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Considering the Instrumentalization and Exploitation of Elite Athletes

Why did Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye not wear helmets during their boxing fight a few weeks ago? Actually, they do tend to wear them during training, but obviously not when an official boxing match takes place. Why not? Presumably, it is because wearing helmets could foster tactical fights and finally turn them into unspectacular victories won on points.
Instead of impressive knock outs, swaying hulks and eye-rolling fighting-machines, an audience would have to content itself with scampering human rocks and rare surprise effects. From another perspective, boosting knock outs (or not wearing helmets) could even be seen as a degrading or even a humiliating act against an athlete’s integrity. Nevertheless, professional boxers accept this system because they also get their salary after being vanquished and humbled. Still, a slightly unpleasant taste of something between modern slavery and exploitation cannot be denied.

Furthermore, participating at an excellent level automatically implies taking on a kind of role model responisibility. Often, still adolescent athletes are meant to be ambassadors of virtues such as fairness, consideration and respect. But unfortunately, within a Darwinistic framework like sports you cannot reach the top of the pyramid while considering the needs of your competitor. Moreover, the regular monitoring of athletes actually undermines their status as role models, since it stigmatizes athletes as people who, without surveillance, will behave improperly. [1] Hence, to put an athlete in charge of being an ambassador of moral traits may be utopian. Rather it should be the other way round. Elite sportsperson represent qualities and insufficiencies of the specific society they were born and raised in and therefore, tend to be seen as a mirror of society. In fact, they’re not. Sports, including athletes as its protagonists, are rather boosters of human traits because performing at limits confesses which values we actually stand for. Expecting athletes to exhibit superior moral traits because they occasionally appear on a screen responding to questions, is not unfair, but naïve. Therefore, enforcing a sportsperson to bear the burden of being a centre of moral competence while gasping for breath might be a deportation of this specific « educational » responsibility.

A further aspect of instrumentalization is going to be obvious while conceding that the system of modern sports industry actually promotes doping. To substantiate this provocative thesis, I would like to make the connection to the Tour de France 2011 or similar intense competitions requiring weeks of top performance. The main reason why cyclists began abusing performance enhancing methods in such an excessive manner is certainly not because they were poorly prepared for the race. It is because the setting of the competition itself (in this case the TdF) demands inhuman physical capacities. To cycle 3’430.5 kilometres within 23 days and only 2 days of recovery cannot be healthy at all. Despite the fact elite sport does not much concern health these numbers imply a daily distance of 149.15 km on average, of course under contest conditions. Additionally, all of the six high mountain stages take place in the second half of the Tour (superfluous to mention that every of them is above 152 km with exception of the last one). Notably, not the length of each single stage, which is questionable, it is more about the short interval between the stages and the repetition for more than three weeks. Due to the fact that the human body depends on regular nutrition, hydration and recovery to keep a natural level of performance such a race-calendar, at least indirectly, suggests the intake of performance enhancing substances . In fact, during the Tour, cyclists get infusions for nutrition and hydration [2] because the human body is physiologically not able to restore its stock this fast (until next competition starts, normally on the subsequent day). Finally, we have to keep in mind that the Tour de France is only one of several long-distance events in the race-calendar.

To conclude, doping is just an inevitable corollary. Especially, if we as spectateurs insist on the current aesthetic and entertaining standard of sports which actually involves boxers not wearing helmets or cyclists trying to make up with inhuman competition-settings. Even on that account, it might be inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical, to justify a ban by appealing on athletes’ well-being [3] like various anti-doping defenders do. As a result, sports governing bodies may ask themselves what they intent to provide to the ticket payers. Is it about sports, a fair competition or solely an entertaining show to celebrate the potential of modern biochemistry? Simultaneously, society, as a consumer of elite-sports, may re-evaluate its interpretation of the extraordinary skilled athlete who is regarded to represent idealistic moral traits.

[1] Current anti-doping policy: a critical appraisal. Kayser B, Mauron A and Miah A, published 29 march 2007, BMC Medical Ethics 2007, 8:2
[2] Dopium fürs Volk? Werte des Sports in Gefahr, Denkperlen 06, Hans Lenk, 2007 by merus verlag Hamburg.
[3] Constructing Winners: The Science and Ethics of Genetically Manipulating Athletes. A. J. Schneider and J. L. Rupert, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2009, 36, 182-206.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. When I read, "Nevertheless, professional boxers accept this system because they also get their salary after being vanquished and humbled. Still, a slightly unpleasant taste of something between modern slavery and exploitation cannot be denied," I thought, "Sounds like your average office job."

    OK so I had a tough week, but there's a serious point here too. Arguably the instrumentalisation and exploitation of elite athletes is just one (perhaps extreme, but they could just walk away) example of a much more pervasive problem of systematic oppression and exploitation. If this sounds a bit Marxist, I'm not just talking about the exploitation of the masses by elites (although that still happens as well), but more generally the way we are all systematically oppressing and exploiting each other in small, subtle but cumulatively crippling ways.

    Just a thought.

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