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Alois Koch SJ
Against the Unchaining of the Victory Code
Ethical Notes on Sport

From: Diakonia, number 4, July 2005, P. 242-46
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

German version


There is no value neutrality of sports. Which values does sport follow? Which values is it to follow? Play, leisure and development of one's personality are elements of the sport from which system-immanent guidelines of sport ethics can be won. From Christianity it is out of the question that sport as inner-worldly objective is made absolute.

It is a general conviction that sport is an important health factor. The various efforts to realize "health programs" are not only privately legitimized by this conviction but also in school and society. Indeed, in the modern industrial society sporting activities can make an important contribution for keeping people healthy. At the same time doubtful tendencies in sports can be seen, when e.g. in the so-called "adventure sports" risks for life and health are accepted. In view of the problems appearing in the area of top-performance sports the question of the ethical standards has all the more to be asked.

"That view of man that we realize to be the true one becomes a factor of our life. It determines the ways of our dealing with us and our fellow men, our life regulation and the choice of our tasks." {1} This statement of Karl Jaspers applies also to sport. Any educational theory and practice, but also any ethics is always rooted in a corresponding view of man and of its sense of life - all the more so the concrete ethical standards. They are "relative" in a real sense, i.e. related to a certain view of man.


The question about the view of man is fundamental, yes, indispensable for any ethical evaluation. Hence first some characteristics of the Christian view of man are to be pointed out here and the ethical guidelines resulting from them. These guidelines allow us to realize today's positive importance of play and sport in a manner inherent in the system; but they also clearly show the inhumane tendencies in the modern sport movement, which can hardly be justified. These "system-transcending" guidelines want to invite today's sport movement to ask the question about its model, its value horizon. This question cannot and may not be suspended,



as it occasionally happens with reference to the ideological neutrality of sport. There is by no means any "value neutrality" of sports. Hence its "constants" are always to be considered anew.


Play, Leisure and Development of one's Personality

The element of "playing" undoubtedly belongs to the sporting activity. Like laughter and weeping playing is an "act of expression", by which the internal feelings become visible and recognizable. People present themselves by playing. In the play they reveal their own nature. Playing is an "activity out of an internal need, out of the impetus of being alive" {2}. From it results also that the sporting physical exercises, if they want to be "play", are not exercises of the body alone. As criterion of an ethical valuation can be formulated therefore:

    If and as far as people succeed in play and sporting activity to present their own nature spontaneously and with direct responsibility, sporting activities are recommendable.
    But if and as far as outward aims, which are foreign to play and sporting activity, impair the spontaneous and direct responsible self-expression of people or even make it impossible, the sporting activity is ethically dubious.

A second ethical guideline proceeds from the element of "work" opposite to the element of "leisure". These two elements of human activity do not mean two separate times in the human existence. Any human activity, where and as far as it brings into play the whole human being and concerns it, is at the same time "working" and "artistically inclined". But today the fields of man's activity have become "less artistically inclined", because the spontaneous and creative abilities are no longer in the foreground. They have often become "work only", in the sense of the realization of a given task, and in the sense of functionalism. The sporting play has its own mixture of "work" and "leisure". Therefore a possible shift within the sport to "work only", in the sense of a total external control, planning, instrumentalization (misusing sport as instrument) and functionalism has to be seen as crucial negative characteristic. From there results a further standard of valuation for sporting activities:

    If and as far as people succeed in realizing in play and sporting activities a reconciliation of "leisure" and "work" sporting activities are recommendable.
    But if and as far as outside aims and purposes hinder the "artistic inclination" of play and sport, i.e. let it become "work only", namely in the sense of an extensive, yes, total external control, instrumentalization and functionalism, the sporting activity is dubious.

The conviction that such effects as promotion of health, opening up of the vital and experience sphere, and development of the human personality are normally connected with sport, this conviction is the basis of the matter-of-course educational view, to grant the sport an important place in the education of young people.



But if it is certain that these effects are not due to an arbitrary objective only, but are "immanent" to physical exercises and sport, then one can draw the conclusion from this fact that sport may by no means be done in a way that will lead to the abolition of these undisputed positive effects. That human behaviour is morally justified depends therefore on the fact that it does - in the long run and seen on the whole -, not undermine the value striven for by it - in our case: bodily health and development of the human personality -, and thus contradicts it. From here a further guideline for the sporting activities can be formulated:

    If sport serves the health and the creative self-realization of human beings, it is recommendable.
    But if sport leads with high probability, yes, to some extent inevitably to the damage of health and to an impairment of the personality development, and thus to the abolition of the "immanent" values striven for by it, it is ethically dubious.

The so far outlined valuation criteria are of an "immanent" kind. They result from the nature of play and sport. The fourth "guideline" is not part of the system and proceeds from the following fact: Each world view has an absolute point of reference, from which everything is seen and relativized. This point of reference is no longer at one's disposal. It "is believed" in a real sense. For the Christian understanding of human nature the conviction is fundamental that it is referred to a transcendental absolute being. The sense of life, respectively the own identity depend on this point of reference. From the relation of human beings to a transcendental absolute being the following ethical guideline is derived:

    If in modern sport a sense draft of human existence gains recognition that subordinates the other values of human life to sporting performance or sporting success, or makes these values impossible, yes, even moves the sporting performance into the proximity of an absolute value, it becomes ethically dubious.


Problem Field Top-Performance Sports

As naturally and well-founded the (ethical) demand for a sufficient body and health care with the help of sport today is, just as precarious are some developments, the effects of which come more and more to light. They can be seen not only in top-performance sports. The problem fields of commercialization of sport and of making it an ideology, and not least the environmental problems just caused by the so-called "leisure and adventure sport", can be seen also in the mass sports.

The danger of manipulation in top-performance sports cannot be missed: the athletes depend on the assistance of a whole team of coaches, doctors, psychologists, masseuses/masseurs etc.

That means in many cases the subordination of one's own will under the regulations of a specialist. The dosage of the training, the sport-medical support and the psychological preparation are often no longer transparent for the sportswomen.



This dependence is usually intended and freely chosen. But the question is whether one can also ethically answer for such a free-intended dependence. Does one consider the consequences for life and health of often not yet major athletes? Who can make for them these long-range decisions? The "personal attribution" of the sporting performance, and the answered for co-designing of the training by athletes of age, from which time and again is talked, are only conditionally true. "In the top-performance sports there are very small chances for the development of a self-determined identity." {3}

Meanwhile the health risks of the top-performance sports are more serious. It moves in the biological, yes in the "pathogen frontier" {4}; it "exceeds - negligently or consciously - the border of the sanitary usable, respectively justifiable things" {5}. The performance-motivated athlete is "in constant danger to overcharge her/his body locally or completely" {6}.

Not least the problem appears in the pharmacological medicated manipulation. Catchwords for this endangerment are: the abuse of anabolic steroids, the blood doping, and the different forms of substitution, the manipulation of the adult size and for the future above all the genetic manipulation. This everywhere appearing "doping deviation" is obviously "the result of an unchaining of the victory code by scientific, political, and economic and mass media influences" {7}. But just these structural obligations, and thus the social context, are usually faded out. The doping offences are personalized. The individual athlete is stamped as a scapegoat. The "system" is released from its responsibility.{8}.


A Question of Social Awareness

But for the fatal development are not only those responsible who are directly engaged in sport. It is the mental climate in our society that prepares the fertile soil. Therefore the future of the sport will depend on a change of the social awareness. Otherwise the trend to a pure commercialized show sport will increase, to which health and personal self-realization of the athlets is subordinated. This commercialized, health ignoring show sport becomes then the new "opiate for the people": it has to stun the emptiness of existence and to cloud the clear awareness of it.

The apparent problems in today's sport are intensified by an increasing commercialization, but also by the influence of the media. In view of the enormous sums of money just the negative consequences for the health of the athletes are too fast accepted. Thus, under the laws of the market, the doping problem becomes increasingly difficult, and the liaison between sport and electronic media promotes performance fetishism and star cult. The traditional ideals of the sport are anyhow long dead and yielded to the total medium spectacle.



Also the often cited model function of the top-performance sports is to be questioned.

These problems were perhaps solvable, if the decision makers in sport and society were ready to take notice of these problems, and not to play them down from self-interests. Since these self-interests are mostly identical with privileges and material bonuses, the imperative change of awareness is hardly to be expected. Just the discussions about the different forms of hormone doping confirm this estimate. Whoever pursued the sport-medical and training-scientific literature in the past thirty years is shocked by the complete absence of conclusions out of the scientific findings concerning the evaluation of top-performance sports.

The assistance that can be offered to the sport by the Christian ethics is above all the insight that a human being can never draft itself from itself or from inner-worldly realities, but only from a transcendental reference point. Only from there it becomes clear that no man may be degraded by subordinating it to an inner-worldly objective, and by regarding it as a means to an end. It can neither be "used" to establish an inner-worldly ideology, nor can it be subordinated to an educating system, nor to the dictate of money, performance and science.

It is out of question that within the range of the modern sport inhumane tendencies make themselves felt. The establishment of quasi-religious systems and rites, the total planning of the spontaneous and creative, and the national regulation of the physical exercises, the degradation of the sportswoman to a robot and her/his sacrificing on the altar of the Moloch performance, not least the dictate of the money are symptoms of this inhumanity.

From the Christian notion of the human nature this inhumanity can be recognized, and ways to its overcoming can be pointed out. Yes, the Christian ethics has to make its appearance, whether it is opportune or inopportune, if people are in the danger to be sacrificed to any objectives, any ideologies or idols.



{1} K. Jaspers, Der philosophische Glaube, München 1974, 50.

{2} C. Bamberg, Von Wert und Würde menschlicher Muße, in: Geist und Leben 57. Jg./Nr 5 (1984) 17.

{3} Karl–Heinrich Bette & Uwe Schimank, Doping im Hochleistungssport, Frankfurt 1994, 129.

{4} Liese Prokop, Gesundheit – Lebensqualität – Sport, in: Otmar Weiss (ed.), Sport – Gesundheit – Gesundheitskultur, Wien 1994, 108.

{5} Thomas Wessinghage, Kinder und Hochleistsungssport aus orthophädischer Sicht, in: Reinhard Daugs (ed.), Kinder und Jugendliche im Hochleistungssport, Schorndorf 1998, 250.

{6} B. A. Kasprzak, Möglichkeiten und Grenzen im Hochleistungssport, in: Leistungssport 17. Jg./Nr. 4 (1987), 5.

{7} Bette & Schimank, Doping, 379.

{8} Karl–Heinrich Bette, Kollektive Personalisierung: strukturelle Probleme im Dopingdiskurs, in: Helmut Digel (ed.), Spitzensport. Chancen und Probleme, Schorndorf 2001, 34.