungary. Twelve years later, in Mexico City, the Olympic flame was lit only a few days after Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia and only a few hours after a demonstration by Mexican students and workers on the "Square of Three Cultures" had been ruthlessly put down, with forty deaths. In 1978, the World Soccer Cup held in Argentina, where people were then disappearing or being murdered in their thousands, took place only a few metres away from a place where people had been tortured. Is it acceptable for a major sporting competition to be held in a country where there are massive and systematic human rights violations? This issue was raised again in 1980 by those who wished to boycott the Moscow Olympics. Once again, the sporting community of players, journalists and administrators fell back behind an inflexible and unacceptable line of defence: sport and politics do not mix.

From the Berlin Olympics to the Moscow Olympics, a long list of events paint a sorry picture of the Olympic ideal and sporting ethics. Sport is the darling of governments, as long as it causes no trouble. It is a world of phantasms, a quest for the absolute, not for truth. Writing of the moral value of the scientific outlook, Stendhal proclaimed his enthusiasm for mathematics, in which "hypocrisy is impossible". By subscribing to what Marcel Mauss called "an obligatory belief of society", athletes and spectators agree to pull the wool over their own eyes and participate in a form of hypocrisy.

Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)

Caillat, Michel. "Fair play and the competitive spirit." UNESCO Courier, Dec. 1992, p. 37+. Student Edition, Accessed 27 Mar. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A13522626

DMU Timestamp: March 07, 2019 02:52

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