by tim harper : founding director at harper performance CIC
First, a caveat - this topic, like most of what ‘The HUB’ tries to wrestle with, is an enormous piece of subject matter - one worthy of the many books, articles, debates and projects that are, and will continue to be produced on them. Our objective is not to provide an encyclopaedic resource on these topics but rather to ask questions, stimulate debate and highlight some of the issues that contextualise the work of our non-profit social enterprise.
Should certain football and hockey teams be given a goal head start at kick off, should some swimmers be given a time penalty, or should some rugby teams take to the field with fewer players than their opposition?
No, I hear you cry, that would be unfair, and after all, sport is based on fairness, right?
Well, actually, yes, I don’t disagree, all sport, whether it be the 100m sprint or a football match is steeped in the ideals of fairness and the notion that each competitor, athlete or player has an equal opportunity to achieve success or victory. These ideals are as old as sport itself, and are closely linked to the ancient “warrior ethos” of honourable and ‘just’ conduct in battle.
These ideals, of which you could write a book about (and people obviously have), originated in ancient military combat and naturally carried over to the sporting competitions of the very same ancient civilisations, striving for victory and honour under the gaze, and presumably judgement, of their gods. With the development of sophisticated starting procedures for chariot races, public floggings for false starts and heavy fines for unscrupulous competitors accepting bribes, the value of fairness was enshrined in sport forever.
From then until the present day, for better and for worse, sport and athletic competition has busied itself with a very real concern for equality and fairness. The energy, time and resources spent on ensuring procedural fairness in sport is eye-watering, from pressure pads to measure false starts to the millisecond, to VAR and goal-line technology, to photo-finishes and the billions spent on anti-doping strategies, sport spends an awful lot of time trying to make things “fair”.
However, little to no attention is spent on the fairness of preparation, little energy is devoted to measuring, evaluating and/or regulating the fairness of competition and between its competitors before they even step foot in the stadium, on the track or on the pitch.
Elite sporting performance, as even the cursory spectator can see, is not the result of just ten seconds of concerted effort in a 100m sprint, or 90 minutes of work in a football match - instead it is the culmination of years, often decades, of very deliberate and increasingly sophisticated preparation.
Sigmund Loland summed it up back in 2002 when he contended that sporting and athletic performance “is developed within large systems of material, technological and scientific resources, including facilities and equipment, trainers, medical and administrative apparatus, exercise scientists, technologists and so on. Given all this, the public admiration of the winning athlete or team appears to be based on false premises. We do not just measure, compare and rank competitors according to skills, rather, we are measuring the strength of whole systems.”
It’s important to note at this point that talent or natural ability is obviously key to performance - you can have a sports system with all the bells and whistles, but if you have no "genetically talented athletes", its unlikely to produce world-class performance. Sports performance at the top echelons of sport is the result of a plethora of genetic and non-genetic factors. Genetic predispositions to develop good athletic performance are often referred to as “natural talent” or pedigree. Non-genetic factors are easily grouped and referred to simply as ‘environmental influences’.
The difference between “good” and “great” performances on the world stage in sport are often accounted for by the ability for a sport system to realise the full talent, natural ability or pedigree of its cohort of athletes. Less nature vs nurture and more nature plus nurture.
So, from a moral, values-based perspective, should we not be trying to eliminate or compensate for the inequalities in access to resources in terms of ‘system strength’, i.e. the process of athletic realisation. Indeed, Loland again contended in his 2002 text that “reliable and valid evaluations [read; ranking] of performance should depend upon ALL competitors being given equal opportunity to perform”.
From our work at Harper Performance, we know that athletes from certain backgrounds and in certain geographical locations have a lack of access to the aforementioned material resources such as stadia and equipment, and to human resources such as coaches and science-based support systems. We know, having worked across the spectrum of have’s and have not’s in elite sports development that inequalities in ’system strength’ really do exist.
If these inequalities in 'system strength' are accepted as relevant to the fairness of competition, then clearly, competitors from weaker sport systems, from disadvantaged communities or from the developing world will have a disadvantage in developing elite performance from the very outset, perhaps throwing into the question the very validity of modern sports competition?
So, the question remains, if there is, save anti-doping, almost no regulation of competitor preparations, should we be looking to radically alter the rules of competition? Should we be looking to introduce a staggered start to the 100m to eliminate or at the very least reduce to a minimum the influence of inequalities in system strength?
Whilst you’re here, we’re a non-profit social enterprise that exists to tackle inequality in sport and support sportspeople from disadvantaged communities across the developing world. Utilising a team of some of the leading performance-support practitioners in elite sport from the Europe, the USA and Australia, we work in collaboration with stakeholders across the Global South to develop accessible, relevant, sustainable and above-all else, locally driven solutions to elite sports development.
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