The Olympics, Inequality, and the Spirit of Sport

Inequities sometimes overwhelm the Olympic ideal

Fresno Bee, August 13, 2016


The most important moral message of the Olympics is found in the spirit of the swimmers in the outside lanes and the runners at the back of the back. They get no glory. But they give it their all.

U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin, left, cries as she’s comforted by teammate Maya Dirado after Franklin failed to qualify in the semifinals of the women’s 200 backstroke at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016
U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin, left, cries as she’s comforted by teammate Maya Dirado after Franklin failed to qualify in the semifinals of the women’s 200 backstroke at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016

Almost everyone runs at the back of the pack. There is only one Michael Phelps. The rest of us could quit, cheat or complain – but we don’t. We – the decent majority of weekend warriors and ordinary mortals – discover joy in effort and honor in doing our best.

They say practice makes perfect. But no one is perfect. There is always room for improvement. We are never done practicing. Life is ongoing exertion. The key is to learn to love our labors.

This message is often lost in our focus on medal counts and the achievements of extraordinary Olympians such as Phelps. But the glory of victory is only a small part of the Olympics. The more important message is that the people of the world can play fairly together.

The inventor of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, imagined a new philosophy called “Olympism” that promoted world peace through international sport. He wanted to create international solidarity through friendly competition.

With roots in Greek myth, Olympism is a philosophy of life that seeks harmony of body, will, mind and world. It demands respect for universal ethical principles. And it celebrates “the joy of effort.”

The Olympic charter states, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Controversies surrounding the Rio Olympics make this seem like a dream. Doping scandals and polluted water are the tip of the iceberg. In addition to athletic greatness, the Olympics disclose social dysfunction, greed, injustice and inequality.

In one symbolic scene, protesters halted the Olympic torch procession. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a path for the torch. The poor and suffering masses want dignity, not gold medals.

Indeed, the daily medal count discloses global inequality. The globe’s athletic powerhouses are also its economic giants. Victory depends upon economic opportunity in addition to talent and tenacity.

The world’s poorest nations have few athletes. They rarely win. Some impoverished athletes abandon their homelands to compete for other nations. Rich countries such as Bahrain and Qatar import athletes from poor African nations.

Another problem is commercialism and greed. Olympic profits are not fairly shared. NBC expects hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue from the Rio Games. The athletes do not get a share in these profits.

The president of the IOC earns more than $250,000 a year. American coaches and sports directors earn even more. The executive director of USA swimming earns $837,000 per year. American swimmers earn a maximum stipend of $42,000. Athletes in less-popular sports and in poorer countries get much less.

Such is the world we live in. It would be nice if sports could solve our problems. But our athletic endeavors reflect the realities of a world that is afflicted by inequality, injustice, conflict and greed.

And yet, the masses continue to run, practice and strive. The vast majority of decent people do not cheat, quit or complain. Instead, we lace up our shoes and get to work. We enter the race, understanding that we have no chance of winning. But we keep on running.

The basic decency and tenacity of the vast majority is the most hopeful aspect of the human spirit. Most of us honor effort and fair play. We find joy in practice. And we strive to do our best.

Olympism imagines sport as a solution to global conflict. This is an inspiring vision. But sport is not a panacea. Athletes are human beings. And sporting events are human creations. They reflect who we are.

The problems exposed in Rio indicate that there is much work to be done in the world to eliminate injustice, inequality and other social problems. There is always work to be done.

Life is ongoing practice, sweat and tears. We don’t work because we expect to win. Rather, our efforts define our identities and give us joy, even in defeat.

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Occupy movement about sense of unfairness

‘Occupy’ movement about sense of unfairness

Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is an expression of resentment about inequality. The motto of the movement – “We are the 99%” – shows this. The top 1% of Americans hold half of the nation’s wealth. Corporate CEOs are doing well, while wages stagnate, hours are cut and debt increases for the rest of us.

It is not surprising that these inequalities cause resentment. Resentment is about fairness. And things seem unfair to many Americans today.

Some inequalities are fair: such as inequalities that result from differences in talent or expertise. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. Resulting inequality of income is fair – so long as it is reasonable and leaves the flight attendant doing well. In a similar way, inequalities resulting from certain genetic differences can be fair. Tall and fast kids get to play on the basketball team. But fairness means that there should be other opportunities for other kids.

Genetic differences can produce unfair inequalities. Racial discrimination and sexual inequality are unfair because racial and gender differences are irrelevant to performance. It would be unfair if women were not allowed to be pilots, for example, as was once the case.

Individuals do not earn the advantages or disadvantages of their genetic differences – these differences are a matter of luck. The advantage of inherited wealth is also a matter of luck. Rich kids don’t earn the advantages of wealth: They are just fortunate. Individual initiative does matter in the long run. Poor kids can do well, despite their relative disadvantage; and rich kids can fail to achieve. But a privileged starting point will give you an advantage. And this seems unfair – because neither the poor kid nor the rich kid has earned their relative difference.

This is not to say that we should engage in “class warfare” to make rich kids miserable. In a certain sense, that would be unfair as well, since parents should be free to help their own children excel. Rather, the point is that poor children should have fair opportunities for wellbeing. The drive for equality is not about bringing the privileged down. Instead it is about lifting the underprivileged up and providing a fair starting place. Women should be able to fly planes and poor kids should have decent schools.

The basic idea here is equality of opportunity. This idea was defended by John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the past century. Rawls said that inequalities are justified only when they benefit the least advantaged. The basic idea is that as the rich get richer, the poor should also do better. When this happens, resentment diminishes because even the poor will agree that they benefit from the system.

This idea undergirds our graduated income tax system: as the rich get richer, their tax dollars help poor kids in poor schools. This creates equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness. For Rawls, the aim is to “improve the long-term expectations of the least favored.”

Presumably, most Americans agree with this idea. It is a basic value in the Christian tradition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, Jesus says that we have an obligation to the “least of these” among us: the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.

But one wonders whether we are actually fulfilling that obligation. The “least favored” includes a growing number of unemployed, disenfranchised, imprisoned and indebted people. Unemployment hovers around 10% (15% here in Fresno County). Twenty percent of American homeowners are underwater in their mortgages (closer to 45% here in Fresno). The median student loan debt for recent college graduates is $20,000 – without good job prospects. And 1 in 100 adults are in prison – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Statistics such as these remind us that we are not improving the long-term expectations of the least favored. And this is what is fueling the resentment of the “Occupy” movement.

The Occupy protesters have not offered much in terms of concrete policy initiatives. It is not clear what we should do to promote fairness in a dysfunctional economy. But first we should get clear about our shared conception of justice. The Occupy movement is reminding us of the basic idea of fairness. This is not the only principle of justice: liberty matters too. But it is important to focus our concern on the “least” among us.