Ethical issues related to science and technology in sports only began to attract critical attention during the second half of the twentieth century. This paralleled the increasing scientific study of sports and the creation of sports science, as well as the discovery and development of performance enhancing drugs and technological transformations in sports equipment. The latter two influences have been especially problematic, and have played a central role in the emergence of critical studies in the field.
Modern Sports Development
This scientizaton reflects a shift in values concerned with sports. Allen Guttmann describes, in From Ritual to Record (1978), how the development of timing technology introduced the possibility of records, now a dominant feature of modern sports. The late-nineteenth century British public school games, which championed muscular Christianity, repositioned physical exertion as central to the development of a productive and civil society. It also led to the politicization of sports and, along with the revived modern Olympic movement, which began in 1896, steadily became a focus of international political propaganda. With a philosophy that champions humanistic virtues of peace, culture, and education, the modern Olympic movement is less about sports contests than about ideology. It occupies an ambiguous social position as an organization that has devalued amateurism and embraced commercialization, while maintaining that there is something philosophically and socially meaningful about the games.
Ethical discussions concerning technology in sports generally focus on establishing what constitutes just or fair competition. The limited accessibility of a technology is often used as a reason for prohibiting its use in competition. In addition if the use of a particular innovation contravenes the agreed upon rules, that use may also be unethical. However because disputes exist as to what rules have been agreed to, the ethical issues are often blurred.
Drugs and Sports
During the 1980s, concerns about technology in sports focused largely on technologies of doping and drug use. This was prompted by a series of doping incidents in international sports, some of which resulted in death or serious injury for a number of athletes (Brown 1980, Houlihan 2002). The situation was accentuated by high-profile cases, for example that of the Canadian runner Ben Johnson who was stripped of the gold medal he won at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul after testing positive for anabolic steroids. Discussions about doping continue, accentuated by the emergence of new technologies, such as genetic modification, that challenge the ability of anti-doping authorities to detect cheaters (Miah 2004). Gene doping could challenge ethical theories in sports: Are genetically enhanced athletes cheats if they are altered before birth (embryogenesis)? Also if the genetic technologies at issue are not harmful to athletes, there is no persuasive health argument to support a ban on their use.
Beyond doping, the increased use of technology and technologically advanced artifacts in sports raises a number of ethical questions (Miah and Eassom 2002, Gelberg 1998). Innovative techniques have radically changed some sports or events, such as the Fosbury flop in high jumping or the O'Brien shuffle in shot put. These have been seen as ethically contentious, though legitimate, because they increased the demands placed on athletes in competition.
Since the late-twentieth century, events in the sporting world have clearly illustrated the ethical implications that arise from the use of technology in sports. A few examples are the development of running shoe technology; lighter and stronger implements, such as golf clubs, cricket bats, and tennis rackets; and innovations such as the Fast-Skin swimming suit, which was used for the first time at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Many new sports technologies have been accepted. Technologically advanced running shoes, tennis rackets, bicycles, golf clubs, and others have been identified as beneficial improvements to sports because they enhance the safety of an activity or allow athletes to perform without interference from inadequate, cumbersome technology.
Technology has even democratized participation in sports to some extent, with the mass production of equipment permitting more people to play sports with the same kind of equipment used by elite athletes. However, this has also carried a burden of making elite sports subservient to the public or more specifically, sport spectators. Television audiences often dictate scheduling for competitions, which raises problems for sports federations, because so-called prime-time television schedules can conflict with the time of day when it is most desirable for athletes to compete.
One of the central components of these ethical discussions is the degree to which technologies are replacing the athlete in performance or are dehumanizing sports (Hoberman 1992). For example, double-stringed (so-called spaghetti strung) tennis racquets were banned in the 1980s because they offered too much performance enhancement by enabling athletes to exert an unusually high amount of spin on the ball. There is an ethical concern about the means that allow athletes to achieve high levels of performance: An undeserved enhancement is considered unethical. Yet it can be argued that sports performances are necessarily technological and athletes must embrace their cyborgian identities by recognizing technology as a valued aspect of their performance.
When technology appears to make a sport easier for athletes, thus seemingly undermining or devaluing the performance, there are also ethical issues raised. Of key importance is what is meant by devaluing sports, because it is possible that technology could also be described as removing performance inhibitors, which is desirable when such inhibition is athletically irrelevant. For example, highly sophisticated running shoes might appear to enhance performance, or alternatively can be said to reduce inhibitions caused by the natural weakness the human foot.
This argument requires determining the factors that are athletically relevant to specific sports, an often contentious issue that can appeal to definitions of the goals of sports (Suits 1973). Do piezoelectric circuits in skis remove a performance inhibitor or make the activity unacceptably easier? The technology is designed to reduce the vibrations felt by skiers, thus giving them better control. It can certainly be argued that the new technology has made the activity easier because athletes no longer have to deal with the same degree of vibration as before. However it can also be argued that vibration is an irrelevant aspect of skiing—skiing does not test the ability of athletes to cope with vibration—and thus that the technology is not ethically suspect. Breaking records in the wake of technological advances in a particular sport suggests that an activity has become easier as a result of the innovation or that the advances have contributed to enhanced performance. It is, however, sometimes more accurate to conclude that the new technology has enabled a more representative measure of athletic performance.
Other ethical discussions involve whether technology changes the nature of the sport. For example, despite having sanctioned many changes to the construction of competitive bicycles, the International Cycling Union (ICU) banned Graeme Obree's superman design, in which one rides with arms stretched out in front of the body (like Superman), crouched over the handlebars. The ICU justified the ban by arguing that the new design would be generally unavailable, and thus the competitive sport would actually be different than the normal cycling experienced by the average rider. The ban seems to have been imposed because the innovation created a new concept of what constituted cycling, which conflicted with some kind of traditional, ideal form.
However some technological changes are beneficial to sports and disallowing them because they change traditional concepts is wrong. Changes to the construction of the javelin in the 1980s paved the way for a new type of successful participant, as opposed to the athletes who had been traditional winners in the event. However without such changes the natural progress of the sport would have resulted in athletes throwing the javelin into the audience, possibly requiring elimination of the activity from track and field competitions.
Alasdair MacIntyre's (1985) articulation of practice communities, which discusses the intrinsic good of sports and the distinction between novice and expert, is a useful retheorization of sports values (Morgan 1994). William Morgan's thesis is an explanation of the political economy of sports and the problematic hierarchical structures that have marginalized specific voices within specific practice communities. According to Morgan, there are two possibilities when sports are altered through technological developments. Society must either redescribe the activity—such as in the case of the javelin throw when the sport changed to sustain its character. Or society must accept the emergence of cyborg-athletes, which entails a redefinition of what it means to be a human being. By offering a subtle shift in the perception of humanness, sports provide an arena in which what it means to be human, as a living being and as an athlete, is ambiguous, liberated, and technologized.
SEE ALSO Drugs.
Brown, W. Miller. (1980). "Ethics, Drugs and Sport." Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 7: 15–23. One of the early papers on the doping issue; asks what should be against the rules in the first place.
Gelberg, J. Nadine. (1998). "Tradition, Talent and Technology: The Ambiguous Relationship between Sports and Innovation." In Design for Sport, ed. Akiko Busch. London: Thames and Hudson. A cross-disciplinary analysis of technology in sport, considering the aesthetics and tradition of technology as binding factors in ethical discussions about progress in sport.
Guttmann, Allen (1978). From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia University Press. This book draws attention to the evidence that recrords and measurement have not always been grounding values in elite sport.
Hoberman, John M. (1992). Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport. New York: Free Press. A socio-historical analysis of doping in elite sport. Hoberman argues that the situation in elite sport is intractable.
Houlihan, Barrie. (2002). Dying to Win: Doping in Sport and the Development of Anti-Doping Policy. Strasburg, France: Council of Europe Publishing. A comprehensive analysis of anti-doping policy, Houlihan's work reveals the inadequacy of ethical theorizing within applied sports settings.
MacIntyre, Alaisdair. (1985). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd edition. London: Duckworth.
Miah, Andy. (2004). Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping, and Sport. London: Routledge. The first book length study of ethical issues arising from genetic modification in sport. Argues for genetic exceptionalism in sport and for anti-doping organizations to reconsider characterizing genetic modification as just another form of doping.
Miah, Andy, and Simon B. Eassom, eds. (2002). Sport Technology: History, Philosophy & Policy. Oxford: Elsevier Science. Provides a foundation for theorizing technological issues in sport, building upon themes in cultural studies of the cyborg, otherness and gender.
Morgan, William J. (1994). Leftist Theories of Sport: A Critique and Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Questions the legitimacy of sporting structures and their capacity to enable democratically sensitive, ethical decision making.
Suits, B. (1973). "The Elements of Sport." In The Philosophy of Sport: A Collection of Original Essays, ed. Robert G. Osterhoudt. Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishers. Suits is a founding father of philosophy of sport. His theoretical insights on defining games, play, and sports continue to underpin discussions about the ethics of sport technology.