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Competitive sport will never be fair

It’s often been said that competitive sport is an arena for the world to indulge their war-mongering urges without an inordinate fear of dying. And barring certain events such as the Isle of Man TT, it is mostly true. Just like war, competitive sport allows the masses to work themselves into a frenzy and feel superior to those they’re competing against if they win (even if they themselves did not put in the required effort for the victory), while flying a flag.

War, however, as strange as it sounds, has a better chance of ever being fair than competitive sport. This is because a completely righteous war (which thus far perhaps only exists in the realm of theory) would involve surgically applying justice across borders against those who have given up their own human rights in the international community by taking the human rights of others. Global policing, in other words. In such an instance, it does not matter if those applying the justice have superior might. In fact, it is preferable for the victorious side to have more power as it ensures an easier victory which minimises messy collateral damage. Think laser-guided bombs, for example. The focus in war is not supposed to be on making one side look better than the other, but rather to protect rights.

Sport on the other hand, cannot rely on a morality defence, as instead entertainment and recognition are the two main incentives. And because of that, the need for fairness in competition is emphasised. Sadly though, for as long as we are human, competitive sport cannot be fair — mostly due to the “small” factor of genetics, along with other factors such as finances, geographical locations and education.

Something that astounds without fail is the fuss that gets made about things like doping and gender (for example Caster Semenya) in sport, while all of the other factors mentioned above are ignored. Perhaps because it presents an easy target to latch onto and isolate, performance enhancing substance usage in sport gets all the press. But why doesn’t the public and media latch onto things like the genetic advantage (within their gender) an athlete might have, or how much financial backing for training and diet an athlete gets, or how some athletes were encouraged solely into a certain sport from birth?

To put things into exaggerated perspective: a four-foot tall cripple who is blind, has eaten only rice all day, his whole life, has to travel far from home to train and did not have any encouragement in a sporting direction from birth, can pump themselves as full of anabolic steroids or growth hormone as is humanly possible and train as hard as they like but they will never, ever, win the 100m sprint Olympic final.

Huge emphasis was put on Caster Semenya’s manly physique — characterised by large muscles, putting her gender into question. But what if no discrepancy in her sexual organs was found? What if she was simply an unusually muscular woman? Her advantage would remain exactly the same against her fellow athletes. Yet the same advantage would be treated in two different ways by the international community, depending on the outcome of her gender testing. Doesn’t anybody find that ridiculous? And while we’re on the subject, did anybody SEE the previous women’s 800m star, Maria Mutola? Where were the questions about her gender?

Certain sports have attempted to level the playing field even further by allocating weight divisions such as boxing and weightlifting. Again, this only very superficially enforces fairness. Two boxers of the same weight and size are not inherently evenly matched. One of them may be genetically superior and win because of it, despite the other one having worked just as hard, if not harder, in their preparation. It is known that muscle strength or power can improve with a cross-sectional size increase but only within the limits of the quality of muscle fibre present. Accordingly, a muscle can have less explosive power than somebody else’s muscle of identical size, thanks to the presence of less fast-twitch muscle fibres. Size doesn’t always count.

Genetic discrepancies in musculature are only one example in a long list of variable factors which will never allow competitive sport to be truly fair. So, as much as I can enjoy the spectacle of sport and appreciate all the genuine hard work that does go into it, it will always be a guilty pleasure for me as I know it to be based on a farce. People within “real” professional sport have a lot to say about the staging involved in entertainment wrestling but perhaps they should take a closer look at the underlying similarities with their own sport.

Just as the hardest workers in life will not necessarily be the wealthiest, those who show the most dedication in sport will not necessarily be victorious. Unlike the rest of life though, the point of competitive sport is to judge by who has the most (is victorious). And that can never be fair.


  • Bernard Allen

    Bernard Allen is passionate about justice, logic, humour, and the arts.