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Ask The Experts

Unpacking the Ethics of Sport

Three CPASS professors — Ed Etzel, professor, Sport and Exercise Psychology, and director of the Center for Sports Ethics; Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, associate professor, Athletic Coaching Education, and director of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science; and Gonzalo Bravo, associate professor, Sport Management — discuss some of the most fundamental questions raised in sports ethics today. How and why must sport be protected, and what are we actually protecting it from? 

On a fundamental level, why should we protect sport?

Dieffenbach: Sport has a tremendous, long-recognized power to unify people and bring out the best. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, based the modern games on the positive potential of sport. But the potential positives don’t happen automatically and aren’t as much a byproduct of sport itself as they can only occur when we work together. You need collaboration for competition — a shared set of rules, values and standards. Without opponents and without teammates, sport cannot occur. We know that quality physical activity, which can occur through sport, improves physical as well as mental well-being. It can also provide a way to share culture, communicate without a common language and to promote diversity.

Within a modern, diverse, digital society, how do we protect the integrity of global sport in contexts such as the Olympics?

Bravo: To fight corruption and bad practices inside sport organizations requires not only education and cooperation, but also major structural changes among the governance of these organizations. The governance of many Olympic sport organizations is outdated. The latest report on sport corruption published in 2016 by Transparency International recommends a series of reforms to global sport organizations. Among these reforms include to elect officials by open vote, elect executive members, separate commercial operations from administrative operations and increase gender balance in the board of directors. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations have not been fully adopted inside many international governing bodies. Therefore, it is expected that similar outdated practices still reign inside many national governing bodies across the world. Real change inside the governance of Olympic organizations will require a much more complex and deep surgery.

Etzel: Promoting and protecting the integrity of sport is a major challenge. Ultimately, the [International Olympic Committee] IOC is responsible for this. However, it is up to everyone — [national governing bodies] NGBs, administrators, coaches, athletes — to do whatever the right things are to follow the rules (on and off the field), foster fair play, promote sportspersonship and encourage honest competition that involves athletes from all corners of the world.

How can organizations deal with issues like doping and match-fixing?

Bravo: To effectively fight these problems, there is a need to cooperate at a global level, not only among sport organizations, but also among major intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union and UNESCO. In many instances, some of these issues, like match-fixing, are tightly associated with the organized crime. Sport organizations by themselves are not only short on resources, but also lack the expertise and the legal authority to adequately tackle these problems.

Dieffenbach: Most importantly, athletes, coaches and others need to be trained and given the resources and tools needed to stand up to doping, to make the best choices and compete clean. Organizations like WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and USADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, do great work and have many programs and resources that can be used across levels of sport.

Was there a turning point that had a major impact on the integrity of global sport?

Bravo: In the context of Olympic sports, the bid scandal associated with the candidature of Salt Lake City to host the Winter Olympics in 2002 marked a tipping point in the history of Olympic governance. At that time, six IOC officials were found guilty of accepting bribes from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. This case resulted in the [International Olympic Committee] IOC incorporating changes in the composition of its membership.

Dieffenbach: The Festina Scandal in 1998 that occurred during and after the Tour de France that year had a huge impact on the world of sport. It was part of the buildup of events that culminated in the 1999 meeting at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, that lead to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Code adopted by over 600 sports organizations and the creation of WADA.

Etzel: Awareness of Soviet Bloc country use of [performance enhancing drugs] PEDs such as steroids and stimulants going back into the 1950s and 60s seem to have been early wake-up calls.

What has already been done to protect sport?

Dieffenbach: While there are clear-cut lines in some cases, most issues surrounding doping actually have some grey. When is it performance enhancing, and when is it doping? It is essential that these issues are talked about and that both the clear-cut rights and wrongs, as well as the reasons why they are discussed at all levels (parent, athlete, coaches, administration as well as level of competition), are understood. The gray areas need to be discussed clearly and with the focus of building and enhancing the skills necessary for both moral reasoning and building the skills to stand by one’s reasoning and convictions.

Etzel: I would add that the positive values associated with sport need to be taught early on and emphasized over time. Those who oversee Olympic sport need to help others move way from the “win at nearly any cost” mentality. Serious, consistent consequences for cheating must be provided to those who intentionally violate the rules. For example, the removal of large numbers of athletes from Olympic-level sport in 2016 who intentionally, and systematically, violated PED use rules was justified. Administrators overseeing such behavior need to be removed. Frankly, and sadly, I don’t have a lot of hope for this stuff given the money involved and pervasiveness of corruption.

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