Is There Too Much Competition in Sport?

  • 2016-01-25
  • 3 Quarks Daily

Sports are mere games, "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" as Bernard Suits, the founder of the philosophy of games, puts it. So why do we care about them? The pleasure of sport has three distinct sources - competition, drama, and craft. Although each has their own logic and appeal, the defining characteristic of a flourishing sport is the harmonious balance it achieves between all three. In this light, the increasing dominance of competition across all sports is distinctly worrying. In the long run it may squeeze the very life out of them. The thin zero-sum perspective on sports that it embodies is already the source of the pernicious doping scandals, nationalism, and sexism in modern sports.

The pleasure of competition consists in the resolution of uncertainty combined with the validation of status rankings. There is a special thrill in the resolution of a sustained uncertainty about an outcome, and this is also behind the appeal of gambling. But in sport the resolution of this uncertainty is also meant to reflect merit: sporting competition provides an answer to the question of Who deserves to win? In the past, the Greeks saw the winners of sporting competitions as selected by the Gods and modern celebrations of gold medallists still echo of that. Hence the emphasis on fairness - level playing fields and anti-doping rules – to ensure the results reflect only the authentic natural merit of the contestants. The centrality of numbers - records, rankings, and numerous other statistics - also follows from this emphasis on outcomes. Competition is what makes sport exciting. It is also extremely accessible to those who know nothing about a sport (the familiar question of the noob 'Who's side are we on?') and can be repurposed as a relatively harmless expression of interregional or international rivalry, as when people identify with their national team in the soccer World Cup and go around talking about how 'we' beat 'Brazil'.

Competition - the chancing of fate and divine favour - is important but it is not the only kind of pleasure that sport can and should afford. The others though tend to make more demands on the spectator.

Image Credit: skitterphoto