Is there too much competition in sport?

by Thomas R. Wells

Sports are mere games, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” as Bernard Suits, the founder of the philosophy of games, puts it. So why do we care about them? The pleasure of sport has three distinct sources – competition, drama, and craft. Although each has their own logic and appeal, the defining characteristic of a flourishing sport is the harmonious balance it achieves between all three. In this light, the increasing dominance of competition across all sports is distinctly worrying. In the long run it may squeeze the very life out of them. The thin zero-sum perspective on sports that it embodies is already the source of the pernicious doping scandals, nationalism, and sexism in modern sports.


Ali-v-Inoki-001The pleasure of competition consists in the resolution of uncertainty combined with the validation of status rankings. There is a special thrill in the resolution of a sustained uncertainty about an outcome, and this is also behind the appeal of gambling. But in sport the resolution of this uncertainty is also meant to reflect merit: sporting competition provides an answer to the question of Who deserves to win? In the past, the Greeks saw the winners of sporting competitions as selected by the Gods and modern celebrations of gold medallists still echo of that. Hence the emphasis on fairness – level playing fields and anti-doping rules – to ensure the results reflect only the authentic natural merit of the contestants. The centrality of numbers – records, rankings, and numerous other statistics – also follows from this emphasis on outcomes. Competition is what makes sport exciting. It is also extremely accessible to those who know nothing about a sport (the familiar question of the noob 'Who's side are we on?') and can be repurposed as a relatively harmless expression of interregional or international rivalry, as when people identify with their national team in the soccer World Cup and go around talking about how 'we' beat 'Brazil'.

Competition – the chancing of fate and divine favour – is important but it is not the only kind of pleasure that sport can and should afford. The others though tend to make more demands on the spectator.

Sports are also dramas, in which players can be seen as performing semi-scripted roles on a public stage with, not against, their ‘opponents'. What is important here is not the final score, but how the players inhabit their roles and make them their own, including the moral character they exhibit in their interactions with team-mates and opponents and the overcoming of injuries, and their judgement calls about how to play the opportunities that come their way. Every game is a unique performance to be savoured in its particularity. Just as we might ask, ‘Did you see Patrick Stewart's Macbeth in New York?' so we might say ‘I'll always remember seeing Federer's semi-final at Wimbledon'.

This is the aspect of sports that a live audience is best placed to appreciate, since they can see more than what the camera – tracking the excitement – or the scoreboard shows. It is demanding as well because one must be expert enough about the play of the game and those who play it to properly appreciate the special characteristics of this performance. Fans, those who have made a commitment to a particular sports team part of their identity, have the kind of familiarity with the game to talk about it like this, albeit in partisan terms, and as a result are touched by emotional highs and lows that the casual spectator misses – or escapes. Good sports commentators, like good theatre critics, bring their wealth of experience into their analysis of what's going on, revealing hidden depths of heroism, sacrifice, and tragedy that the scoreboard cannot show.

The play of the game is not only about the acting out of social roles and the audience's following emotional experience or pathos. There is also the impartial admiration that attaches to the technical skill, or craft, displayed by the players. The sociologist Richard Sennett, defines craftsmanship broadly as the basic impulse to do a job well for its own sake, to aspire to a level of mastery and painstaking attention to technique and its incremental improvement that is out of proportion to the value of the output produced. That is a peculiarly non-economic attitude found in few places these days besides sports (it also clings on in some parts of academia, for now). Even though most of us are alienated from craftsmanship in our own working lives we can still appreciate its particular beauty. Professional athletes' exuberant display of decades-long dedication and hard won expertise shines through the efficiently mass-produced dross of modern life. This is what keeps people in airports watching, spellbound, before a big screen showing coverage of an Olympics sport they have hardly even heard of.


These three sources of pleasure overlap, and in certain sports some are naturally more dominant than others – as craft dominates our appreciation of performance sports such as gymnastics. But I think all are needed to some extent. Partly because the absence of any one of them – like the absence of competition in the World Wrestling franchises – seems cause to deny it the status of a genuine sport. But partly also for less semantic reasons: the fewer ways in which a sport can be appreciated the shakier its general claim to be a valuable human activity worth taking seriously and retaining into the future. Stripped of its sources of value, a sport is just a game, a matter of attempting to achieve goals that don't matter (like putting a small ball into a hole) by means that are deliberately inefficient (using only a selection of metal sticks) – something that one could very easily do without. Finally, the different sources of pleasure can also interact with and support each other. For example, in moderation, competition provides a basic narrative engine that energises and orientates the drama of sport; and also provides the driving motivation and economic independence that permit the flourishing of craftsmanship.

Hence my concern. Competition has become the dominant form of appreciation across nearly every sport, crowding out the other aspects that are more concerned with the play of the game itself and flattening out the experience of sport for players and spectators alike to the matter of the collection of points and prizes. At some point we may remember that there is no more reason to value running 100 metres faster than anyone else than there is to value eating more baked beans in 3 minutes than anyone else. When I was a kid I found discovering such facts in the Guinness book of records terribly exciting. Then I grew up.

In the short term though there are other problems with an excess of competition. Here are just a few.

First, competition is reductive – only winning matters, not the underlying practice. I already mentioned a positive aspect of the Olympics, how it can expose people to the particular beauty of a craft they might otherwise never have noticed. But the Olympics also offers an extreme example – to the point of self-parody – of the reductive character of competition. Most of the media coverage of the Olympics takes the form of endless reporting on the medal league tables as sites of competition between nations with little to no attention to the sports themselves. The sports are so little present that one might as well be talking about PISA score rankings or rates of GDP growth. Governments are called upon to invest in sports, meaning extraordinarily expensive elite training facilities in the sports it is easiest to generate the most medals, not giving more opportunities to more citizens to play. The result has been an arms race of scientific training and governmental doping regimes that destroy athletes' bodies without even making for a more enjoyable spectacle.

Second, the domination of competition in the media, reflecting but also shaping its viewers' preferences, has led to increasing large financial prizes for winners that has warped the motives of participants. It is not the taking part that matters; it's the money and the prestige, and the further money one can make from selling sponsors access to your prestige. No wonder then that respect for the play of the game has become merely instrumental, and respect for the very rules on which fair competition depends has eroded away. Every sport with any substantial amount of money at stake is ridden with performance enhancing drugs. The economic logic of the prisoner's dilemma rules: cheating is the dominant strategy in a winner-takes-all system.

Third, competition reduces women's sport to a second-class status, a side-show for a class of people whose ‘disability' excludes them from the real contest. While the fairness aspect of competition requires segregation to reflect differences in physiology that affect performance in most sports, the status ranking aspect means that the results of the women's competition can't really matter. Like the Paralympics, women's sport will remain tokenistic unless the values of drama and craft are taken more seriously.


Competition is central to why sport matters. We just have to remember that it's not the only reason to care about sport, and not to allow the easy but superficial thrill it excels in producing to become the only way of enjoying sport. Competition, with its self-defeating tendencies, runs so much of our lives in these days of hypercapitalism. We don't need it to run sport too. The dramatic and especially the craftsmanship aspects of sport are harder to find elsewhere in our modern lives and much more important to the enduring appeal of sport.