Fair Play and the Philosophy of Sport with Dr. Sigmund Loland

Dr. Sigmund Loland, professor and advisor on philosophy of sport and fair play

Dr. Sigmund Loland is a Professor and former Rector (2005-2013) of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. He has published extensively on topics such as the ideal of fair play, ethics of performance-enhancing technologies, epistemology of movement and history of ideas in sport. Dr. Loland is the former President of the International Association of the Philosophy of Sport (2002-2003) and the European College of Sport Science (2011-2013), and he has served on the Ethics Panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since 2004. Dr. Loland is also an avid skier and skiing coach and has coached at many levels including the international level.

In this interview, we discuss his background and research in the philosophy of sport, touching on issues of fair play, the moral value of sports and the ethics of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use.

Greg: What led you to study philosophy of sport?

Dr. Loland: Sport has been an important part of my life since childhood: football, handball, and above all: skiing. I was raised in a culture of self-organisation and with little parent involvement. It was great, although systematic schemes of performance-enhancement were missing. Gradually, I became more involved in organised sport, among other things as a coach and coach educator in alpine skiing, working at all levels including international competition.

Every day, I am active in one way or the other. It makes me feel alive: a fast walk through the woods, outdoor strength training, biking and, in winter, skiing of all kinds (alpine, telemark, cross-country). As most Norwegians would argue: Skiing is the sport of sports (haha)!

Why the philosophy of sport? Being passionate about sports, I did my bachelor’s degree in sport science. Being curious about basic questions of meaning and value in our lives, I studied language, philosophy and the history of ideas (humanities) at the university. In my Ph.D. thesis, I combined the two interests and wrote a thesis on the idea of fair play in sport.

“The logic of competitive games creates standards of fair play.”

Greg: What makes a sport a sport? Do those characteristics create standards for fair play?

Dr. Loland: Sport definitions are to a certain extent semantic conventions. A narrow understanding is that sports are competitive games in which physical capabilities and skills play a significant role. A wider understanding (as in the Nordic term idrett) would include outdoor adventure sports and education, and exercise as well. These days the idea of sport is contested terrain, among other things challenged by e-sport.

Back to the narrow interpretation. The logic of competitive games creates standards of fair play. Without participants adhering to the rules, or at least to the ethos of their sport (a shared interpretation of the rules in practice), the activity becomes meaningless. Cheaters are classic free-riders depending upon other players keeping the rules. In other words, the logic of competitive games is a crucial element in justifying an obligation on rule adherence, on fairness.

Fairness secures orderly and just games but not necessarily good games. The structural goal of sporting games is measuring, comparing, and ranking participants according to performance. Without participants doing their very best and playing fairly to win, evaluation of performance becomes impossible. The activity loses meaning. An additional obligation then is “Play to win!”

To sum up: Realizing the logic and meaning of competitive games means competing according to fair play.

Greg: Is there an inherent conflict between playing by the rules and playing to win? Many sports have unwritten rules—actions not strictly prohibited by the rules but frowned upon by other players and fans. Is it okay to break unwritten rules to gain a competitive advantage?

Dr. Loland: I don’t think there is an inherent conflict. On the contrary, fair play includes obligations of playing fairly to win, that is, doing one’s best within the ethos of the sport in which one takes part.

Most sports have unwritten rules. In some situations in road cycling, the leading cyclists wait for a competitor after an accident for which the competitor is not responsible such as a flat tire. In soccer, in order to take care of an injured player, a team may play the ball over the sideline. Upon starting play again, the other team is expected to throw the ball back to the team with the injury.

In most situations, athletes and teams that break unwritten rules are considered cynical and as playing against the ethos or the spirit of the game. Some sports such as soccer have rules on unsportpersonlike conduct and can react formally. Games have been replayed due to teams not respecting the unwritten rules! Other sports do not.

Sometimes, however, ‘cynicism’ can pave the way for a new ethos and actually develop the sport. Most of the time, however, it is simply based on pure, short term self-interest and lack of respect for the game and for competitors. Sporting communities usually react forcefully on blatant ethos violations. This demonstrates that most people understand sport as a value-guided practice. I would advocate a case-by-case approach in analysing this.

An injured soccer player lying on the ground

Greg: What role can sport play in human life? Why do sports matter morally?

Dr. Loland: Play and games play a crucial role in many people’s life. in Huizinga’s* work, play is at the very core of culture. Sport is not just a superficial past time. In addition to offering strong experiential qualities (joy, fun, challenge, mastery and failure, a sense of community, a sense of opposition, etc), sport is a sphere of concrete and embodied testing out of moral and existential questions. Fair or unfair? Good or bad? Meaningful or not? What can I achieve? What can we achieve together? With whom do I belong? What is natural/artificial? What is human/non-human? Sport can cultivate some of the best in us, but also some of the worst. Hence, continuous, critical and systematic ethical examination is crucial.

“At its best, sport cultivates admirable human perfectionism.”

Greg: Do standard classifications in sports (e.g. by sex or weight) do enough to level the playing field?

Dr. Loland: Examining the rule systems of sport, standard classification according to sex, body size or age emerges as attempts to eliminate or compensate for inequalities between athletes that they cannot impact or influence in any significant way, and for which they cannot be claimed responsible. Inequalities in talent to develop strength, endurance, speed, and technical and tactical skills, on the other hand, are considered relevant. These are inequalities that must be developed with hard training and effort and hence are morally relevant. The rules of sport are structured to cultivate performance for which individuals and teams can be held responsible. At its best, sport cultivates admirable human perfectionism.

Sports do not eliminate or compensate for all kinds of inequalities. The playing field is not levelled out completely. In sports, as in life, we accept inequalities in talent. Talent is a gift, but has to be developed through hard training and effort. Inequalities in talent are not unjust in themselves, they way we deal with these inequalities in society and in sport may be. Athletic performances are outcomes of merit primarily but, as in life, luck (good and bad) is a significant ingredient.

Greg: To further level the playing field, should all athletes be given equal access to quality training and equipment? If so, how would such access be accomplished?

Fair equality of opportunity concerns not only inequalities between athletes but inequalities in external conditions and system strength as well. Different from individual inequalities, complete inequality elimination is the ideal. This is not always easy. In outdoor sports in particular, identical external conditions can be a challenge, but outdoor sports usually do the best they can. Point giving in ski jumping, built on algorithms estimating the effect of inequalities in wind conditions, is a high-tech example.

When it comes to system strength (know-how, financial resources, technology, etc.), there are gross and unfair inequalities. In skiing, athletes with the best waxing teams have a clear advantage. In international soccer, the wealthiest clubs buy the best players and win most of the titles. If we consider sport to be about individual and team talent and effort, this is clearly wrong. Technology should be standardized to the largest possible extent, the same should be the case with system strength inequalities.

Greg: You mentioned the issue of wealthier teams outspending poorer teams for the best talent. Is this system bad for the sport as a whole or just unfortunate for the less-wealthy teams and their supporters? One could argue that the existence of a few wealthy teams incentivizes players to perform better and produces a better product since the championship will likely be decided by a few teams with a large percentage of the top players.

Dr. Loland: I think actually extensive inequalities in resources are bad for sport. Competitive outcomes tend to be dependent upon financial muscles. Great talents that for one reason or the other are not included in the winning systems have small chances of success and many give in and retire. These days, Norwegian cross-country skiers dominate the sport and have superior resources. This is a problem because international interest is decreasing, and Norway invites athletes and coaches from other nations to take part in training and competence development to strengthen the sport.

​In a more fair system with more equal distribution of resources, a higher number of talents get the chance of flourishing, the public interest in the sport will increase, and sport is better off. The American professional league drafting system is actually interesting in this respect. No single team should be able to drain the market of talent.

Cross-country skiers crossing the finish line

Greg: What are the best arguments for and against PED use in sports? Where do you side on these arguments?

Dr. Loland: Pro: It is difficult if not impossible to catch all cheaters. Expensive, high-tech regimes are not worth the effort. Control regimes violate athletes’ privacy and rights. Sport is about transcendence of biological limits, and PEDs should be part of it. In sport, we see the new and enhanced human being as a combination of the organic and the technological—a future ideal. Anti-doping is an anachronism built on ideals of times gone by.

Contra: PED use challenges the health and welfare of athletes. Liberalization will put athletes in extremely vulnerable positions as their entourages depend upon their success. Many of these athletes are young, and informed consent is hard if not impossible. PED use will enhance inequalities in system strength as its efficiency depends upon biomedical expertise. PED use removes the responsibility of performance as an outcome of natural talent. PED use drains sport of moral value and reduces sport as a sphere of human perfectionism and admiration. ​

My view: The weightiest arguments in the PED discourse are not really about health or fairness. Many sports imply risk of harm; all athletes can be given access to PED. This is really a question of what we want with sports, its basic values, or “the spirit of sport” in WADA terminology.

A thought experiment: Imagine two 100 meter dash races, one in which all athletes are on PEDs, one in which all athletes are clean. The PED race is one second faster. But what is gained? An increase in the need for resources and perhaps health risk for athletes, the risk of athlete alienation and vulnerability and increased expert system dependency, one second less on an intensive and challenging competition for athletes and spectators. In a cost-benefit analysis, the clean race is the better option.

This demonstrates that sport is about qualities in the activity in itself: the exciting process of development of talent through hard work and effort. At its best, sport is about admirable human perfectionism.

In other words, in the current situation, a ban on PEDs is clearly the better option and the lesser evil approach.

*-Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and author of Homo Ludens (“Sporting/Playing/Learning/Practicing Man”)

Images sourced from pxfuel.com and commons.wikimedia.org