We are in danger of losing ethical perspective of what sport is about

Participating in sport is generally seen as a good thing for society. It has health benefits, both physical and mental. It can be a sociable activity promoting a sense of belonging, identity and inclusion, says Jack Anderson.

We are in danger of losing ethical perspective of what sport is about

Sport can give you a sense of discipline and self-control. You will not always win at sport. You must always respect the rules.

For some, sport shapes their character; for others, sport reveals it.

Sport can allow you to push yourself to your limits and, at the same time, accept your limitations.

But what if you try to push yourself beyond those limitations and possibly endanger yourself or others –— who shouts stop?

Where is the ethical line drawn between acceptable risk in the name of sport and that which is not?

This ethical debate is skewed by the professionalism of sport where livelihoods are at stake and a ‘win at all costs’ mentality seems to prevail.

In the last week or so we have seen several examples of that mentality.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has just released the first of its judgments relating to challenges by Russian athletes against their ban from competing at February’s Winter Olympics.

The judgments reveal in huge, dispiriting detail the efforts various Russian agencies made to hide a massive doping conspiracy at the previous Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Holes were drilled in walls so that doping samples could be swapped. Doping samples were laced with salt and other agents to mask results.

Put simply, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency became the Russian Doping Agency for the duration of the Sochi games and in doing so may well have endangered the long-term health of some of its athletes, as the infamous East German state did in the 1970s and 1980s.

As the CAS awards were being issued, professional boxing’s principal authority, the Nevada State Athletic Commission, announced that one of the sport’s stars, Canelo Alvarez, would serve a six-month ban for doping.

The announcement sparked a debate in the sport on the abuse of performance-enhancing substances.

Doping in boxing is not a matter of being able to run faster or train better. A doped boxer hits harder.

What boxing authorities worldwide need to understand is that where it can be proved that a doped boxer has injured, or worse, killed another in the ring, the legal fallout will likely bankrupt the boxing authority that sanctioned the fight and lead to the criminal prosecution of those involved.

Boxing’s legality in many countries (and particularly in the UK and Ireland) is not protected expressly in law. It is based on a centuries-old understanding or legal convention that boxing is, in sporting and legal terms, a fair fight.

Doping undermines that convention and leaves the sport exposed to serious legal liability.

It follows that doped boxers do not just endanger individual opponents; they endanger the future of their sport.

While we are on the ethics of doping, next week will see the start of cycling’s first big Tour event for the year — the Giro D’Italia.

The Giro’s launch — in Jerusalem — will be attended by Lance Armstrong fresh from settling a multimillion dollar claim against him by the US government taken in the name of US Postal, which had sponsored Armstrong at the height of his cycling fame and doping usage.

The favourite for the Giro is Chris Froome, who is currently under suspicion for doping.

Whatever about the legalities of Froome’s position, ethically many are of the view that he should not race this season until the anti-doping investigation against him is completed.

There is, however, no chance of Froome standing down even temporarily from racing. He will not put himself at a disadvantage as he attempts later in the year to obtain a record equalling fifth Tour de France.

At the recent Commonwealth Games, the winner of the men’s marathon, Australia’s Michael Shelly, attracted much online criticism for not waiting and for not disadvantaging himself by running past the stricken Scot, Callum Hawkins.

Shelly took the lead in the final stages of the race after Hawkins had collapsed due to heat exhaustion.

In Australia, Shelly’s actions were compared unfavourably to John Landy who, famously, at the 1956 Australian National Championships, doubled back to check on fellow miler Ron Clarke after another runner clipped Clarke’s heel, causing him to fall.

Landy is a revered figure in Australian sporting history, as much as the man who went on to beat him at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, Ronnie Delany, is in Ireland.

However, harking back to some Corinthian understanding of fairness is unfair on a modern marathon runner such as Shelly.

There would have been little Shelly could have done for Hawkins who, in any event, was waving away all attempts at assistance, fearing disqualification.

That being said, at the amateur level, there is no doubt that we are losing a little bit of ethical perspective on what sport is about.

Three examples came to mind this week.

The first was an interview in the New Yorker with writer, and lifelong athlete, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell spoke about how our current approach to youth sports is ‘misguided’ and could be improved by “encouraging young people to play the kinds of sports that they can participate in throughout their lives and permitting people to play sports at a mediocre level”.

The second example was more scientific and it was research revealing that Australia has the highest rates of anterior cruciate ligament or ACL reconstructions in the world.

Speculation among knee surgeons in Australia as to why this is the case ranges from a lack of basic agility training in schools and children specialising in one sport at too early an age, but also a lack of ‘free play’ in a generation of digitally native children.

Finally, as I write this, it is ANZAC day in Australia and New Zealand, where they honour all those who served and died in wars and conflicts.

One of the most evocative passages on ‘free play’ is from a book by Richard Flanagan about the Australian experience in World War II, called The Narrow Road to the

Deep North.

Early in the story, the central character describes a schoolyard footy game when he takes his first ‘mark’:

“…and so he climbed into the full dazzle of the sun… he felt the ball arrive in his hands. As he staggered back, the melee cleared a respectful space around him. ‘Who the fuck are you?’ asked an older boy. Dorrigo Evans. That was a blinder, Dorrigo. Your kick.”

The ethics, essence and enjoyment of sport will always be in its playing.

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne and adjunct  professor at the University of Limerick.

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