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The First Loser

Some Reflections on Sports Ethics

Culture

A few summers ago,walking down Corydon Avenue in Winnipeg, I found myself reading a political message blazoned on the T-shirt of a young woman just ahead of me. “Second place is the first loser.”

One or other version of this message is so common in both the culture of sport and the wider culture that it has become a cliché. Who hasn’t heard the aphorism “nice guys finish last,” attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher (1939)? Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders, former coach of the fabled UCLA Bruins football team, is famous for having memorably captured (1950) the gist of the idea that winning is the summum bonum of sport: “Winning isn’t everything.” Long pause. “It’s the only thing!” These words are frequently attributed to former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Perhaps he cribbed them from Red Sanders. Whoever gets the (dis)credit, there’s no doubt that our competitive individualistic culture provides substantial material rewards, along with a whacking great dose of celebrity, to the athlete who or the team which wins the important race or competition. By contrast, neither wealth nor fame accrues to the athlete who finishes second — even if the second-place finisher misses her grab for gold by only 1/1000 of a second. We live in a “winner takes all” society.

The thesis that sport, especially contemporary professional sport, is dominated by money is too obviously true to require a mountain of supporting data. So, one or two illustrative examples should suffice. When “Canada’s” Ben Johnson won the gold medal at the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1998, thereby earning the title of “world’s fastest human being,” the entire nation spontaneously burst into tears of joy, not to mention an orgy of self-congratulation. I have some firsthand knowledge of the deep national pride stirred by Ben Johnson’s victory because my own eyes became suspiciously moist as I watched his race on television in England (where I was living at the time). 24 hours later, when “Jamaica’s” Ben Johnson was exposed as a drug cheat, there ensued a period of national mourning and recrimination.

The Ben Johnson scandal led almost directly to the Dubbin Inquiry (into drugs and sport) and to a national debate about our national priorities and values. But here’s what struck me at the time: Immediately after Johnson won the Olympic gold medal, TV commentators focused their remarks almost exclusively on how mega-rich he was going to become, overnight, from commercial endorsements. Then, a day later later, when he was compelled to return his gold medal, commentators fixated not so much on the dishonour of cheating or the tragedy of a brilliant athletic career destroyed at what should have been its peak moment; instead, they could talk about nothing except the eight million dollars he would now lose because companies such as Italian sportswear maker Diadora and electronics giant Toshiba would no longer pay big bucks to associate Johnson’s image with their jeans or television sets. Similarly, athletes as various as Lance Armstrong (drugs), Tiger Woods (sex), Michael Vick (dog fighting), Kobe Bryant (accused of rape but settled out of court), Barry Bonds (steroids) and O.J. Simpson (accused of murder but acquitted) all discovered that sin or the perception thereof doesn’t pay, at least not in the world of corporate marketing.

Back to Ben Johnson: It should be noted in his defence that six of the eight finalists in the Seoul Olympic 100-metres race would later fail drug tests or be otherwise implicated as drug cheats. As Charlie Francis, Johnson’s coach, observed at the time: “You can set your blocks up a metre behind the starting line or you could be equal.” To be “equal” equates to using banned performance-enhancing drugs. Francis was much reviled for his role in the doping scandal, and rightly so, in my view; but he wasn’t far off the mark in his recognition that winning at the highest levels of sport (and sometimes at lower levels, too) often comes at a moral cost. Many people listening to Charlie Francis likely agreed with his claim that if everyone else is cheating then you would be a sucker (and, much worse, a “loser”) if you were to allow scruples to inhibit you from cheating as much as if not more than the least scrupulous of your competitors. We live in a lean, mean competitive society.

Competition starts early

Alarmingly, if you want to be numbered among the elite of winners rather than bunched with hoi polloi at the bottom of the heap, the competitive struggle starts early. We live in a culture where everyone from kindergarten to university, and then beyond university to business and the professions, is struggling to “get an edge.” I don’t mean that the pupils in kindergarten are trying to get an edge for themselves. That would be true only of the most precocious toddlers. No, it’s parents who are trying to get an edge for their kids. And if parents have to donate big bucks to the best prep school in order to ensure that their Johnny or Jenny is admitted then they will see this as money well invested. By the way, if you wait until your child is in prep school it may already be too late. Some years ago a prominent New York Citigroup telecommunications analyst, Jack B. Grubman, secured a spot for his twin daughters at an exclusive Manhattan nursery school. He did so by arranging for a million-dollar donation to the YMCA which runs the school. The story doesn’t end there, however. The money, it turns out, came from AT&T, whose shares had received a puff from Mr. Grubman. Both parties denied any connection between the share upgrade and the donation. I presume that the twins got the needed head start on their academic careers.

One unavoidable conclusion: Sport culture inevitably reflects and reinforces the values of the larger society in which sport is embedded. In sport, as in society, the unscrupulous competitor wins the race, gets the gold, gets the endorsements and gets the girl (or boy, depending on sex or sexual preference). The values of our corporate socio-economic system are almost perfectly mirrored in and mutually reinforced by the values of corporate sport.

Levelling the playing field in sports and business

Charlie Francis argued that to win in the domain of Olympic sport you’ve got to cheat (by taking performance-enhancing drugs) — “to keep the playing field level.” Similarly, to win in the domain of business you’ve got to “pollute with the dirtiest” or “pay starvation wages with the most cold-hearted” or “destroy the biosphere with the most anti-social” simply in order to stay in business let alone to flourish. Canadians were, recently, scandalized to discover that the Loblaw’s grocery empire outsourced the production of clothes for its “Joe Fresh” line to Bangladeshi factories that pay starvation wages for virtual slave labour in unsafe buildings. This was an occasion for much hand-wringing. But, as North American and European clothing retailers were quick to point out in their own defence, they’ve got to compete in a tough marketplace. Even a few additional cents added to the wages of a sewing machine operator in Dhaka can mean that bargain-hunting Canadian consumers will shop elsewhere. If your competitors are paying bottom dollar and you aren’t then you will not be in business for long. The least scrupulous competitor drives the others to the wall. That message dominates the economic marketplace but, equally, it dominates the romantic, religious, cultural and sporting marketplace as well. Second place is the first loser.

Canadian sports administrators have been deeply influenced by the government’s overriding desire for the prestige, national and international, that comes only with winning Olympic medals. The Harper government’s most heavily promoted slogan: “Own the Podium.” This slogan encapsulates a simple bargain. We (the government) will put up the money; you (the athletes) will turn in winning performances. From the government’s point of view, achieving a personal best or even a national record counts for little or nothing. What counts is that your best translates into Olympic gold (or, if not gold, then at least silver or bronze). If you want adequate funding then you have to show that you’re in the vicinity of international glory. Fall short of that standard and you’re on your own. Training will have to occur between morning work serving up syrup-laced coffee confections in Starbucks and evening work at a telephone call centre.

Whatever it takes to win

Since “results” have become the only important measure of success in sport, as in life generally, and since international competition is fiercely competitive, many athletes feel compelled to get that all-important edge on their opponents, even if this means they have to become drug cheats. Survey results of Olympic athletes show that most are willing to risk even an early death (or brain injury or crippling arthritic pain) — whatever it takes in order to win.

Of course, when every athlete takes banned performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids, to bulk up faster or to train harder or to recover from muscle injuries faster, then none of them actually gets an edge on his or her competitors — but all of them risk serious long-term bodily harm.

But what choice do they have? If you suspect your opponents may be cheating then, pre-emptively, you had better do the same, whatever the cost to your health. When everyone cheats, the playing field ends up “level” — except for the odd competitor who refuses to go along — but everyone risks serious damage to health. In short, what is rational for each individual athlete becomes collectively irrational and sometimes suicidal to boot. This same phenomenon manifests itself in other social realms, such as the economy. When every factory pays its sweated labour force the lowest possible wage to gain an edge on the competition, no manufacturer or retailer gets an edge, while the buying power of workers sinks so low that they can no longer buy the products produced for the marketplace and everyone is hit with a recession or even a depression. When the scramble for wealth and power becomes sufficiently fierce, we become a nation of cheats. At that point, everyone becomes a loser.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sports: Views from Left Field).

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