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Alois Koch SJ
With All Means To Success?
Ethical Reflections on Top-Performance Sports

(Published in: Forum Kirche und Sport. Düsseldorf 1994, P. 75 - 91)
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

German Version

 

Contents

I.    Introduction
II.  The Problem: Production of Top-Performance
III. The Image of Man of our Society
IV. The Christian Image of Man and - based on it
     - the Evaluation of Top-Performance Sport
V.  Conclusions
VI. Notes

 

I. Introduction into the Topic

Some time ago {1} I took part in an academy conference on the topic: "Sporting Top-Performance - How Is It Produced - And At Which Price?" It was shocking for me to see how the topic was understood to a large extent in one sense only - and thus misunderstood. The tenor of the contributions was: How much money has to be invested by associations, Federal Government and Lands for the production of sporting top-performance? How is the top-performance honoured? How much money is earned thereby by active sportswomen, physicians, psychologists, coaches, and functionaries? There was hardly spoken about another "price" that we pay for a "value". How much does top-performance cost humanly? How much does the society, and the top-performance sportswomen "pay" for it, not in DM and dollar, but in another "currency"? Does here Heinrich Böll's bad word apply: "Germans ask not after the price."?

By that we are at our topic. I will make an ethical evaluation, a "pricing". I will comment upon the question whether we are actually allowed to pay the "price", the "human" price, which we, i.e.

 


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our society, pay for top-performances in reality. Whether it is correct, whether it is justifiable to pay it in view of human dignity; whether we do not support by it something that, due to many precarious consequences, does not deserve this expenditure and this effort; whether we will (if we want that sporting top-performance) not necessarily pay for it with a loss of humanity. Does the good purpose "sporting success" (presupposed it is really "good"!) sanctify all means on the way to this aim?

Hence I will closely scrutinize the actual conditions and behaviours within the area of top-performance sports (its "ethos"), and I will examine their authorization, their correctness; I will do thus "ethics". Of course, there will always and everywhere be a gap between "ethos" and "ethics". But it seems to me to be very deep in today's top-performance sports, indeed.

The "question about the price" of the sporting top-performance seems to be indeed a "prize question". For everywhere is spoken of the fact that the ethical problem is extremely important; but one could regrettably not answer this question because one were not an ethics philosopher, but "only" a physician, psychologist, teacher, or coach. That means nevertheless: Before one has clarified the question whether one is allowed to do something or not, one has usually stepped into action already. Only after one had built and used the atom bomb, one asked whether it was correct to build and to use it. Only after one had already gone ahead on the way

 


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of genetic engineering, one asked on which matter one had embarked. Our time is - that becomes increasingly clearer - characterized "by technical power and ethical powerlessness" {2}. It seems to be the fate of the ethics philosopher always to lose the race with technology, with power, and with the market; to come always too late. He is not a magician, who can banish again the ghost that had been long before called by many magicians' apprentices. He may not allow to be pressed into the role of a stopgap, and to offer "repair ethics", hence ethics which does not determine the doing and acting of man undoubtedly, but which is called when the matter proves to be inevitable. Nevertheless I will dare the answer to the "prize question". Since I do not get any wages or expense allowances from the sports area, I can do it without dislocations and regards.

 

II. The Problem Field: Production of Top-Performance

First I would like to make some notes to the problem field, to the "production" of sporting top-performance. To the systematized training, to the contest and to the bodily stress connected with it, two medical professionals shall get a hearing; first the orthopaedist Groher: "high and top-performance sports, but also mass sports are subjected ... to developments that to all appearances cause early changes of the carriage and kinetic

 


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apparatus, which are equivalent to a general degeneration." {3} Then I quote the judgement of the sport physician Krahl: "In most sporting disciplines top-performances are only achieved after heaviest training work over months and years; in certain cases one feels automatically reminded of material abrasion tests in the industry." {4} The final product is, as everybody knows, scrap material.

As far as the pharmacological medicated manipulation is concerned I can confine myself to some catchwords. Today is chiefly concerned the use of anabolic steroids and similar active substances. The application of both, the synthesized as well as the body-own testosterone, in a clearly increased dosage has serious negative side effects. Mentioned are time and again possible liver damage up to liver tumours, increasingly arising chord ruptures, and above all damages of the heart musculature, which reminds "from the pathological appearance of the cells of micro infarcts" {5}.

By men one warns of a "pharmacological castration"; by women irreversible appearances of virility will emerge; by young people there is danger of a growth stop. In this connection I would like to point at other forms of manipulation: the manipulation of the adult size by means of hormone gifts; re-transfusion of one's own blood, and the use of erythropoietin, which stimulates the formation of the red blood corpuscles; the so-called "pregnancy doping"; the application

 


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of diuretics, and the boundless area of nutrition suitable for sportswomen. Which technologies and new ways of manipulation will be possible in the future cannot be foreseen yet, even if they are provided and legitimized with the playing down label "substitution".

 

III: The View of the Human in Modern Society

I have told you some of the means and methods that play a role today by the "production" of sporting top-performance. We all have thereby a bad feeling: Are all of them meaningful or necessary? Would we, if we were top-performance sportswomen ourselves, accept such manipulations and substitutions or even let them happen on us? We all agree however with this probably: the bad feeling alone is not sufficient for the refusal, also not the reference to the "well-being" and "dignity" of the athletes, or to "humanity". Not only formal criteria are needed but also material, i.e. with regard to the contents, for an ethical evaluation of the practices mentioned.

The actual ethical problem is not that by such manipulations, respectively technologies, the sporting top-performance is no longer the "result of the sporting engaged person's own contribution", hence that the sportswoman is degraded to an "object of manipulation" {6} - which is certainly often the case. To be able to see through all the things that are practised, the athlete and her/his coach

 


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had to be fully trained physicians! Anyhow, the criterion of "self-regard" and of "direct responsibility" is not sufficient; because otherwise the deliberate and answered for self-manipulation, and also the conscious acceptance of health damage would be ethically justified.

The ethical main problem is also not that those who use such doubtful methods offend against equal opportunities and honesty in the competition, and have so the edge on those who do not use such means. That is probably also the case. Almost every top-class sportswoman depends on medical support; in some way she/he will always need the "substitution" of some body substances. And finally the equal opportunities could also be achieved by a general release of the questionable means and methods. Why actually not? From the view of sporting success it is only consequent. Besides: If one wants to ruin oneself (so one could argue), then one may just do it! Those who want to get sporting honours have to know in which affair they engaged, and which health price they have, if necessary, to pay for it! Yes, is that not even wanted, expected, and therefore legitimized by the society?

In my opinion the central ethical question is: From which value horizon, from which sense draft of human existence do we proceed in our life, and also in sport? Each educational

 


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practice and theory, each ethics is based on a certain view of the human being, and its life sense. Also all concrete standards in a society are based on such a value system. All standards are "relative" in the actual sense, i.e. related to and derived from a certain basic view.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers stated these facts once so: "That view of the human being that we regard as the true one will become a factor of our life. It will decide the ways of our dealing with us and with our fellow human beings, the life decisions, and the choice of tasks." {7}

From which sense-draft of human existence, from which value horizon are justified in our society the high (not only health-) dangers and risks within the area of high-performance sports? Does a high-performance sportswoman, whether of age or still a child, have a right to self-realization at such a high price, namely health impairment for life? Is the sporting success, the social ascent that is made possible thereby, or the securing of the material existence such a justification? Should one, if necessary, approve of or even promote - for the sake of medical research - such a development, perhaps with public funds even? Is the "technical feasibility" of the sporting top-performance with the help of the physician already a sufficient justification? Is it allowed - even if all damage possibilities are excluded,

 


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and the support in educational, psychological and medical regard is optimal - to lead human beings to the top-performance sports, and to pin them down to it, at least temporary?

There has to be asked the question which view of man has our sport and our society, and which value horizon is represented by them. By all means one has to agree with Ommo Grupe, chief ideologist of the German sport federation, when he represents the view that "the question about the 'view of man'... may not remain limited to the Christian churches", because "there is something like an own 'view of man', that can be won from the sport" {8}. Well, from my knowledge of literature I cannot see such a draft - except that dire biological respectively Darwinist 'view of man', for which the individual is only a replaceable quantity, because the individual has its place behind humankind. And this thinking reminds me in a fatal way of past "great times".

In this connection I would like to draw your attention to the following point. It is nevertheless remarkable that in the discussions about sport-specific problems the "sympathizers" (if one were malicious, one would call them "fundamentalists") are often among themselves only. Discussion participants who are outside the system, and challenge the system of top-performance sports as such, are apparently unwanted; they remain "outsiders". Hence one has mostly to do with people who, according to their own statement, live "for" the sport.

 


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Yet, as a rule, the people in question do not only live "for" the sport, but usually also "on" the sport; hence they have an elementary, often or usually a material interest in the sport - whether it refers now to athletes, functionaries, sport physicians or sports journalists.

According to Karl Marx the material basis changes, as you know, the awareness of man. From "lobbyists" one can expect only an endorsement, if necessary a partial criticism. In no case the "overall system" will be questioned. Is my impression wrong that mostly not the "holy goods" of the sport are concerned, but quite substantial personal "interests", usually of a material kind; often also the grooming of personal vanities - not only by sport leaders, but also by politicians, yes, even up to "presidents"?

Just this amalgam of quite entitled requests of the sport with personal ambitions and interests, all the more the disguising of these personal interests by the indisputable positive sides and possibilities, unmasks in my opinion the sport system as an ideology, as a kind "totalitarianism"; it unmasks above all the functionaries as "nomenclatura", as a power clique, which is keen on the keeping of its privileges. The athletes are thereby the useful idiots who are kept in good mood by appropriate gratuities. I mean, it is time to realize this (also the duplicity to the political current events), at least to be watchful in this regard.

 


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IV. The Christian View of the Human, and Based On It the Evaluation of Top-Performance Sports

By this I come to the next point of my explanations. On the basis of the Christian 'sense draft' I will try an ethical evaluation of top-performance sport, especially of the various forms of performance manipulation.

The Christian ethics proceeds from an insight which is fundamental for it: Human beings - with their limitations and questionableness, with their real fears and needs - will only then be understood rightly, when one sees their relation to an absolute, to an unconditioned being. Each man has such an absolute entity, to which she/he refers, at least actually. This absolute entity can, according to the Christian viewpoint, not be world-immanent, because each world-immanent reality is characterized by its questionableness and limitation. This absolute being must be transcendental, hence not identical with any inner-worldly given being. The Bible speaks therefore of man as a being that is created according to the "image of God". Hence man carries the reference to the infinite God in itself. By this is also said: man cannot understand and design itself only by itself, by world-immanent conditions, but from a point of reference, from an absolute value, which "therefore transcends" it and this world, and is thereby also not at its disposal, and cannot be manipulated by it.

 


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Any world view and anthropology has such an absolute reference point, from which everything is seen and also relativized. This point of reference does no longer stand at one's disposal; it is accepted; it "is believed". That is the case with each man. The question is not, whether I believe or not. The question is only in which I believe, namely in this sense: What is accepted by me as something "absolute"? Towards the being, in which I "believed" in this sense, I will lose my liberty; it is no longer at my disposal; it is out of the question. If it is a world-immanent value, even something material, then I am no longer free toward it. We experience this loss of liberty everywhere today; one speaks e.g. of the "consumer idiot", who is enslaved by its longings for happiness. But also other "absolute values", as e.g. enjoying life, are chosen by man and adored. Each man will pray before some altar. The question is only, whom or what it adores on this altar.

That applies also to sport. Which "gods" are venerated in the modern sport as "absolute"? Before which idols say the modern gladiators, have they to say: "Ave Ceasar, morituri te salutant - we are ready to ruin us for you, to die, to be sacrificed, to be sent to the slaughter"? Is money this idol? Is it the ideology of a class or a state? Is it the Olympic idea? Is it only the own Ego? But one should consider:

 


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These conditions, these idols are unable to take over which they would actually have to take over, namely the redeeming function in view of the wretchedness and questionableness of the world, and the own existence.

With this reference a second fundamental "principle" of the Christian reality is linked. Humans get "redemption" and "salvation" not due to their own doing, their performance. In view of the plight in world and society we are not condemned to self-redemption, we are not to make the sense of life, and we are not condemned to a Sisyphos existence. Nobody pulls her/himself at the own hair out of the swamp of this doubtful world.

The basic words of Christianity are therefore "mercy", "love" and "grace". Here is the fundamental difference between the Christian message, and the (actual) way our society sees itself, and therewith also the sport. Its basic word is "performance" and "success". The characterization of top-performance sports as "cult of the industrial religion", as Henning Eichberg once appropriately said {9}, shows how here two competitive value systems face each other, two different "religions" - "religion" understood as the decision of people regarding the question about the sense of life. The sport in our society gives such a sense answer, at least actually. This sense answer is doubtful; in my opinion it is wrong. The value of a human being can never be read from success, from the result, from the presentable performance.

 


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The value, the dignity, and the inviolability of the human being are ultimately kept and saved only by their transcendental relation. A system which plays with the health ruin, yes, that almost with necessity accepts health ruin as consequence, that permits, respectively promotes inhumane practices, is ethically doubtful; it has no right of a 'room of grace', and not at all a right of promotion by public means. The sport system has still to prove its moral value.

 

V. Conclusions

I come to a concluding evaluation and to the consequences. The trend towards perfecting the sporting performance and towards physical strain cannot be ignored. Symptoms for it are the training methods, the unbelievable training intensity; not least the necessity for a comprehensive sport-medical and psychological support of the top-performance sportswoman up to the various forms and methods of pharmacological medicated manipulation. With the absolute Yes to the international performance comparison - of that I am convinced - is necessarily connected the Yes to the comprehensive support. Here meanwhile a value order becomes visibly which makes inner worldly conditions to absolute values, to which with logical consequence everything else is subordinated, also moral, fairness, and health, and ultimately man itself. Thus the ground of the ethically justifiable is abandoned. Are our sport organizations, above all is our society ready, to upset those idols?

 


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But to reject the various forms and methods of the pharmacological medicated performance manipulation and the indispensable medical support of the top-performance sportswoman, and at the same time to demand the international performance comparison, is the foolish, the hopeless attempt of achieve the impossible.

Here however becomes clear: the actual starting point for the solution of the problem of the pharmacological medicamentous manipulation, but also of the other doubtful tendencies in today's top-performance sport cannot consist in the treatment of symptoms, not in an optimization of the methods. In my opinion it can only consist in the fact that the top-performance sports loses the high value, which is awarded to it in today's social awareness. The socially caused value conceptions of sporting success, but also their underlying view of man, need urgently a correction. The prohibition e.g. of the different forms of chemo-manipulation remains ineffective and mendacious without this correction. But I am convinced, this is an ethical demand that will remain "utopia" - i.e. it will not become reality. The development will go on to a still greater inhumanity. Under the laws of the market, to which the sport is devoted, the question of manipulation and doping is not solvable.

I want to close with a quotation: "After all, it is a strange world in which we live. If we had more understanding for that which belongs to true human beings, then the high expenditures for some few top athletes would benefit the promotion of health and well-being of all citizens, and not lead to the health ruin of some few people."

 


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This quotation is a free but corresponding translation of a sentence from a letter which the king of the East Goths Theoderich let write by his minister Cassiodor nearly 1500 years ago {10}. There is alluded to the so-called "venatores", the "hunters" of animal chases in the late antiquity, which enjoyed highest popularity by the people. The same Theoderich let write Cassiodor in another letter, which deals with similar "spectacles": "In God's name, we will give the necessary money. It is completely crazy. But only if one does something crazy, one can keep people by good mood." {11} How said already Cohelet, the preacher of the Old Testament: "There is nothing new under the sun." {12}

 


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VI. Notes

{1}) In principle: The lecture form is consciously maintained. For the reader the necessary notes are added.

{2} B. Crum, Kinder-Leistungssport zwischen Selbstverwirklichung und Ausbeutung; in: H. Howald und E. Hahn (Hrsg.), Kinder im Leistungssport; Basel 1982, S. 202.

{3} W. Groher und W. Noack (Hrsg.), Sportliche Belastungsfähigkeit des Haltungs- und Bewegungsapparates; Stuttgart 1982, Vorwort.

{4} H.J.Appell, Anabolika und muskuläre Systeme; Schorndorf 1983, S. 90.

{5} H. Krahl, Orthopädie und Sportmedizin; in: A. Claus (Hrsg.), Sportärztliche und sportpädagogische Betreuung; Erlangen 1978, S. 209.

{6} cf. "Stellungsnahme der Wissenschaftlichen Kommission des Arbeitskreises Kirche und Sport in der Katholischen Kirche Deutschlands zu der Frage der medizinischen und pharmakologischen Leistungssteigerung im Sport"; (Statement of the scientific commission of the working group 'Church and Sport' in the Catholic Church of Germany to the question of the medical and pharmacological performance increase in the sports)
in: P. Jakobi und H. E. Rösch (Hrsg.), Sport - Dienst an der Gesellschaft; Mainz 1977, S. 111.

{7} K. Jaspers, Der philosophische Glaube; München 1974, S. 50.

 


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{8} O. Grupe, Bewegung, Spiel und Leistung im Sport; Schorndorf 1982, S. 11f.

{9} By a lecture in the Evangelical Academy Bad Segeberg in the year 1987.

{10} Cassiodor, Variae V. 42, 12.

{11} Cassiodor, Variae III. 51,13.

{12} Pred. 1,9.

 

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