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The spirit of sport and anti doping policy: an ideal worth fighting for

Professor MJ McNamee of Swansea University in the UK argues that the ‘spirit of sport’ is an important component of the fight against doping in sport.

In conferences concerning doping and anti-doping over the last few years there has been some criticism of the notion of the ‘spirit of sport’ which – among other things – is at the heart of anti-doping policy.

These discussions can be distilled into two questions: firstly, what is the spirit of sport; and, secondly, how can it be used in anti doping policy? Answers typically take the form of it is too vague a concept, and that it has no use for anti-doping policy.

In this short essay I want to indicate why both of these responses are neither robust nor right, and why the concept is worth fighting for and keeping at the core of the World Anti-Doping Code.

What kind of problem is ‘vagueness’? In philosophical journals much ink has been spilt on the idea of conceptual vagueness and this is not the place to systematically survey that literature. Consider, however, some everyday concepts to see how problematic they really are in terms of vagueness.

When does dawn break? Is it when the penumbra of light breaks the horizon? Or when the first edge of the sun appears? Or is it when the whole of the sun’s globe is in sight? Well suppose we say ‘the latter is too late’. But are we in a position to say with absolute precision which of the former the right meaning? Both seem to be in as good a position as the other.

So the choice is to a certain extent arbitrary; we must come to agree on our judgments about it. Take a more common example: a color spectrum. On that spectrum when does yellow become ochre? Or, when does orange become red? There is no sufficiently determinate place that allows us unequivocally to give the right answer to these questions regarding color words.

Does this mean that there is no right answer? No. Does that mean we ought to avoid the use of color predicates? Again: no. Does it mean that we must make agreements in judgment and in practice? Yes. And, of course, we do this all the time. When we want to paint a room in the house we go to the store and get color cards from different paint brands, we see what they are called, how they compare, and so on. And we reach a decision for a specific purpose; how it will suit the furniture; how it contrasts with the curtains; whether it will reflect enough light and so on.

How does this points relate to the criticisms regarding the concept of the spirit of sport and its importance for anti doping? Well, first, conceptual vagueness is hardly unique and is something we overcome in practical situations every single day. What must be considered are the purposes to which wish the concept to be put and then specify them precisely.

This is one aspect that has not been done with sufficient clarity to date and is properly a job for WADA, as it proceeds through its consultative phases for the 2015 Code. I shall indicate how this might better be done below.

Secondly, when people simply assert that what the spirit of sport means is simply a subjective matter, they are simply wrong. One cannot move from the fact that there is an open-texture to the concept so that there are genuine disputes about its meaning, to the conclusion that everyone has their own concept, which is as valid as the next person’s.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein demolished this view in the last century. First, he argued that we cannot simply understand language and meaning as a private phenomenon, there are social rules to each which are necessary. If we each invented our own private meanings how would we ever communicate with each other intelligibly?

The second thing he pointed out was that concepts need not have “essences”. Words like game, sport, education, and so on have many meanings that overlap. They don’t simply have an essence that we can distill as the “real” meaning. This is true of the spirit of sport as it is for the whole of our natural languages. Some scientific discourse avoids this problem by simply prescribing a definition: for example, they might say ‘for the purposes of this study we take X to mean Y or Z. Of course the trouble is then that we sometimes cannot easily compare scientific studies because they define the phenomena they are studying. But the ‘contestedness’ of a concept does not lead to its meaning being relative to every language user or culture. This last insight is particularly important for anti-doping policy.

There are three points that will help anti-doping personnel answer these potential criticisms as unjustified. It can be argued that the spirit of sport is an idea that is interpreted in several ways (just like the concept of ‘sport’ itself). So what some critics of the ‘spirit of sport’ criterion say is that the values that WADA lists simply do not define the concept.

The Code lists the following: Health; Excellence in performance; Character and education; Fun and joy; Teamwork; Dedication and commitment; Respect for rules and laws; Respect for self and other Participants; Courage; Community and solidarity.

Here is the first point then: what the Code says is that these characterize the spirit of sport. I think this is an important conceptual difference and not just word-play. Why? Because whether intentionally or not the Code does not claim to define the spirit of sport. It offers a looser account: a characterization.

Secondly, critics complain that the opposite of (at least some of) the values listed are actually what we witness in sport: illness and injury; cheating and disrespect; cowardice; egoism and so on. One does not need to be a sociologist or psychologist of sport to know that it is true that these negative values and vices do arise in sport everywhere just as their opposites do.

That is to say, sports are about human vices and virtues, but also that benefits and risks may also arise in playing them. And that is little more than saying that sports are human practices and humans are both good and bad. We find the same vices in arts, education, finance, politics and so on. So what?

Thirdly, and closely related, the objection that vices and negative values arise in sports is not an overpowering objection for what I shall propose is a misunderstanding of the function of the spirit of sport criterion.

It is my belief that we cannot understand the notion as a mere description of sport, but rather as an ideal. If we think of it in this way, then we will be faced by heterogeneity; sports just are played differently across the world.

Nevertheless, the values and virtues listed characterize sport at its best: this is what we ought to aim for; these are the positive things that have enshrined sports at their best since their modern re-invention and institutionalization in the 19th century.

This, in short, is what anti doping stands for in large part: to defend an ideal account of sport; one which we can be proud of; which can be a properly educational vehicle; which can be a genuinely positive social force in the world.

And that is why the spirit of sport is an ideal worth defending, and worth retaining at the heart of anti doping policy.

Source: WADA