Aussie athletes’ success warms my cockles but my enthusiasm is tempered by a nagging suspicion that when it comes to “fair play” Olympic sport is shooting wide of the mark.
This was further aroused by a recent segment on ABC’s Catalyst (“The Winning Edge”) about the “secret weapons” and “performance enhancers” behind Australian Olympic success: our sports scientists and multi-million dollar training facilities.
Apparently, ours is the only country to have created a simulated version of the course used in the bicycle road-race, which it was hoped would give medal contender Michael Rogers the edge. Also featured in the program was the Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) $17 million swimming pool that boasts more high tech gadgets than the International Space Station. AIS Director Dr Peter Fricker summed it up nicely by referring to scientists as the “unsung heroes” behind Australia’s medal-winning success.
But is such a sophisticated approach to sport by Australia and other nations fair for the “have-nots”?
The rapid improvement in elite sport performances in Australia and elsewhere demonstrates how Olympic sport is as much about the competition between national sport science laboratories as it is between athletes. And the exclusive possession by some countries of significant “performance enhancers” appears to fly in the face of the standard of fairness in sport: the level playing field.
Significant inequalities include the availability to some athletes of greater funding, as well as access to superior training and rehabilitation facilities, equipment, technology, coaching, and other sports science or administration support.
When it comes to fairness it seems some performance enhancers are more equal than others.
We are all familiar with bans on performance enhancing drugs being upheld due to the inherent dangers of using them and the unfair advantage they afford “drug cheats” over “clean” athletes. But recently, Olympic champion Duncan Armstrong is among the throng of commentators to question the fairness of the high-tech Speedo LZR swimsuit, which appears to increase buoyancy, endurance and speed. Many other performance enhancing technologies and facilities that are only accessible to some athletes slip under the fairness radar.
Unlike what we see at the Olympics there are many sports making an effort to balance competition, by controlling income and player distribution schemes.
The AFL and other professional team sport leagues operate basically like cartels with certain monopoly powers. That is, leagues bid collectively for TV contracts then distribute revenues to give each member club a more equitable financial base from which to work. The salary cap is intended to keep the wealthiest clubs from buying up all the best playing talent. The player draft distributes talented athletes in an attempt to level the playing field.
These monopoly practices would be considered illegal restraints of trade in any other industry. They are permitted in many sports on the grounds they produce a public good: close competition.
Close competition is thought to be good in a sporting sense because it can bring out the best between individuals and teams. Close contests and skilled play also retain spectator interest, which in turn keeps television revenue and sponsorship dollars flowing into sport.
An Olympic “level playing field” would require either universal prohibition or universal access across a wide range of performance enhancers, including facilities, equipment, scientific expertise, and specialist coaching. Universal prohibition would be undesirable because we still value sport as a stage to push the boundaries of human excellence; and sport science and technology are central to this. Universal access would require a global resource distribution scheme to improve the access of “have-not” nations to those performance enhancing technologies, facilities and expertise.
Like many others, I celebrate Australia’s Olympic successes and marvel at human effort and achievement in sport. However, it is sobering to think that these successes may be due in large part to the high-tech advantages enjoyed by some athletes over less-resourced opponents.
While it is hard to imagine how a global resource distribution scheme might work, it is not hard to imagine how a more balanced international playing field would be good for Olympic sport.
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