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Doping, Sport, and the Pursuit of Excellence

Mike Austin


How Christians should think about sports and competition

Professor of Philosophy, Eastern Kentucky University
October 30, 2012

In recent weeks, the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong has taken center stage, bringing a troubling aspect of the sport of cycling back into the limelight. Armstrong has been officially stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles. This means that his highest finish at the Tour de France is now 36th, his place in the 1995 race. And Greg LeMond is once again the only American to win this prestigious event. While Armstrong’s case provides food for thought related to many important issues, here I will focus on a Christian perspective concerning the nature and value of sport and some of its implications for the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs.

For the follower of Christ, sport will be a context in which one can express love for God as well as a concern for His glory. In one of the most memorable scenes from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, aspiring Olympian Eric Liddell and his sister Jennie discuss his plans to compete in the 1924 Olympics. She expresses her reticence about this; she is worried that success on the track might derail his plans to be a missionary in China. Jennie is momentarily relieved to hear him confirm that he plans to go to China. However, she is taken aback when he adds:

“But I’ve got a lot of running to do first. Jennie, Jennie, you’ve got to understand. I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor Him.”

It is clear that it is not mere victory that Liddell is after, but an honorable victory that is the fruit of spiritual, moral, and physical excellence—with a bit of fun added into the mix as well.

Two contemporary views of sport are distinct from Liddell’s. They are in fact morally problematic and should be rejected by those who want to think Christianly about sport. For instance, when sport is viewed as war, this can lead to treating opponents as enemies and a failure to respect them as persons. The “sport as war” view can also lead to a win-at-all-costs attitude which may foster the use of performance-enhancing drugs, other forms of cheating (such as diving in soccer), and the cultivation of vice. Another prominent view, which takes sport to be mere play, is also morally suspect. For instance, we often tell children that sports are “just for fun,” but from a Christian perspective this is misguided. Participation in sport merely for fun can lead to a self-centered and consumer-approach to sport. Sports are certainly fun, but they are more than that; they also provide a context for displaying and cultivating character. For the follower of Christ, sport is not war, and it is not merely fun. It is another context to cultivate and display Christlikeness.

Consider one example of character-development via sport. Though it is rare, perhaps, humility is an important sporting virtue. Sport can foster humility in both athletes and coaches, who must submit themselves to the standards of their sport if they wish to excel or (even just participate) in it. These standards not only include the formal rules, but the informal ones as well. Humility can also be acquired via sport as an athlete reflects on the numerous causes of his success. While it is true that an athlete is responsible in part for success at the elite level, given all the work and dedication that this requires, the reflective athlete will also see that there is reason to be humble even in the midst of great success. As 2006 Olympic gold medalist speed skater Joey Cheek puts it, “a lot of people…don’t realize the sheer dumb luck that goes into being born into a country and a family that has the means and resources to allow you to chase your dreams.” The Christian will likely substitute God’s providence for luck here, but the point remains that humility is an appropriate attitude to take, even for the most successful athlete. And of course many other virtues can be cultivated via sport, including self-control, perseverance, and certain forms of courage.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs undermines a character-focused approach to sport. Competition at its best is a test of athletic ability and other forms of excellence. But as philosopher of sport Robert Simon argues in his book Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport, when drugs are the cause of improved play on the field or a faster time on the roads, the winner ends up being the person whose body responds best to some performance-enhancing drug, rather than the best athlete who delivers the best performance on a given day. The athlete who is concerned about her character prefers depending on virtues such as courage, discipline, and perseverance in her quest for victory, rather than drugs. She wants the cause of her athletic success to be of the right sort. Disciplined training, responding to coaching, and proper nutrition call upon the virtues, but using performance-enhancing drugs does not.

The temptations of fame and fortune loom large in much of contemporary sport, as does the win-at-all-costs attitude. All of this may motivate one to use performance-enhancing drugs. These negative aspects of the contemporary scene shouldn’t lead us to reject sport. Rather, they underscore the need to keep sport in its proper place, as a form of competitive play that is a partial foretaste of life in the kingdom of God. Sport can be spiritually dangerous—as can many other worthwhile endeavors—but it can also provide a context for cultivating and exemplifying spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical virtue. The crucial point for the Christian is that sport should serve as a way, in the words of Eric Liddell, “to honor Him.”

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