Ethics in Sport - Major Ethical Questions Trouble the Glorious Enterprise of Sport

4 November 2015

Dr John Scally, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Ecclesiastical History

Roscommon’s favourite son Chris O’Dowd has just hit the big screen as the star of a major new film The Program about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. The movie is a powerful reminder of the ugly scar drugs have cast over sport in recent years.

But drug cheats have not gone away you know. Last August the Sunday Times obtained access to the results of 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012. According to the newspaper, the evidence reveals the “extraordinary extent of cheating” by athletes in the world’s biggest events.

They claimed that a third of medals (146, including 55 golds) in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships in those years were won by athletes who had recorded suspicious tests. The report claimed that not one of these athletes have been stripped of their medals.

More than 800 athletes – one in seven of those named in the files – have recorded blood tests described by one expert as “highly suggestive of doping, or at the very least abnormal”. In some finals the three medal positions had recorded a suspicious blood test.

To reinforce the point, a few weeks later two prominent Kenyan athletes Koki Manunga and Joyce Zakary tested positive for doping at the World Championships in Beijing. Six top Jamaican athletes including Olympic medallists Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson and Tyson Gay, then the fastest man in the world, had previously tested positive for drugs. But drugs are not the only blot on the face of sport.

Sepp Blatter’s controversial 17-year reign over world football is on hold after FIFA’s ethics committee banned him for 90 days along with the man who hoped to replace him, Michel Platini. The UEFA president was favourite to succeed Blatter when he steps down in February, until he too was the subject of corruption allegations.

A few weeks ago the nation rejoiced when Ireland comprehensively beat France in the Rugby World Cup. Before the game the French camp had made no secret of the fact that they would be “targeting” the Irish playmaker Jonny Sexton during the game. Sexton was forced to hobble off early in the match bruised and battered after taking some massive hits.

The idea that a player should be taken out in this way, albeit within the rules of the game, shows that sport today often falls well short of its old Corinthian ideals, where the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. Of course Sexton is one of the many high-profile rugby players who have experienced serious concussion in recent times.

Although the tragic effects of concussion are most evident in American football, former Roscommon star Karol Mannion courageously spoke out this summer about the serious after-effects of his two experiences of concussion on the GAA playing fields.

A core ethical principle is “do no harm”. These incidents raise serious questions about the risks sports people are subjected to today. Sport is a microcosm of society. If our language is part of who we are, our sports actually tell us who we are.

When we know the way winners and losers are treated in sport and the way rules are enforced, then we know a great deal about the larger society in which it exists. The defects we find in sport: cheating, violence and drug abuse are an integral part of the wider society. Increasingly sport is becoming identified with the culture of the survival of the fittest.

The recent GAA championships has seen pundits like Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane fulminating at how a “win at all costs” mentality has infected the GAA, with a litany of accompanying controversies about “diving”, “sledging” and “gamesmanship”.

This summer even hurling pundits were bemoaning how their “beautiful game” has been colonised by the desire not to lose rather than the drive to win.

Sport remains a glorious enterprise for many people. However, major ethical questions abound about it.

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday, November 3, 2015.

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