This post is the first of the Philosophy Hour series, where I jot down some thoughts that resulted from over-lunch debating with my colleagues.
People who excel at sports are winners of a genetic AND social lottery: people with better lungs and hearts, who can afford to train in the best conditions - and in many sports, from biking to ice-skating, people who can afford the best gear.
Hence, is it wrong to take drugs, or have prosthetics, or be genetically engineered to achieve to same results? At which point do we consider that the competition stops making sense? Is it absurd to start replacing the players by robots, animals or metahumans that run faster and jump higher?
The answer depends on the function that we ascribe to professional sports.
There are three essential positions on this question, each entailing different stakes.
A) Their social function is to elicit a degree of fascination and hope for what a fellow human can achieve.
(This is indicative of a humanist and futurist society.)
Here, what matters is not the result, but who achieves it - more precisely, the feeling that this "who" is similar enough to us that we could do the same, or something just as impressive in a different field.
Under that interpretation, any form of cheating defeats the purpose. If the only way to achieve such a result is to be enhanced through external means, "we" could not, or should not want to, achieve it.
On the other hand, what is considered as *not* cheating has strong political resonances: allowing a new form of self-improvement entails revising the boundaries of what is a "fellow human". The day that prosthetics in sports are seen by everyone as obviously fair game is the day that cyborgs have become "just people".
B) Their social function is to assign merit to mastery or craft.
(This is indicative of a meritocratic, perhaps specialized, society)
Here, what matters is not the result, but the process - not doing something exceptional, but doing it just right, often with the assumption that going through the process provides you with a form of conscious control over the result.
The person who builds up their muscles, rather than being born with them, must have the (material, mental, social) technology to change themselves, and these muscles result from a constant feedback loop of actions and decisions engraved in the mind and behavior of the sportsman. In Kahneman lingo, there is a System 2 construct, a self-evaluating organ, that had to grow alongside the more obvious biceps and quadriceps.
The analogue here is recreational drugs versus meditation/ascetiscism. Most effects of the former can arguably be produced by some sort of the latter, and vice versa. But obtaining them by meditation means that we are not just experiencing them, we are producing and controlling them on our own. Whether this is of any real value is up to debate (I would think it is, if only because it suggests that we could do something else with such an open-ended apparatus), but it is definitely a trait that our society tries to paint as valuable.
C) The weakest but most overtly defended position: sports celebrate neither potential nor control, but pure doggedness - "it's worthwhile because it is hard".
There is a point in playing chess after Deep Blue, precisely because we are worse at it by nature.
Sure, birds can fly, but *we* fly through sheer effort and planning, without megayears of evolution to nudge us in the right direction. Following this line of thought, the unfairness of genetic (or any other) advantage can easily be offset: create an ELO rating for sportsmen, and when opponents are not balanced, add a handicap.
Here, things ought to be made equally hard for everyone - the only real skill is performing under hardship, being good at things that you're bad at.
On its own, this could lead to absurd escalation: every sport would automatically be better if the athletes were wearing lead aprons and hunted by a horde of rabid agoutis while on fire. Yet, bizarre as it is, this line of thought is clearly prevalent in military training among other places, so I have to recognize that it is empirically a part of society.
Positions A, B and C are so deeply entangled in our civilization that it is hard to conceive of them as truly separate. For instance, when I see paintings praised their photorealism AND photographs praised for being surreal and painting-like, I am not sure whether B or C is at play.
But it is fairly clear to me that any one of these positions makes more sense than assuming that we actually do care about the results.