As part of an ongoing project, I’m looking at the propriety (and regulation) of performance-enhancing drugs and technologies in educational assessment. One of the avenues of inquiry I’m pursuing is the analogy that is sometimes drawn between sports and education. The analogy typically works like this:
- (1) The use of performance enhancers in sports is wrong (it’s cheating; it’s unfair);
- (2) Educational assessments are like sporting contests;
- (3) Therefore (probably), the use of performance enhancers in educational assessments is wrong.
Now, of course, there’s a lot to challenge here. For starters, you might argue that sporting contests are not like educational assessments. While they do share some features (e.g. competitiveness, some seemingly arbitrary rules), they also differ in crucial respects. For example, when I analysed John Harris’s case for enhancement some time back, I looked at his claim that educational success was an intrinsic good, as opposed to a relative good (which is what sporting success seems to be). This kind of challenge focuses directly on the analogy (premise 2) and is common in most assessments of analogical arguments.
But one could also challenge premise (1), which is the claim about the propriety of enhancement in sport. For instance, one could argue that one of goals of sport is to enhance performance, and so it seems silly to think performance enhancement is improper in the sporting context. Proponents of this kind of argument (e.g. Savulescu) will then tend to support the idea of allowing blood-doping and other kinds of drug use in sport.
Although I’m often tempted to reject premise (1), in this post, I want to look at one interesting argument that actually supports premise (1). The argument comes from the following paper:
Brad Partridge “Fairness and Performance-Enhancing Swimsuits at the 2009 Swimming Championships: The Asterisk Championships” (2011) 5 Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 63
As is obvious from the title, the paper is focused on a specific sport (swimming) and a specific enhancement (polyurethane swimsuits). As such, it can only really support a narrower form of premise (1), which we might phrase as follows:
- (1*) The use of performance-enhancing swimsuits in the sport of swimming is wrong.
Narrowing the focus in this manner allows Partridge to make a more interesting, and perhaps ultimately more persuasive argument. But what would happen if we tried to plug this revised version of premise (1) back into the original analogical argument? Maybe very little. After all, we could just draw a specific analogy between swimming and educational assessment rather than one between sporting contests and educational assessments in general. Indeed, this might lead to a much stronger argument. We might even be able to strengthen it further by limiting it to specific forms of educational assessment. I’m not going to look at that here, but it’s something to think about nonetheless.
Anyway, on to the main event: Partridge’s argument in support of (1*).
1. Some Background
Before getting into the meat of the argument, some background is probably in order. For many years now (since the late 1990s, if I recall correctly) professional swimmers have been wearing full or partial body suits instead of the more traditional trunks in swim races. These suits improve race times by reducing drag and increasing buoyancy. They are, without doubt, performance enhancing.
In the 2009 swimming world championships, the latest and most technologically sophisticated version of these swimsuits was used to great effect by a number of swimmers. That much is obvious from the fact that 43 world records were broken in that championship alone. There were only 40 races.
This remarkable bevy of record-beating performances did not lead to widespread rejoicing within the swimming community. The suits seemed to be having an unwelcome effect on the sport. Perhaps the best illustration of the problem came from the 22 year old German swimmer, Paul Biedermann. He broke Ian Thorpe’s 400m freestyle record by improving on his own previous personal best by 7 seconds. He admitted afterwards that this would not have been possible without the suit. Soon after, full body swimsuits of the sort worn by Biedermann were banned.
When I ask students what they think of cases like this, they generally agree that there is something undesirable or unsavoury about them. For technology to play such an integral role in someone’s achievements seems wrong. For one thing, it seems run contrary to the spirit of sporting contests, which is twofold: (i) to test the limits of human performance; and (ii) to do so in a fair and equitable manner. The first of these has to do with the value of authenticity; the second has to do with the value of fairness. Partridge’s argument centres on the value of fairness and the impact that the use of performance enhancing swimsuits has on that value.
2. Relative and Absolute Outcomes
To understand the argument properly, we’ll need to make some important conceptual distinctions. But we can kick things off by looking at an easy version:
- (4) If something is unfair, it is (ceteris paribus) wrong.
- (5) The use of performance enhancing swimsuits in the sport of swimming is unfair.
- (1*) The use of performance-enhancing enhancing swimsuits in the sport of swimming is wrong.
This is pretty uninteresting, but it gives us a scaffold on which to build more interesting arguments. We’re going to take it for granted that premise (4) is true. Our concern will lie instead with premise (5) and the arguments that can be offered in it support.
We’ll start by making an important conceptual distinction between two kinds of outcomes in sporting contest. The distinction originates in the work of Thomas Douglas.
Relative Outcomes: In most sporting contests (with perhaps some rare exceptions) there is a group of competitors, or a group of teams of competitors, whose performances are ranked relative to one another. For example, in most swimming races, the performance of one individual is ranked relative to the performance of another individual: first place, second place, third place and so on. Similarly, in professional football (soccer to Americans) teams are ranked relative to one another, both in the individual matches (winners v. losers) and over the course of a season (points tables).
Absolute Outcomes: In most sporting contests, in addition to the competitors’ performances being ranked relative to one another, they are also scored or evaluated relative to some absolute standard. Indeed, it is often the case that measurement relative to the absolute standard is the way to distinguish the relative performances of the competitors. For example, in swimming races, competitors are performances are assessed against the absolute standard of time: how quickly did they manage to swim a certain distance. In soccer, number of goals scored, number of goals conceded perform similar functions.
A quick comment here on absolute standards before moving on: although absolute standards are common in most sports, I think some standards are more absolute than others. For instance, in a soccer match, while the number of goals scored is a clear objective measure of success, it is not something that easily lends itself to predictions or comparisons of success across teams. Thus, the fact that Manchester United scored 9 goals against Ipswich Town on a particular day says nothing much about their ability to score goals against other teams like Liverpool or Manchester City. Compare this with the swimmer who manages to win his race by swimming 100m freestyle in 49 seconds at a particular meeting. His achievement of that absolute outcome does say something meaningful about both his potential ability to beat another swimmer whose best time is only 55 seconds.
What relevance does the absolute/relative distinction have to our dispute about performance enhancement in swimming? It is to this question that we must now turn.
3. Achieving Fairness in Relative Outcomes
The suggestion of Thomas Douglas is that when it comes to the value of fair outcomes in sport, our concern should lie with the fairness of relative outcomes not absolute outcomes. If we have two competitors, A and B, and we end up ranking A’s performance ahead of B’s, then we ought to worry if A’s performance was only made possible by A’s possession of some unfair advantage over B. We should not worry simply if A’s absolute outcome was better than B’s. After all, the purpose of sport is primarily to distinguish between abilities to achieve absolute outcomes, not to make the same absolute outcomes available to all.
To apply this to the swimsuit example, Douglas’s argument is that Biedermann’s performance in the 400m freestyle race should only concern us if his first place finish was made possible by his having some unfair advantage over his competitors; it should not concern us simply because it broke the pre-existing world record. Obviously, the question then becomes: what counts as an unfair advantage? The concept of equal access provides some clues. If the swimsuit he wore was not equally accessible to all (e.g. if only those with a particular sponsorship deal had access to it), then it would seem like he had an unfair advantage.
There’s a certain appeal to this line of reasoning. It makes use of the concept of equality of opportunity, something that is often thought to be a inherent feature of a sporting contest. The contest itself is supposed to be pure: only those abilities and talents that make up the internal activity of the contest can be used to gain an advantage over a competitor; factors external to the sporting activity have no part to play. To put it more pithily: there is supposed to be a level playing field. If someone has privileged access to a technology, it leads to an imbalance in the playing field. This is what seems to have happened at the 2009 swimming championships
To put this into an argumentative form:
- (6) In order for a sporting contest to be fair, equality of opportunity must be attained.
- (7) If competitor A has privileged access to a technology that enhances his/her performance relative to that of B, then equality of opportunity is not attained.
- (8) Some competitors had privileged access to performance-enhancing swimsuits at the 2009 swimming world championships (SWC).
- (9) Therefore, equality of opportunity was not attained at the 2009 SWC (from 7 and 8).
- (10) Therefore, the use of performance enhancing swimsuits at the 2009 SWC was unfair (from 6 and 9).
Note the narrowness of the conclusion. It only says the use of the swimsuits at 2009 SWC was unfair; it says nothing about the use of those swimsuits in general. This is for good reason. Go back to premise (7) for a moment. This is probably the key to the whole argument. It states that privileged access is a problem, it does not say that universal access is a problem. And this makes sense since only privileged access creates equality of opportunity concerns: if everyone has access to the technology, everyone has the same opportunities.
In other words, if fairness is going to be guiding principle here, it does not follow that all performance-enhancers are unfair. A universal ban might generate fairness, but universal access would also generate fairness. A concern for fairness could work both ways.
In saying all of this, we must realise that equality of opportunity is an ideal, not a reality. There are lots of technologies, training facilities and so forth that are only available to sportspeople in wealthier countries, and yet we seem to tolerate them. Does this mean we are being hypocritical in rejecting performance-enhancers? Not necessarily. Our toleration might stem from the practical impossibility of eliminating all forms of differential access. We should still, however, be looking for ways to level the playing field. Indeed, providing access to performance-enhancers for those in underprivileged countries might be a way of achieving this. A kind of affirmative action policy for professional sports.
3. Fairness in Inter-temporal Comparisons
So much for Douglas’s argument. What does Partridge offer in response? Well, he offers an interesting riposte. The riposte is premised on the idea that there is at least one kind of relative outcome, whose fairness we would like to maintain, that could not be maintained by adopting a permissive attitude towards performance-enhancing technologies like Biedermann’s swimsuit.
Which relative outcome would that be? The answer: the inter-temporal ranking of swimmers’ performances. You see, swimmers don’t simply compete with those who happen to share the pool with them on a particular day; they also compete with their predecessors in the sport. These are the great swimmers of the past, who set the records that contemporary swimmers aim to beat.
So when Biedermann was swimming his record-breaking 400m freestyle, he wasn’t simply competing against those who were in the pool at the same time; he was also competing with the Ian Thorpe (the previous record holder) of seven years previous. And while their two performances were measured against an absolute standard (that of time), they were also, maybe more importantly, being measured relative to one another. Interested spectators and fellow participants would really want to know: whose performance was truly better? But since Biedermann’s performance was made possible by an (unfair?) technological advantage he had over Thorpe, i.e. one that was not accessible to Thorpe, this comparison could not really be made. The fact that the comparison could not be made provides one reason for adopting an anti-enhancement stance, at least on this particular issue. Why? Because to lose the ability to perform inter-temporal comparisons is to lose something of great value. As one coach commented: “we have lost the history of the sport”.
To be clear, Partridge’s argument is not just some naive and misguided lament for some golden age of swimming. He is well aware that there have been some advances in the training techniques available to swimmers and that these probably make inter-temporal comparisons an inexact process — he does note however, in passing, that swimming has been less vulnerable to technological advances that some other sports, e.g. golf. He is also aware that we may accept these advances because they bring other benefits. But two facts remain: (i) there is some value to inter-temporal comparisons (this is accepted by nearly all participants to the sport); and (ii) there has to be a point at which technological advances undermine the sporting activities we value. These two facts are the key to understanding Partridge’s argument. Let’s go through each briefly.
Turning to the second fact first, note how we don’t allow swimmers to participate with jet engines attached to their legs. Why not? Well, presumably, because if they did so they would no longer be swimming: they would no longer be engaging in the activity we value and reward. This means that there are some technological performance-enhancers we could not tolerate. But if this is true if, doesn’t it then follow that performance-enhancing swimsuits of the sort used by Biedermann could possibly be intolerable?
It does, but of course, the question then becomes: is it actually intolerable? This is where the first of the two facts comes into play. If inter-temporal comparisons are a valuable part of the sport of swimming, and if performance-enhancing swimsuits undermine that value by making such comparisons unfair, then they are actually intolerable. Why? Because they are preventing us from engaging in a particular kind of sporting activity that we rightly enjoy.
To summarise the argument (exchanging “intolerable” for “wrong”):
- (11) If some technological advance undermines a valuable aspect of a sporting activity, then the use of that technology is wrong (within that sport).
- (12) Inter-temporal comparisons of sporting (or, maybe, just swimming) performances are valuable.
- (13) The use of performance-enhancing swimsuits, such as those used in the 2009 SWCs, undermines the inter-temporal comparison of swimming performances by making such comparisons unfair.
- (1*) Therefore, the use of performance-enhancing swimsuits in the sport of swimming is wrong.
This argument is much stronger than the one we just considered from Douglas. That’s why it supports the broad conclusion of (1*), rather than the narrow conclusion of (10). It provides succor for the more staunchly anti-enhancement proponent. Yet for all that, it is far from unassailable. One could, for example, always question the value of inter-temporal comparisons. One could also, perhaps, argue that we shouldn’t cling to a particular kind of sporting activity in the face of technological development: if the technology brings greater advantages with it than did the sporting activity, then perhaps we should simply abandon the sport? Sports do occasionally go extinct or lose their appeal, and there may be no good reason to lament this fact. Who now mourns for the decline of interest in pinball, for instance?
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