Saturday 6 August 2016

Too Much Competition is Ruining Sport

Competition is amazing! It is the disruptive engine at the heart of the three key institutional innovations of modernity: market economies, democracy, and science. But despite its glamorous power, competition is not enough. Indeed it can be dangerous if it escapes from its box. In democracies, for example, the competition for power can so dominate politics that little actual governance gets done, as presently in America where elected politicians are forced to spend most of their time and energy raising money and running for their next election. In market economies, competition turns corporations into psychopaths concerned only to externalise costs and privatise benefits. The resulting race to the bottom, such as in Chinese food safety, can destroy lives and also entire industries. 

So far so obvious. But this is the season of the Olympics so this post will focus on a different problem of competition, the threat it poses to sport by emptying out the meaning from what has become an important part of our global - our human - culture.


Culture is about the meanings of what we do, the shared world we construct through common values, symbols, purposes, memories, and so on. Culture can thereby be distinguished from other, overlapping components of a modern polity: the social (the structures of interpersonal relationships, such as the family, gender, class), the economic (the production and distribution of valuable things), and the political (the legitimate exercise of power). So the first point to establish is that sport is cultural, that it is or can be meaningful.

On the face of it this may appear difficult in comparison to the kind of things we do accept as part of global culture, like the Taj Mahal. Sports are games, and games are by definition pointless: "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" as Bernard Suits, founder of the philosophy of games, puts it. Sports are trivial by design. Perhaps the Olympics itself may count as a cultural artifact like the Sydney Opera House just because the brand is globally well known (and every few years everyone talks about it a lot). But then the sports tend to drop out of it, just as no one talks about the operas.

I think that sports deserve to be taken more seriously in their own right. Their contribution to global culture is not merely the superficial achievement of universal recognition (what brings the Sydney Opera House, Coca Cola, and the Olympics into the same category). The special promise of sport is to provide a depth of meaning, i.e. value, together with universal accessibility.

That value has at least three distinct sources - competition (of course), but also drama, and craft. (I leave aside the value sports have for their participants.) Although each of these has their own logic and appeal, the defining characteristic of a flourishing, richly meaningful sport is a harmonious balance between all three. The increasing dominance of competition across all sports is therefore distinctly worrying. In the long run it may squeeze the very life out of them. The thin zero-sum perspective that it embodies is already the source of much that undermines sport, including the pernicious scandals of nationalism, doping, and sexism.


The pleasure of competition consists in the resolution of uncertainty combined with the validation of status rankings. There is a special thrill in the resolution of a sustained uncertainty about an outcome, and this is also behind the appeal of gambling. But in sport the resolution of this uncertainty is also meant to reflect merit: sporting competition provides an answer to the question of Who deserves to win? 

In the past, the Greeks saw the winners of sporting competitions as selected by the Gods, and modern celebrations of gold medallists still echo of that. Hence the emphasis on fairness - level playing fields, gender testing, anti-doping regimes – to ensure the results reflect only the authentic moral desert of the contestants. (Hence also the moralistic and somewhat disturbing obsession with purity, cleanness and naturalness.) But the fairness isn't the point of the exercise except insofar as it renders the outcomes reliable because outcomes are the only thing that really matters. Records, rankings, and other statistics are central since, to the competitive spirit, comparing scores is the only way to tell how well one is doing.

Competition is what makes sport exciting. It is also extremely accessible to those who know nothing about a sport (noobs only have to ask, 'Who's side are we on?') and can be repurposed as a relatively harmless expression of interregional or international rivalry, as when people identify with their national team in the soccer World Cup and go around talking about how 'we' beat 'Brazil'.

The excitement of chancing fate and divine favour is important, but it is not the only kind of value that sport can and should afford. The others though tend to make more demands on the spectator.

Sports are also dramatic performances, in which players perform semi-scripted roles on a public stage with, not against, their ‘opponents'. What is important here is not the final score, but how the players inhabit their roles and make them their own, including the moral character they display in their interactions with team-mates and opponents and the overcoming of injuries, and their judgement calls about how to play the opportunities that come their way. (Here's a nice example of the BBC treating athletes as heros rather than medallists.) Every game is a unique performance to be savoured in its particularity rather than reduced to its generic bottom-line score. Just as we might ask, ‘Did you see Patrick Stewart's Macbeth in New York?' so we might say ‘I'll always remember Federer's semi-final at Wimbledon'.

This is the aspect of sports that a live audience is often best placed to appreciate, since they can see more than what the camera tracking the excitement or the scoreboard show. It is demanding as well because one must be expert enough about the play of the game and those who play it to properly appreciate the special characteristics of this performance. Fans, those who have made a commitment to a particular sports team part of their identity, have the kind of familiarity with the game to talk about it like this, albeit in partisan terms, and as a result are touched by emotional highs and lows that the casual spectator misses - or escapes. Good sports commentators, like good theatre critics, bring their wealth of experience into their analysis of what's going on, revealing hidden depths of heroism, sacrifice, and tragedy that the scoreboard cannot show.

The play of the game is not only about the acting out of social roles and the audience's following emotional experience or pathos. The third source of sport's value is the impartial admiration that attaches to the technical skill, or craft, displayed by the players. The sociologist Richard Sennett, defines craftsmanship broadly as the basic impulse to do a job well for its own sake, to aspire to a level of mastery and painstaking attention to technique and its incremental improvement that is out of proportion to the value of the output produced. That is a peculiarly non-economic attitude found in few places these days besides sports (it also clings on in some parts of academia, for now).

Even though most of us are alienated from craftsmanship in our own working lives we can still appreciate its particular beauty. In this case it is a physical beauty since the athlete's bodies are the instruments with which and upon which they seek to perfect their craft. Professional athletes' exuberant display of decades-long dedication and hard won expertise shines through the efficiently mass-produced dross of modern life. This is what keeps people in airports watching spellbound before a big screen showing coverage of an Olympics sport they have hardly even heard of.


These three sources of value overlap, and in certain sports some are naturally more dominant than others. Craft, for example, dominates our appreciation of performance sports such as gymnastics. But I think all are needed to some extent. Partly because the absence of any one of them - like the absence of competition in the World Wrestling franchises - seems cause to deny it the status of a genuine sport. But partly also for less semantic reasons: the fewer ways in which a sport can be appreciated the shakier its general claim to be a valuable human activity worth taking seriously and retaining into the future. The weaker the Olympics' claim to be a more significant contribution to our global human culture than Coca Cola's bubbly sugar water. Stripped of its sources of value, a sport is just a game, a matter of attempting to achieve goals that don't matter (like putting a small ball into a hole) by means that are deliberately inefficient (using only a selection of metal sticks). Something that we could very easily do without.

More positively, the different sources of value interact with and support each other. For example, in moderation, competition provides a basic narrative engine that energises and orientates the drama of sport; and also provides the driving motivation and economic independence that permit the flourishing of craftsmanship.

Hence my concern. Competition has become the dominant form of appreciation across nearly every sport, crowding out those other aspects more concerned with the play of the game itself and flattening out the experience of sport for players and spectators alike to a matter of collecting points and prizes. But sport statistics are only as meaningful as the activity they commemorate. The danger of seeing the game only through records and rankings is that more and more people may come to wonder why running 100 metres faster than anyone else is of any more value than sitting in a bath of baked beans for longer than anyone else. 

In the short term though an excess of competition causes numerous other problems. Here are just a few.

First, competition is reductive - only winning matters, not the underlying practice. I already mentioned a positive aspect of the Olympics, how it can expose people to the particular beauty of a craft they might otherwise never have noticed. But the Olympics also offers an extreme example - to the point of self-parody - of the reductive character of competition. Most of the media coverage of the Olympics takes the form of endless reporting on the medal league tables as sites of competition between nations with little to no attention to the sports themselves. The sports are so little present that one might as well be talking about PISA score rankings or rates of GDP growth. Governments are called upon to invest in sports, meaning extraordinarily expensive elite training facilities in the sports it is easiest to generate the most medals, not giving more opportunities to more citizens to play. The result has been an arms race of scientific training and governmental doping regimes that destroy athletes' bodies without even making for a more enjoyable spectacle.

Second, the domination of competition in the media, reflecting but also shaping its viewers' preferences, has led to increasing large financial prizes for winners that has warped the motives of participants. It is not the taking part that matters; it's the money and the prestige, and the further money one can make from selling sponsors access to your prestige. No wonder then that respect for the play of the game has become merely instrumental, and respect for the very rules on which fair competition depends has eroded away. Every sport with any substantial amount of monetisable prestige at stake is ridden with performance enhancing drugs. The economic logic of the prisoner's dilemma rules: cheating is the dominant strategy in a winner-takes-all system.

Third, competition reduces women's sport to second-class status, a side-show designed for a class of people whose ‘disability' excludes them from the real contest. On the one hand a concern for the integrity of the competition requires gender segregation to reflect differences in physiology that affect performance in most sports. That is only fair. On the other hand, though, because the point of competition is to reveal a hierarchy of merit, the results of women's competitions don't matter. Like the Paralympics, women's sport will remain tokenistic unless the values of drama and craft are taken seriously and competition put in its place.


Competition is central to why sport matters. We just have to remember that it's not the only reason to care about sport, and not allow the easy but superficial thrill it excels in producing to become the only way of appreciating sport. Competition, with its self-defeating tendencies, runs so much else of our lives in these days of hypercapitalism and hyperpolitics. We don't need it to run sport too. The dramatic and especially the craftsmanship aspects of sport are harder to find elsewhere in our modern lives. They are the special ingredients that make sports a global cultural treasure worth sharing and preserving.

An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily.