Do we need a special type of ethics in elite sport?

Por: Gunnar Breivik.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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Modern elite sport has developed into extreme type of human activity. Elite sport is built on a principle of hard and open competition and on a principle of continuous improvement in performance. In many ways these two ideas combine into an an explosive mixture, where reckless performance enhancement may be the outcome. At the same time modern sport was built on the idea of character development and moral behavior among athletes. The paper discusses whether it is possible to uphold the notion of a morally grounded elite sport or whether elite sport needs another type of morality or even has reached a stage "beyong good and evil".


The paper takes up a meta-ethical topic. The topic will be analysed with the proper philosophical "methods" and tools. These include a clear statement of the problem, defintion of the main concepts, a presentation of good and relevant examples, a thorough analysis of the possible problem solutions, and some tentative conclusions.


The demand for a special ethics in elite sport may be argued in two ways. A) It may be related to the activity itself - the dangerous, the difficult, the extreme aspects of the activity. B) It may be related to the athletes and their life situation - the the amount of training, expectations from the public, physical and psychological stress. The type A problem is duscussed by comparing athletes with painters, sculpturers, musicians, circus acrobats, test pilots, business leaders, rescue personell. The type B problem is discussed by comparing elite sport with war, catastrophes, polar expeditions, space trips. Both types of problems may lead to two different attitudes. 1) An attitude of moral heroism where alite athletes are supposed to be moral role models. 2) An attitude of moral laxness or moral exemption, where athletes are allowed to be instrumental and pragmatic in their behavior.


The problems are discusssed in relation to a wider social context. Sport is part of a society where we have a sectorized morality. This means that we expect higher moral standards from an elite athlete compared with a circus acrobat. There are arguments, like the Kantian, which lead to common moral standards for all people. Ethical demands must be universal in their scope. They must encompass all people in the same way. Another way of reasoning leads to an acceptance of different moral sectors in society. Elite sport is in many ways at a crossroad and it is not clear where it will go in the future.



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