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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From Wild Board Dung to Steroids, Athletes Cheat

Fiala on ethics: From wild boar dung to steroids, athletes cheat

 By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 | 05:30 PM

It’s been a bad month for cheaters and liars in sports.

Lance Armstrong confessed to doping. Steroid-using baseball superstars were kept out of the Hall of Fame. And we learned that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was caught up in an elaborate hoax.

Fraud and mendacity are as old as athletic competition. Homer’s “Iliad” recounts cheating in a chariot race. Ancient charioteers also sought assistance from performance enhancers. Wild boar dung boiled in vinegar was one preferred potion. The emperor Nero even took the stuff, looking for a competitive edge. When Nero “competed” he won every event — in a falsified Olympiad set up to please his own vanity.

I discussed the recent athletic hogwash with Andrew Marden, the weekend sports anchor for KGPE (Channel 47). From Marden’s perspective, one of the biggest problems is the presence of big money in sports. Monetary rewards will tempt vainglorious and greedy athletes to cheat. The money spreads to the team, the agents and the league itself. The more an athlete wins, the more money everyone makes, tempting the organization to look the other way.

Marden also pointed out that we love stories of athletes overcoming adversity. We admire Te’o’s tenacity after his girlfriend’s death. We celebrate Armstrong’s ability to “live strong” after cancer. The narrative crumbles when we discovered that Te’o’s girlfriend never existed and Armstrong’s athletic performance was drug-assisted.

These stories become classically tragic when the conceited cheaters get their comeuppance. We like that part of the story, too: It satisfies our desire for vindication.

There’s a kind of relief that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons weren’t voted into the Hall of Fame. And many are hoping that Armstrong’s confession to Oprah will lead to further repercussions.

Marden pointed out that public shame and moralistic requital is a weak punishment for a millionaire. Indeed, shameful misdeeds don’t seem to diminish an athlete’s earning potential. Consider Melky Cabrera, the baseball star who was given a 50-game suspension last summer for doping. Cabrera missed the Giants’ World Series victory. But he signed a $16 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Apparently it’s not true that cheaters never prosper.

A further problem is that cheaters and liars seem to actually enjoy cheating and lying. The so-called “cheater’s high” is a sense of elation that comes from successfully getting away with pulling a fast one.

Effective cheats often don’t feel guilty. Instead they get a charge from taking advantage and not getting caught. The same sort of thrill might explain lying, stealing, marital infidelity or even negotiating a business deal. We feel powerful and alive when we outfox our opponents and trick others into taking our hogwash seriously.

The victorious cheater’s exhilaration might explain why cheaters are not very good at assessing their actual abilities and performance. A 2010 study by Zoe Chance, from the Harvard Business School, indicates that students who cheat on tests tend to lie to themselves about their own skills and intelligence. Cheaters overestimate their own abilities and intelligence. Cheaters predict that they will continue to perform well in the future, not acknowledging that their past achievement was a result of cheating.

That kind of confident self-deception can be an asset in some circumstances. Successful competitors need to be self-assured and poised — they can’t second-guess themselves or beat themselves up over failure. But that kind of resolute composure can easily become arrogance.

Armstrong admitted this in his interview with Oprah. He said, “My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.”

The cheater’s cool conceit combines with our gullible desire to believe a great story. This makes it easy for cheats to succeed — for a while. But the cheater’s fatal flaw is his own arrogant belief that he can keep getting away with it.

The truth eventually comes out, especially in stories that are too good to be true.

In the meantime we have to remain vigilant. Athletes are easily tempted to drink the wild boar dung.

And we gullible fans are often inclined to swallow their hogwash.

Adventure Sports, Religion, and Extraordinary Experience

Testing of limits isn’t just for the adventurous

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-09-08

I watched a group of hang gliders launch from Glacier Point a few weeks ago. The gliders leapt into thin air and swooped majestically out across Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, the last glider in the group clipped a tree just after taking off. The kite spun out of control and careened into the talus slope just above the precipice. The crowd of spectators let out a collective scream.

I scrambled down the rocks to the glider pilot. His face and body were smashed, hanging under the mangled kite. He was groaning, barely conscious. Later, in the meadow below, I chatted with the injured pilot’s friends, imagining the beauty and thrill of the flight, while also recalling the horror of the crash.

I concluded, at the time, that hang gliding was crazy. But just the other day I crashed my mountain bike, flipping head over heels in a boulder field. A dent in my helmet shows where my head hit a rock. My legs and ribs are still aching.

I still love mountain biking and will go again. Even the crash was exciting. Maybe those hang gliders aren’t crazy after all. Or maybe it’s normal to seek risk and to want to defy gravity. Somehow the rewards — the thrill, the challenge, the novelty — outweigh the risks. The same fact might explain why people use drugs and alcohol, and even why people explore religious experience.

Human beings appear to need something more than ordinary experience — more than working, eating, and sleeping. When Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, he meant that religion provided an escape and consolation from a world of suffering and injustice. Marx thought that the desire for transcendent experience was the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” The same explanation might be given for drug and alcohol abuse. Real opium can provide an escape from oppression and suffering.

But oppression is not the only explanation. Rather, it seems that human beings are fascinated by the strange, the thrilling, and the extraordinary. We are curious explorers of the world and of consciousness. By pushing the limits of ordinary experience, we hope to experience wonder, joy and meaning.

The link between religion and drug use was explained recently by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in an article in The New Yorker. Sacks explained that we seek “transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

Sacks’ adventures with drug-induced altered states of consciousness is a cautionary tale. The highs of his drug-fueled “holidays” were followed by a crash: unwanted hallucinations, addictive behavior and possible psychosis.

Is it ethical to pursue such experiences — whether leaping off a cliff, exploring religious experience, or ingesting psychoactive chemicals? Libertarians will argue that you should be free to experiment, so long as you are not harming anyone but yourself.

The question of harm is a vexing one. Risky sports do not seem to pose a harm to others, except when the rescuers have to pull you out of danger. Drug use appears to be a private matter, unless you take the wheel or your loved ones have to deal with addiction and decline. And exploring religious experience seems unproblematic, except for religious experiences that turn fanatical or religious disagreements that disrupt families.

It is important to acknowledge the social aspect of even private choices. We should carefully consider the impacts our choices have on others, especially the strangers and loved ones who pick up the pieces when we crash.

We also need to acknowledge our desire for the extraordinary. Human beings have an exploratory urge and a desire for meaning, euphoria, and value in a short, uncertain life. That urge cannot be denied.

It would be nice to find safe venues for exploring extraordinary experiences. But the thrill of the extraordinary comes from the danger of flouting conventional expectations, defying gravity, and making dangerous leaps of faith. Those who make these leaps help to expand our understanding of what is humanly possible. They also occasionally remind us that what goes up, must come down.


Sport, Morality, and Trying your best

In life, morality requires a determined effort

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-08-11

It is often good strategy not to try your best. Several athletes in the London Olympics have reminded us of this. The most notorious case involved badminton players who tried to lose their games, hoping to draw preferred opponents later. The players were officially reprimanded.

Another athlete, Taoufik Makhloufi from Algeria, was disqualified for not trying hard enough in an 800 meter race. He had stopped running because of pain in his knee, which he didn’t want to interfere with a later race. After an appeal, he was reinstated.

We don’t like to admit it, but it is often good strategy not to try your hardest. In swimming and track, sometimes it is wise for an athlete to ease off in qualifying heats in order to save energy for later races. Even worse, sometimes it is good strategy to try to fail. During one of the Olympic cycling races, a British cyclist crashed on purpose in order to get a restart on the race that would benefit his team. His team went on to win the gold medal.

A variety of sports have rules that allow for strategically valuable failures. In baseball, pitchers walk some batters intentionally, rather than trying to pitch to them. In football, quarterbacks throw the ball out of bounds rather than trying to force a completion. In basketball, players try to commit fouls in the waning seconds of a half. Sometimes it is better not to try at all. In sports like gymnastics, trying and failing can leave you with a broken neck.

Knowing when to give up trying is also a good skill in business. Bankruptcy filings can reflect smart decisions about giving up. Successful people have a knack for knowing when to try, how hard to try and when to walk away from things that are not working.

Even though it is sometimes wise not to try your hardest, “not trying” runs counter to a basic moral intuition. We like to think that you should always try your hardest. We tell our children this. The Cub Scout motto is: “Try your best.”

One version of morality focuses entirely on effort. Since we do not have direct control over consequences and outcomes, it seems reasonable to focus on effort and will. This view is associated with the German philosopher Kant. Kant explained that even if you suffered misfortunes, your good will would remain: “Like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.”

The problem is, however, that it is difficult to measure “trying.” How do we know how hard we tried? There is a lot of self-deception and rationalization involved in assessing effort. How do we know how hard an athlete or a co-worker is trying?

Furthermore, the notion that you “tried your best” is often a consolation when you have lost. “Well, at least I tried,” you tell yourself as you stumble across the finish line in the back of the pack. It is often deflationary to tell someone to “go out there and try your best.” That’s the sort of thing we say to people when we expect them to lose.

There is a humane spirit behind praising people for “trying their best.” Sometimes people give up too easily in the face of small obstacles or minor inconveniences. Perseverance is admirable.

But “trying your best” is often not enough. Perseverance without accomplishment is nothing to brag about. We don’t have much patience with people who use “trying their best” as an excuse for poor performance or as a rationalization for moral failure.

There is some truth to the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And apparently, the road to Olympic victory is paved with strategic effort: knowing when to try and when to ease up.

But life is not sports. Living well involves more than strategic effort. Morality requires determined effort. We value love, loyalty, fidelity, fortitude and resolve because we know that it is often too easy to give up trying. And we tend to reserve moral praise for those who try their hardest, even when good strategy might point in the other direction.


Olympic Athlete Pistorius and Fairness

Olympic athlete raises complex issue of fairness

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-07-28

We are born into this life without any choice about our bodies or our social situation. Some are born rich, tall and good looking. Others are born poor, unhealthy or disabled. From a certain perspective, life just isn’t fair. But technology can help to make it fairer.

That’s one lesson to be drawn from the story of Oscar Pistorius, a South African Olympian who was born without fibulas — the bones in his lower legs. In London, he will run the 400 on carbon fiber blades.

While Pistorius’ success is an inspiration, some worry that permitting this technological boost will undermine the purity of the sport of running. Others have complained that his prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage.

Scientific American recently examined this question. Pistorius uses less energy, due to the elastic action of the blades. His lower “legs” are lighter than those of other runners; and they do not tire. But Pistorius must compensate for the light springiness of his legs by bearing down on his prostheses in a way that no other runner must do.

Scientists were unable to answer the vexing question of whether Pistorius was on a “level playing field” with other runners. The concept of a “level playing field” is a fuzzy one that points beyond science to a variety of ethical issues. I asked professor Jeffrey Fry, an expert on the philosophy of sport at Ball State, about this issue. Fry reminded me of the difficulty of defining justice and the idea of a level playing field in sports.

Since Aristotle, justice has been defined as treating similar people similarly and treating dissimilar people differently. Faster runners receive medals, while the losers receive nothing. The purpose of the game is to differentiate among people. It is not unfair that the winners are rewarded. But we also think that competition should be fair, which means that no one should have an unearned or undeserved advantage or disadvantage. This is why doping is outlawed: It creates an undeserved advantage.

Professor Fry indicated that there are other kinds of undeserved advantages and disadvantages that we conveniently ignore. Social and economic factors influence athletic performance. You can’t excel at a sport unless you have access to facilities, coaches and equipment. Athletes from poor countries may not really have a “fair” chance against athletes from rich countries.

And we are all victims of a genetic lottery, which determined our gender, our eyesight and our body type. Michael Phelps was born tall, with long arms and big feet, which apparently helps in swimming. Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulas. Those advantages or disadvantages are matters of luck that neither Phelps nor Pistorius did anything to deserve. In a certain metaphysical sense, it is unfair that Phelps is tall, while Pistorius lacked legs.

It’s true that each athlete has done amazing things with his genetic endowments. But the deck was stacked against Pistorius. It seems appropriate to allow technology to level the playing field. While admitting this, Fry also concluded, “We don’t want differential use of technology to be decisive.”

But what forms of technological assistance are “decisive”? What about running shoes, or diet and access to training equipment? We permit people with bad eyesight to use technology to fix their eyes so they can play golf, tennis and other sports. Should people with other disabilities be allowed to use other forms of technological assistance?

The issue of fairness and disability in sports is a microcosm for thinking about fairness in other parts of life. People with different abilities compete in business, in politics and in the world of romance. The rich, the tall and the beautiful appear to have an unfair advantage over the rest of us. And for a long time, there was outright discrimination against women, minorities and the disabled.

The Pistorius story shows us that we are doing better at treating people fairly. Technological assistance is able to level certain playing fields. There is still a long way to go in overcoming discrimination — especially discrimination against the disabled. But we seem to agree that we ought to try to make life less unfair for those who have done nothing to deserve their disadvantage.