Should athletes in individual sports help other athletes on the same “team”?

Individual sports are logically those sports where athletes compete as individuals. A marathon is a good example: you run the race, and your name appears on the results list at the end. Your club name (if you have one) or even country might follow after that, but the result is representative of your performance alone. This is standard in swimming, track and field, alpine skiing, wrestling, boxing, sailing, and a host of other sports.

Sometimes there are relays, team points, and other types of competitions that explicitly state how individuals should work together to win a specific event or title. Indeed, some events in sports like cycling involve teammates “working” for each other so that one (designated) team member will have the best chance of winning. But if we look past these, at what point does one individual helping another individual from the same team, group, or country no longer seem fair?

The following is an example of such a situation: A group of individuals from different clubs are racing each other for an individual title. An athlete from one club is one position ahead of another athlete from the same club as they near the finish line. The athlete that is behind has, however, had a successful season and may win an yearly overall points title as well if they do well enough in the current race. If they don’t, a competitor from a different team will win the overall points title. Just before the finish line, the athlete from the same club who is ahead slows down to let the other athlete from the same club pass and finish in a better position. They win the overall points title for the year.

This might seem like good sportsmanship to some. Why would we deprive someone from our same club the chance to win a prestigious title, if we ourselves had no chance of winning it? It might even have been discussed before the race, so that members of the club knew what to do if such a situation arose.

But it also raises a dilemma. An athlete from a different club would have (deservedly) won the title instead had this seemingly selfless act not taken place. Perhaps that other competitor didn’t have anyone in a position to help them out, either – now, or even during the rest of the season. None of the races that counted for the overall points title were team competitions, and there are no rules that clearly state how individuals should or should not work together.

Consulting the postulates

We can once again look to the postulates for guidance.

Postulate 4 states that preparation, strategy and tactics within agreed upon rules and ideals are the only means in which to gain an advantage over one’s competitors. Isn’t the above situation an example of well-played strategy and tactics? Perhaps. But it is not the individual who stands to gain from such strategy or tactics who is employing them.

Postulate 6 states that one’s best effort must always be given. This might be true for the overall points winner, but it certainly isn’t the case for the athlete that slowed down to let them pass. That athlete actually curtailed their effort for their clubmate’s benefit.

So what to do?

Still, it doesn’t seem clear cut. Aren’t we, as individual athletes, obliged to consider how we treat our fellow athletes? Don’t those we train and compete with the most deserve our loyalty the most? Wouldn’t it be a sign of respect to someone who had continually performed well all year to let them get that final point they needed – and bring honor to “my” team as a bonus?

These are not easy questions to answer. Indeed, our clubmate would probably feel deeply respected by – and grateful for – our gesture in the race. But how would that other club’s competitor feel about us? They would, of course, be vastly disappointed. It would feel like a breach of loyalty among athletes – that we are there to challenge each other to the utmost, to bring out the best in each other. It might be considered “dirty” tactics that shouldn’t be applied in that situation – even if there is no rule that explicitly forbids it. Someone who was particularly dismayed might even liken it to match-fixing.

The alternatives are difficult. A: compete with our best effort, but deny our clubmate a chance at getting a prestigious title. Or B: give less than our best and benefit our clubmate, but then deny another athlete from getting a prestigious title.

In choosing alternative B, postulate 6 would clearly not side with us. Yet many athletes would still likely consider said behaviour acceptable. It is here that we perhaps need to look to the development of our sport as a whole. Perhaps a rule, guideline or development needs to be put into place to reflect the ideals that we want our sport to embody. That would fall well in line with Postulate 2. We might make it abundantly clear that such behaviour is not allowed, or that it is. Perhaps we might arrange a new type of points competition that makes such situations much less likely to arise.

But, at the very least, we would talk things out with that other athlete after the race and clear the air. We would let them know that they fought well this season, and if they found themselves in the same situation, we would accept them doing the same. It will make things easier next time such controversies arise, and we’ll be more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt. That’s how we make our society stronger – through discussion, respect, and appreciation for each other.