Virtue or Victory?

Victory in sports is not worth sacrificing virtue.

Posted Sep 30, 2010

The recent news about Alberto Contador testing positive for a banned substance is disheartening for cycling fans, even if he is innocent and the test is due to tainted meat as he claims. I hope Contador is innocent and is telling the truth, but even if he is there will be many who continue to believe that he is guilty. Remember Floyd Landis, they'll say.

But should we even try to regulate the use of performance-enhancing substances in sports? Some favor lifting the bans, but I believe they are important and ought to remain in place. There are many reasons for this, but one is that we should value virtue over victory. On a conventional view, the primary if not sole criterion of athletic excellence is victory. People admire demonstrations of athletic skill that are part of a losing effort, but it is those who win championships that are thought of as truly great athletes. However, I think that athletic excellence as it is conventionally understood, without moral excellence, has very little value.

In his book, The Perfect Mile, Neal Bascomb chronicles the competition between three men--Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee--to be the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. Bannister's success as the first man to break this barrier is well-known, but another feat of excellence was accomplished by the Australian runner John Landy two years after Bannister's record run. During the mile race at the 1956 Australian Championships, Landy was running in third when the second place runner, Ron Clarke, fell to the track as the field of runners jockeyed for position halfway into the third lap. As the rest of the runners pushed on, Landy stopped and checked to see if Clarke was badly hurt. Despite an injury to his arm from Landy's spikes, Clarke said that he was fine and took off after the other runners. Although he had lost 7 seconds and 40 yards, Landy began to sprint in pursuit of the leaders. By the first turn of the final lap, he had gained back 25 yards, and during the last turn he sprinted past the leader to win the race by 12 yards.

Landy's actions demonstrate two kinds of excellence, athletic and moral. Certainly the victory was an act of extraordinary athletic excellence, given the physical and psychological barriers to overcoming such a large gap in an elite-level one-mile race. But it's also clear that Landy's behavior is demonstrative of moral excellence, insofar as he was willing to risk sacrificing victory in order to come to the aid of a fellow athlete. For the virtuous athlete, the opportunity for an act of extraordinary moral excellence that the race provided has far greater value than the opportunity for demonstrating conventional athletic excellence by merely winning the race. Along these lines, Bascomb reports that a journalist at the time called the race Landy's greatest triumph, even though it was not his fastest time, and that he had been a hero on that day to every person sitting in the press box.

If Landy had merely won the race, the events of that day would have had much less value, all else being equal. This shows that conventional athletic excellence has very little value relative to moral excellence.  If winning is all that matters in sports, then athletes and teams would constantly seek out inferior opponents in order to increase the probability of victory (See J. Boxill, ‘Introduction: The Moral Significance of Sport,' in Sports Ethics). They don't do this, and victories over vastly inferior opponents are often seen to be hollow. The fact that it is not a common practice to seek out inferior opponents provides some additional support for the view that conventional athletic excellence has very little value.

Finally, this relates to steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the following way. The main reason that athletes use such substances is to gain or prevent their opponents from gaining a competitive advantage. That is, they do it in order to win. But if the above is right, it suggests that such athletes are sacrificing something of great value, moral excellence, for something of less value, athletic excellence. Athletes who dope are being irrational.

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Also see my previous post, Winning isn't Everything.