Ethical standards of fair play – the basis of modern sport

Aleksandr Gonashvili1Anastasiia Ivanova1, Snezhana Starovoitova2
1Faculty of sociology, Saint Petersburg State University
2 Faculty of international relations, Saint Petersburg State University


In recent years, there have been and continue to be numerous examples of behaviors and practices in contemporary sport that deviate from what is consider to be the standard of conduct in sport.  Such examples include doping, rule violations, and athlete misbehavior both on and off the field.  This paper offers a discussion of the theoretical basis of the ethical foundations of sport, expressed in the principles of fair play, with emphasis on the articulation between cultural-moral personhood in sport and the increasingly anti-humanist features of contemporary, institutionalized professional sport (sub-)cultures.  As a rule, an athlete is exposed to a combination of two morally loaded orientations.  On one hand, an athlete is bound to the morality of preserving a status of honesty and ethicality in the eyes of the fans and, on the other hand, the sporting system encourages or stimulates an orientation whereby an athlete is to achieve victory by any means. This latter orientation entails a violation of fair play, not only from the point of view of ethics, but also from the viewpoint of the rules of sports games.  The ambiguity and tension between these two orientations will be discussed in this paper.  We argue that the notion of fair play is foundational to sport and that, without it, there is no critical reflexivity within sport.  Furthermore, we argue that the cultural-moral and ethical dimension of sport elevate sport beyond just a means of production and consumption and invest the athlete with cultural and spiritual values.

Fair play and the ethics of modern sport

Ethical problems commonly discussed today – not only in the scientific sphere, but in all spheres connected with competition with an opportunity to gain a profit. Sport as well is one of these spheres. Sport’s culture is becoming more and more anti-humanistic, because in the process of professional sport’s institutionalization the process of personal moral and cultural evolution is lost. The basic cultural and ethical ideas of sport development include the ethical basis of the phenomenon of sport – Fair Play, the principle of honest games.

Speaking of ethics and ethics violation in sport, we’d like to point out that this phenomenon has become a subject of research only recently, but it’s becoming more and more relevant. Sportsmen are orientated to win and gain a profit in their career, and it goes against the true philosophy of the sport movement and the Olympic spirit. Different ways to win at any cost, including bribing the referee, taking performance-enhancing drugs, and harming an opponent demonstrate this multi-direction within the sports movement.  This position becomes more and more popular as victors in competitions are awarded not merely diplomas, but money as well. So, it’s not surprising that a sportsman loses control over his actions and sees an enemy instead of an opponent and a swindler instead of a referee (Egorov & Zaharov 2006:10).

Lately, Fair Play violations have been spreading quickly. Coaches even create and teach conceptions of deliberate violation of the rules of sports in order to gain profit. These conceptions include tactical fouls in football and a last hope fouls in basketball. The essence of these violations lies in undermining the opponent’s attack, in which he has a dominant position and a great chance for a goal in football or an abandoned ball in basketball, with the goal of stopping the opponent. Such conception arises because of a combination of two different morals – the moral of maintaining a fair sportsman image, and the moral of winning at any costs. This ambiguity of moral values leads to violations of Fair Play – not only from the ethical position but also from a position of game rules. According to the German philosopher, Professor of Karlsruhe University Hans Lenk, fair play can be divided into formal and informal fair play. Informal fair play in the sports tradition is understood as a “gentleman’s behavior”, chivalry and sporting spirit. Formal fair play is an obligatory norm (Lenk 2004). When speaking about informal game as chivalry (as proposed by Pierre de Coubertin), we need to take into consideration that it implies not only sport norms and rules, but also an ethical calling, which allows opponents to view each other as friends and colleagues, not enemies. This vision of sport started in Ancient Greece, where Fair Play was the basis of all sport traditions. In Ancient Greece, sports and the modern Olympic Games were tied together with religion. The “sacred” feature was seen in all sports and contests where the competition elements were present. The Greeks competed in almost everything – who is more beautifully dressed; who sings better; and who drinks more, and later falls asleep. And even in this last form it is impossible not to notice the connection with the sacral sphere: “drinking a lot, without interfering with wine and water” was a part of the libation ritual. Alexander noted the deaths of Kalan gymnastics, and a musical agon, as a result of which 35 participants of the feast died immediately, and six later, including the winner in wine drinking (Huizinga, 1997:80-90). In turn, violators and supporters of a dishonest sports game in Ancient Greece were punished with a kind of fine: at the expense of the guilty party, in front of the entrance to the antique stadium, a bronze statue of Zeus was raised on the pedestal of which were noted not only the name of the guilty, but also of his parents, and the name of the city where he was born. According to historians, 13 such monuments of “bad reputation” were built in the history of ancient games (Egorov & Zakharov 2006:10). An important period in the birth of “chivalry” in sports was the Middle Ages, with its inception of knights and chivalric ethics. During this period, the principle of moral honesty arose, which accompanied the formation of chivalry ethics, honesty and nobility.

Commercialisation and fair play violations

Fair Play is an important part of sport philosophy. It was introduced in Ancient Greece, where the stadium was a place for honest and fair sport competition. But in the modern world the situation has changed. Basic values, sport philosophy and real values are contradictory. It is connected with the fact that modern sport as a cultural phenomenon is a product of industrial society, and in order to understand its genesis we need to explore the historical context of civilization. (Egorov & Zaharov 2006:44-45).

We can conclude that sport and the sports movement are becoming a product of market relations. Because of the growth of horizontal and vertical social mobilities, popularity of commercial sports activities has spread rapidly. Today, in order to admit that the athlete’s achievements are important both materially and socially – the state’s rewards will become a form of recognition of a social importance of achievements. Modern sport is gaining more and more features of show business. Spectacular kinds of sports are becoming more and more popular, they develop rapidly.

The German sociologist and psychologist Jörg Kaspar Roth discovered the following pattern: “The less transparent rules of competition, the weaker the judges, the more biased the audience and the more welcome the reward, the more unceremoniously the game is played out not according to the rules” (Lenk 2004). There is an increasing misconception in society that morality and its decline are not connected to sport. Given all that, the idea of fair play is the main value of modern sports, and without it the sport phenomenon loses its foundation and becomes the nominal manifestation of the domain of power without awareness, self-awareness of feelings and thought within the framework of sports. Principles of Fair Play work as a counterweight to the selfishness of athletes in sport. The moral and ethical essence of Fair Play are those forms of sport manifestation, which makes sport not a means of production and consumption of the maximum of physical possibilities, but makes it a part of cultural and spiritual values.  Sport should be seen as a way to develop the inner self. If sport is viewed differently it leads to a decline in sports performance and brings about the decline in the potential of the national and cultural heritage. To accumulate the development of a comprehensive personality in sports, the main features of Fair Play are honesty and justice. Sport is an integral part of the social system of society, where it is necessary not only to delegate responsibility for certain actions to the athlete, but also to pay attention to the social conditioning of the sports institute itself, its transformation and the determination of certain phenomena in sport (Gonashvili 2016). Only with the joint cooperation of the state and the institution of civil society, business and the individual can overcome existing problems and thereby ensure the future health of the country and the comprehensive development of people (Kuznetsov 2012).


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