Confessions of Olympian saboteurs

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I have blogged elsewhere about why I think a contest that does not involve defensive tactics barely qualifies as a sport. Or at any rate, in the aesthetics or connoisseurship of sport, the highest ranking sports are those for which good defensive play and strategy is as satisfying for the spectator as good offense. That’s why most events in the Winter Olympics — ice hockey and curling aside — will never rank highly in my pantheon of great sports. But I digress before I have even started.

When using sports in the service of understanding the ethics of competition in other adversarial realms (law, business, politics, war, etc) it is worth paying attention to the extent to which “defense” is a permissible, or even admirable, feature of the competition. Is it acceptable to try to win by thwarting an opponent’s offensive tactics (the way one does in hockey, American football, or chess)? Or is the competition the kind in which the only permissible winning strategies involve making yourself perform as well as possible (as a sprinter runs as fast as she can, or a pianist competing for a prize plays his heart out, or a law-school applicant presents a dossier with her highest possible grades and test scores, etc)?

Competitions that do not involve “defense” tend to present fewer challenges for adversarial ethics. Competitors can still cheat — by puffing or fabricating their alleged achievements, plagiarizing, bribing judges, using banned performance-enhancing substances (say, cocaine for LSATs). And if such cheating is widespread, or believed by the competitors to be widespread, it is especially problematic in an adversarial realm, because it strongly incentivizes all competitors to cheat. But when there are no opportunities for defensive tactics (a law school applicant has no way to make her rivals look worse — the way a politician, lawyer, or salesperson can), there is less directly adversarial behavior to have to regulate or monitor.

Of course, when competitors find a way to undermine their rivals in a competition that does not permit defensive tactics, that can lead to grave, and often super sleazy, ethical violations. In his seminal paper on this topic, Joe Heath reminds us of the time one figure skater, Tonya Harding, tried to improve her chances for an Olympic medal by having her ex-husband and a hired goon kneecap her main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, at the US Figure Skating Championships in 1994. There is no playing defense in figure skating. And certainly not that kind. (Harding plead guilty to a felony. The USFSA — figure it out — booted her out for life, citing her “clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior.”)

Teachers who grade on a curve hear similar blood-curdling tales of classmates who hide books in the library, mess up their classmates’ lab experiments, and refuse to cooperate in study groups, so that they can climb over their fellow students and claw their way higher in the curve.

Anyway, all of this is a rather pretentious set-up for a totally low-brow, and misleadingly advertised bit of clickbait from the Onion’s Clickhole entitled

8 Olympic Athletes Tell Us About Their Most Successful Time Sabotaging A Competitor

Put it this way: nobody’s going to jail for any of these revelations. Nobody is going to have to make a living in their post-athletic careers through professional wrestling, celebrity boxing, or selling sex tapes (Harding’s fate). But the concept of “sabotaging a competitor” — especially in adversarial realms that don’t allow any defensive tactics — remains a critical and controversial one in adversarial ethics.

Tonya Harding Defeated By Samantha Browning

MEMPHIS, TN – FEBRUARY 22: Tonya Harding is hit by a right jab from Samantha Browning during their women’s bantamweight bout at The Pyramid on February 22, 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee. Browning won the fight by way of decision after 4 rounds. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

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