Morality and the Olympic Games


The founder of the modern Olympic, Pierre de Coubertin, said: “The most important thing . . . is not winning but taking part (in the Games).” That should be the attitude behind all athletic activities. Sadly, it is a view that is increasingly hard to come by.

The Olympics bring us the world’s best athletes. But does it bring out the best in those who participate? Do the games really serve a social good? I ask this as someone who played organized sports all my life and continues to play pick-up games to this day.

Sports are touted as having two moral purposes: teaching sportsmanship and prompting individuals to excel through competition. Sportsmanship fosters fair play and builds character; competition hones an individual’s skills, thereby developing higher levels of talent. Presumably, spectators vicariously gain these advantages as well. We learn what fair play is by watching it unfold and we are inspired to develop our own talents by watching others at their best.

While there is much truth that sports play is a pro-social tool, there is also a underside to the competition. I once had a star athlete in my class at the university who explained that she would do whatever her coach told her to do to win a championship game. That included deliberately delivering a permanent injury to an opponent. More recently one of the regular players in my pick-up game, who is a college professor, said that if you don’t cheat you aren’t trying hard enough. I don’t think my student had ever been asked to harm an opponent, but my paddleball chum tries cheating all the time.

In the London Olympics we are learning that underwater fouls that can’t be seen by referees are a routine part of water polo; cheap fouls take place in men’s basketball and women’s soccer; badminton games are thrown in order to face a weaker opponent in the next round; cyclists deliberate fall from their bikes in order to get a start over; more than 150 scientists are on duty to test 6,000 blood and urine samples to prevent drug use, thereby keeping to a minimum what otherwise would be widespread use of steroids.

These mini-scandals are swamped by the feel good stories of triumph over adversary and success as the result of hard, hard work. The Olympic narrative unmarred by the underbelly cheating.

The Olympic creed states, “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” How many of the competitors accept this? At the beginning of Olympic games, athletes are thrilled to be there. For many it is the culmination of a lifetime of dreams and single-minded dedication.

Out of the 10,960 who are competing in the 2012 London games, approximately 300 will win gold medals. Less than 10% win medals of any color. Nine out of ten will go home with no medal. Half the countries go home empty-handed and there are those who win silver and bronze but were expected to take home gold who are humiliated, ridiculed and, in some countries, punished.

All this pressure to succeed takes its toll. “Studies show retired [Olympic] athletes can suffer depression and other mental problems and are more prone to substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide than the general population.”

“ . . .  intensive exercise is as addictive as heroin, putting retiring Olympians at risk of depression. A third of elite athletes have an unhealthy preoccupation with training, scientists in Melbourne found in a study published in March. And the biological mechanisms of this so-called exercise dependence tend to mimic those involved in drug addiction, researchers at Tufts University in Boston said. Anxiety and depression may ensue when exercise stops, according to the Tufts study.”

Much of success in the modern world is associated with being Number One. Anything less is failure. We see this in many places. It isn’t surprising that in one of America’s elite public high schools 71 students were caught cheating on a statewide exam this spring. Nor should it be surprising that big banks manipulate interest rates. Or that precinct captains manipulate crime rates to make themselves look better.

Most athletes compete fairly and some are truly inspiring in their accomplishments. Most businesses compete fairly and bring wonderful goods and services to society. Most students get the grades they deserve and police forces do their jobs honorably.

But in a world in which competition is defined as war instead of a partnership in which excellence can be achieved through mutual challenge, we are left with a battlefield strewn with casualties. And in a world where you are either Number One or a loser, we are left with a disgruntled and cynical population.








One thought on “Morality and the Olympic Games

  1. great article! The final paragraph is beautiful! I’ve been questioning the Olympics a lot too lately and the messages it conveys about what it means to be successful and how to achieve it, and I think you’re right.

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