Playing to lose

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Aside from ‘why are Britain suddenly brilliant at sport?’, sportsmanship and fair play have been a major topic of discussion at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

In the last few days, an Algerian runner stopped during an 800m race to save his energy for his preferred 1500m, while a British cyclist allegedly deliberately crashed after a slow start in order to restart the race.

The biggest talking point came when four badminton pairs were kicked out of the Olympic Games for trying to lose a match in order to meet ‘easier’ opponents in the next round – this breached the official code of conduct which warned against ‘not using one’s best efforts to win a match’.

The crowd booed and the media tutted but, although this behaviour might not make for good viewing, Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University’s Philosophy Faculty insists it should not be seen as unethical.

‘Many competitors fail for various psychological reasons to use their best efforts to win a match,’ he says. ‘The great skier Alberto Tomba spoke of staying up until 3am with five women before a race – this would reduce the performance of anyone in a top sporting competition.

‘Having a temper tantrum is hardly using your best efforts to win a match – there are numerous examples of this in tennis. While everyone remembers Usain Bolt easing up before finishing the 100m in the Beijing Olympics.’

But is the difference not that Tomba, Bolt, and (reading between the lines) McEnroe and Murray still wanted and intended to win, whereas the badminton pairs aimed to throw the match?

‘This is known in philosophy as the ‘intention-foresight distinction’ which is now widely discredited,’ Professor Savulescu says. ‘For example: Smith is duck shooting with Jones. Jones inadvertently walks in front of Smith’s barrel. Smith sees him but continues his shot anyway. He doesn’t intend to kill Jones though he foresees he will. He just wants to get a prize duck.

‘So too with the badminton players and La Bomba Tomba – both knew their actions would reduce their chance of winning, even if La Bomba didn’t want to perform below his best.’

The fault, Professor Savulescu argues, lies with the rules of the sport. ‘Since when is strategy abusive to sport?’, he asks. ‘If there is a problem, then the rules should be changed.

‘This seems to be an example of puritanical moralism infecting sport – people are trying to define a good sport and enforce some anachronistic account of the spirit of sport.

‘You can get dropped from the team, or booed, or divorced, for not trying hard enough – but this is not the place for these kinds of rules or laws.’

You can read a fuller account of Professor Savulescu’s argument on Practical Ethics, a blog from researchers in four centres based at the Philosophy Faculty which focuses on current events with practical ethical relevance.

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