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Is sport inhumane?

Leszek J. Sibilski's picture

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” - George Orwell
Several years ago, while attending a global sports conference, I noticed that one of the most prominent members of the International Olympic Committee was carrying a small book in French. Knowing that this individual has an inclination toward intellectual escapades, I couldn’t resist asking for the title and author, he replied: Robert Redeker, 2008, “Le Sport Est – il inhumain?” As I had not previously heard of Redeker, I asked some follow-up questions to establish his viewpoint.
Robert Redeker is a French writer and philosophy teacher, known for his controversial views on many aspects of humanity with a soft but critical spot for sport as he wrote two additional books dedicated to sport: in 2002, “Le Sport contre les peuples,” and in 2012, “L'Emprise sportive.”
For those of us who will be going to Rio to witness the Olympic and Paralympic cauldron being lit amidst hundreds of thousands of spectators during the opening ceremonies, it is also perfect timing for a reflection about the current state of sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Movement. Currently, the deliberations are mostly lead by the media, athletes, coaches, and this time by the World Health Organization due to Zika's unknown long-term impacts.  
An ever-increasing number of leaders in sports as well as politics, education, and even religion are starting to pay closer attention to how sports can be a tool to benefit humanity. Critics such as Redeker have argued that it is an inhuman matrix, and that contemporary sport dehumanizes athletes while focusing only on citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger - speed, height, and strength as they are measurable quantities) at the expense of social, societal, behavioral and anthropological development.

Amongst all sport pundits, I have not yet heard the voice of philosophers; therefore, I will take this opportunity to highlight this crucial angle missing from this debate. I am one of those who wholeheartedly supports the concepts and ideals of the five rings, but in the name of open-minded discussion, we should hear the other side, the darker side of some of the Olympic and Paralympic medals, in order to maintain a healthy balance. Competitive sport and its governing bodies thus cannot avoid being seen in a darker light. Some critics of sport have no hesitation in claiming that the modern athlete is a mutant, in the sense that “the best athlete is the one who surpasses the limits of humanity, exploding them” as Redeker strongly believes that we are witnessing a true “dehumanization” of the athlete.
It is in high-level sport that athletes show what they are worth, but some also tend to go too far by taking illegal enhancement drugs. Depending on the type of dynamic (off-the-field and on-the-field) affiliation the athletes have with the environment (endorsement, contract, media exposure, celebrity status) in which they participate, there is a great temptation to turn to unlawful drugs in order to achieve victory.  As the Council of Europe asks in a report on ethics in sports, “Has the modern-day “Robocop” become a competition-winning machine that coldly and rationally calculates” the relationship between the anticipated benefit and the risk incurred, in order to derive maximum gain from the situation? If so, what makes an athlete comply or fail to comply with the rules of the sportsperson’s contract?” These are the troubling questions for which Redeker wants us to seek answers.
Philosophy is both critical and methodical, and is dumbfounded by reality and the thoughts that it provokes. The Council of Europe writes “From Parmenides and Plato to Heidegger, from Hobbes and Hegel to Nietzsche, philosophers have often expressed” their view on sport and physical activities that: ‘The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.’ Taking this idea to such an extreme that it is a paradox, Nietzsche wrote: ‘We do not belong to those who only get their thoughts from books, or at the prompting of books, – it is our custom to think in the open air, walking, leaping, climbing, or dancing on lonesome mountains by preference, or close to the sea, where even the paths become thoughtful.’” We need to keep in mind that Socrates was a gymnast, Plato a wrestler, Descartes a swordsman, Nietzsche a rambler, and Michel Serres a climber.
Ever since goalkeeping existentialist writer Albert Camus picked his last ball out of the back of the net almost 90 years ago, philosophers haven't had much time for sport. He even once said: "After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” 
Redeker argues that the 20th century has been the century of sport not only as a new ideology but also an illusion of civilization. He claims that this century was sport oriented in the same way that the Middle Ages were religious, “but while religion produced major works (in architecture, arts, poetry, theology, and philosophy) which defined a civilization, the sports era produced nothing of the sort.” According to a French musician Frédéric Yonnet, professional sport can be defined as a spectacle. “The extent of such a spectacle in social life, via the major media (the written press, radio, TV and Internet) is an expression of the increasingly tight links between the sphere of sport and those of politics and economics,” write Bourg and Gouguet.  Sport is the place where for better or for worse, science, art, technology, and social imagination meet. Sports-entertainment saturates space and time; it becomes a source of metaphors for all other areas of human life. Sports-entertainment also establishes the dictatorship of the performance of human life. Sport is responsible for production - through phenomena like massification of emotions - a new global common man. From this point of view, sport is the new global spiritual power. More importantly, it manufactures champions, prototypes of the men of the future. Regular sport is an intermediate link between sports-entertainment and philosophical practices of the body.
Sport needs masters of provoking thoughts like Redeker to keep it in check as we are drifting away from the sporting traditions of Greek and Roman antiquity, where the best athlete was a perfect man, as today’s athlete focuses on surpassing the limits of humanity.

Robert Redeker in his essays and books launches merciless intellectual jabs at sport, but he forces the reader’s mind and soul to connect and reflect about sport from a different perspective… and we badly need this “tough love” perspective to keep the sanity of all involved while attending the Circus Maximus in Rio. 

Photo of Korean Judo at 2012 London Olympics by Korean Olympic Committee via Flickr, some rights reserved
Photo of gymnast, Vasiliki Millousi, by Vasiliki Millousi via Flickr, some rights reserved


Submitted by Ben Sanders on

Thanks for this great post. I think it raises my interesting points about modern, elite sport which has become elitist, exclusive and actually works against many development goals. I use that George Orwell quote from about 50 years ago often in my research. In addition, to the fact that elite sport may be dehumanising, even more worrying is the fact that elite sport tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, violence, cheating, matchfixing, doping and many other negative symptoms which undermine development.
See link to an article I wrote in the Journal of Sport for Development ( making this point. We need to stop taking elite sport so seriously and invest in sport for development initiatives which take all people into account.

Submitted by Leszek Sibilski on

Hello Ben, I really appreciate your comment, especially on the eve of the closing ceremony. I was also able to glance through the suggested commentary of yours. It appears that we are both on the same page. I am just in between the Olympics and the Paralympics catching up with my academic life, but I must say that the Games in Rio brought new light to the elite sport. The 121 medals of the US and their ramifications are mind blowing. We have seen many (perhaps too many) repeat medalists, and I have noticed a new role for religion in sport. Overall, we are moving away from the idea of sport for all. There are too many watching and too few competing in the Olympic sports. I still have to digest all of my observations, but Rio 2016 was a very unique experience. Let's reconnect upon the closing ceremony of the Paralympics.

Submitted by H Hafezi on

Another side to this issue is the amount of money that is spent on sports every year. The Olympics for example, is one of the biggest collaborations between all nations. I believe we can use that kind of effort toward something significantly more important, such as saving our planet.

Submitted by Leslie Escalante on

I completely agree, nowadays there is so much pressure to be the best athlete. Atheletes are continuously pressured to maintain this "perfect" expectation, which can sometimes lead to steroids or other drug use. Going back to the older traditional view on sports, a more realistic view, would be beneficial.

Submitted by Leslie Escalante on

I completely agree, nowadays there is so much pressure to be the best athlete. Atheletes are continuously pressured to maintain this "perfect" expectation, which can sometimes lead to steroids or other drug use. Going back to the older traditional view on sports, a more realistic view, would be beneficial.

Submitted by Azelina Khan on

I believe sports say a lot about us as a human society. With values changing over time, so with the idea of sports. I believe sports are a great showmanship of what a society is about

Submitted by Vinay Chavan on

I believe that sports are a great way to bring people together, even though pushing the limits on people may sound a little inhumane but it's more of a challenge that people would want to achieve since people want to be the best at what they're good at!!!

Submitted by Natsinu thodpanich on

I do not think that sport is inhumane because people love what they do. So if they like physical sports then there's nothing wrong with that. I understand that it may seem severe but at the end of the day it's just a sport activity.

Submitted by Jackie Munguia on

This was a very interesting article. I believe sport is something that brings everyone together one way or another. Weather we actually play it or we watch on tv with family and friends, it still brings society together.

Submitted by Sandy Mejia on

Elite sports can be very inhuman. The amount of practice time and effort if you actually want to be something when it doesn't come naturally can effect people negatively.

Submitted by Lily Diaz on

It is amazing to see how such a simple thing, such as sports, can have its negative and postive sides. Sports is a competition to determine who is the best and there is a tremendous amount of pressure put on athletes. Sports is a great way of releasing stress but can have the opposite effect if taken too far. We can all learn from sports and we ahould enjoy it!

Submitted by Patricia Limon on

I understand that some may think that sports is bad for an individual or it may be good. However, we have to see it in a positive light. Athletes learn so much about teamwork, hope, love and etc... it changes them as a person most likely for the better good.

Submitted by Lovepreet Singh on

Great article. We only worry about competition and winning. Whatever it takes to win, we do it. We try to eliminate and our competition and be superior. Its a sad and tragic truth about sports.

Submitted by Grecia Rayme on

I think it's important to touch on terms about sports. Athletes are using different methods in order to win, which is totally not fair for those who actually compete clean. Sports are a big thing in our society, and it's good to see that those who are interested are showing the different sides of what really goes in sports.

Submitted by carine Mbajoun on

Sports impact on society has completely changed nowadays people are about winning instead of having fun like in the past. Every single year at least one athlete is caught using drug to get stronger so they can win.

Submitted by Nory Cerna on

I believe that athletes wil do anything in order to achieve their goal. and some things can be really intense for example the use of drugs.

Submitted by Florian Milloch on

Nowadays, people mostly enjoy the conpetition rather than the beauty of the sport itself. For instance, a lot of people will love either Christiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi and sometimes violently argue about which one is best, while we should focus on the beauty of the sport. I don't like football, but I feel like Ronaldhino is the football athlete who represent best the spirit of football. He always seeks to create new tricks, to improve himself as a player and human, rather than seeking media attention like many football players do.

Submitted by Andrew Houston on

I have never cared for professional sports, nor do I see the need for them. Keeping ones body in shape is one thing, but all this money and time spent watching/participating/training could utilised elsewhere. With millions around the world in poverty, why host million dollar events like the olympocs, and pay football players for something that bring some no practical gain to the economy/nation/place? It doesn't make any sense.

Submitted by Alejandra Ramos on

I believe that sporting events are no longer about the love and passion for the sport rather who can win the most medals or who is the most popular athlete, We are play these sports for all the wrong reasons and it is a shame it has come to this point.

Submitted by Akhi on

This was an interesting article that managed to emphasize the general, modern outlooks about sports versus how the Greek and Romans used to view it. I agree that sports are used in today's society to dehumanize people.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Humanity has always reflected in some way an event that makes people yearn to be involved and enjoy themselves; whether that be the gladiator matches of Rome, the Greek Olympics or the olympics of modern society.

Submitted by YUREMIS DENIS on

I think sport is a powerful source of physical and emotional health. In my own experience sport can only bring good things.

Submitted by Brenda Garcia on

I'm sports, especially when it's amongst world class athletes, there is always a lot of pressure to be the best. It's unfortunate that this pressure can get to athletes and causes them to turn to harmful substances to allow them to preform better.

Submitted by Drew Liss on

Great article! Really changed my viewpoint on sports as well as competition as a whole. Don't get me wrong I think sports are amazing but I feel the players in sports don't play sports for the fun of it as well as love, but they do it to release held in anger.

Submitted by Jennifer Escobar on

I believe that there are more positive aspects about sport that affect society than any negative ones.

Submitted by Keysi Reyes on

Now a days athletes are striving to become the greatest athlete. Pressure to come the greatest is what causes athletes to go on illegal enhancement drugs. Something that has also occurred in sports is cheating. It has been founds that teams want to do whatever it takes for them to be the best at sports.

Submitted by Alina khadka on

Sports may better or for worse, however, sports is a way to help athletes overcome obstacles they have to face.

Submitted by Nickon Kashi on

In all honesty, sport is not inhumane unless the athlete themselves decides to take the performance enhancing drugs. Other than that, I believe that sports are seen as the highest level of the human physical performance. The reason why I say this is because of how we see these people dedicating themselves to the sport or sports that they love, and how it brings competition since each sport is strongly wrapped in history and culture.

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