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The Olympics Are Unfair Because They Reflect Life

There is no such thing as "normal" in sport or any other arena.

Key points

  • People exist on a continuum.
  • "Normal" is a placeholder concept that doesn't truly apply to anything but only reinforces stereotypes.
  • Efforts to create fairness prejudices the performance of those who are "outliers."

The idea of fairness in the Olympics seems grounded on the idea that hard work and effort surpass everything. We want to pretend that it's the effort that goes into the work that leads to success, not that someone has some inherent predisposing factors like physical stamina, height, weight, circulating hormones, or faster reflexes, that give them some sort of apparent advantage. The fairness notion helps support the false narrative that if we all just tried hard enough maybe we could be Olympians, too. Or if not us, someone like us who serves as our proxy could scale Olympus for us. But we would desperately need them to conform to our understanding of "normal."

Humans Exist on a Continuum

Yet this approach is inherently unfair and leads to discrimination and bias. Was anyone complaining when Michael Phelps with his absurdly huge skeleton was winning multiple gold medals at every swimming competition he entered? Caster Semenya has a higher level of testosterone than is typical, and many have suggested that she shouldn’t compete with such an unfair “advantage," the advantage being her inherent physiology.

We all want fairness, whether it's in daily life or sporting competition. The term "level playing field" is used in regular conversation to capture this idea of equity and supposed meritocracy. Central to the idea of fairness is the regulation and catching of those who would cheat or seek an advantage against others. Those are all motivations for trying to use technology and other resources to make sure that the correct calls and decisions are made.

Yet regulators can become so focused on trying to catch folks who are gaming the system they have forgotten sport is all about playing a game. The emphasis is on how things look rather than how things work. Where sport should be about substance over style, it's instead about style over substance.

Biological Normal Does Not Exist

The continuum of human abilities is something I spent a lot of time thinking about when I was writing Chasing Captain America and exploring deliberate modifications of human biology in order to amplify human performance. I strongly argued that there's no such thing as biological “normal." If you truly look at various features of human performance, you can see that there's a huge range of expression of just about everything, and there are outliers. "Normal" is a placeholder for "average" and the term is used to reinforce stereotyped expectations.

Just because something is improbable doesn't make it impossible. An outlier value of a certain hormone, for example, doesn't have to be treated as if it were a drug taken to artificially enhance performance.

People are different. Normal doesn't exist.

If you want to be truly fair about the level of whatever is in somebody's blood or in their muscles or in their brain or in their bones or in their skin, then we need to monitor them from a very young age and create a passport so we know what their actual naturally occurring ranges are. We can't later on arbitrarily take a measurement and then say someone is an outlier and has to take a drug to suppress something that we think gives them an unfair advantage.

The Hypocrisy of Equity

This is especially a problem given the hypocrisy of there not being somebody present, for example, when Michael Phelps was swimming in the pool as a young boy — someone who could say that he had to have one arm tied behind his back because of his incredibly, improbably large frame, or someone making Usain Bolt pull a tire down the track because of his outlandish geometry and muscle physiology.

It's not okay to be racist or sexist or misogynistic or transgenderist against people just because we think we can put them in a box we created called "normal" and then insist that enforcing that standard makes for fair competition. We really want to get this down to something we all think we can control, which we believe to be our own effort rather than what is occurring around us.

But is that really the way life works? Even it were, I think we really rather want to imagine something better, not something worse, when we watch sport, especially the Olympics. We are the product of our nature and our nurture and the only way to move equitably forward is to stop pretending there’s a true normal that's really just a veneer for stereotypes, bias, and discrimination.

© E. Paul Zehr (2021)