How should sport be done?

Sometimes, asking how can help understanding why

Why you do sport is up to you. There are no right or wrong reasons, and the reasons you find now might change in the future. When we do sports with other athletes, we learn and change, too. Our society progresses.

There is no spokesperson or organisation with the moral position to tell us why we should or should not do sport. Even if there was, it would be almost impossible for such an authority to ensure that those reasons are followed. We accept that we have different reasons for doing sport, and that sport does not exist without us, the athletes. We are the Society of Sport.

There are, however, some ideas about how sport should be done. These are based on traditions, principles, and even rules that arose as the history of sport progressed. They may have borrowed from other societies along the way (and perhaps vice versa). They are not agreed upon by all, and certainly not embodied by all. But they offer a kind of anchoring point around which we might be able to tether our own reasons for doing sport. We clearly see some of them in different sports’ rules of play and codes of conduct, but that doesn’t mean they are always clearly written down. And even if they were, they would need to be constantly interpreted, discussed, and tested.

That’s what any healthy society does. So, we’re promoting that collective discussion about these ideals by putting them into words. We call them the postulates.

Below you’ll find a draft of these postulates. They are written as statements about how to do sport. You may agree with them, disagree with, or conditionally accept, depending on the situation. They may change as our discussions provide insight (and we’ll let you know if they do, and why). But most importantly, at any time, you can use them as a sounding board to help you hone your own answer(s) to why you do sport.

Click on each postulate to see a more detailed description of it.

The postulates.

1.All are invited to the contest, and the invitation is permanently renewable.

This postulate lays the groundwork for all the others. It perpetually asks us to join a contest, where we compete against each other for superiority, to attain a position of supremacy. It states that we must come as athletes, however. Which then invites the questions: who is an athlete? Who is allowed to be an athlete? How does one become an athlete? Who is invited into our society?

Think about this carefully. ”All” – essentially everyone – is a lot of people. Persons of any shape, size, experience, culture, physical or intellectual capacity, belief, social group, political orientation, sexual identity, and level of wealth (or poverty). It also includes ignoramuses, asshats, jokers, convicts, extremists, and a plethora of other colorful personalities that many societies tend to shun. There are hosts of outliers within all these descriptions, too.

We then need to ask ourselves if we are ready to stand next to any of them on the field of play. We need to ask ourselves if we feel that they have exactly the same right to stand there as we do. And once we’ve had our match, race, contest or test of strength, we need to ask ourselves if we’d be willing to ask them to come back and do it again another time. If we feel like there’s some doubt in there about someone, we need to be honest about why. Is it because they’re not like us as individuals or groups? Or are they not like us as athletes? The difference may be more important than you might imagine.

The other postulates might help clarify the answers to some of these questions, but it is worth examining this one on its own first.

2.The rules of the contest reflect its ideals, and vice versa.

It is occasionally stated that rules are made to be broken. Others accept that they may be ”bent”, if required. In sport, rules define the framework in which athletes in a contest are allowed to operate. This framework may have several purposes. It is meant to provide fairness in the contest. It may also exist to prevent unwanted events or injury from occurring, or to ensure that the contest is played in accordance with its intended purpose or objective.

Such intentions, while necessary and important, are only part of why we should have rules in sport, though. There should be a deeper purpose to many of these rules, allowing them to become a contract between athletes, binding them to each other in a kind of solidarity. And that solidarity is more than just agreeing to not touch the ball with our hands when we’re supposed to only use our feet, racket, club or stick. It should be an agreement about ideals – like loyalty, humanity, empathy and integrity. By binding ourselves to such ideals we are voluntarily being influenced by them, affected in a way that we can both accept and endorse. Otherwise, we likely wouldn’t do it.

There are almost certainly some contests in life that we would not accept the rules of, and thus their ideals. Having to kill another contestant in order to obtain victory, for example, is likely one of them for the overwhelming majority of people. Yet this was historically accepted in a few (thankfully ancient) sports as a reasonable outcome. Why was that? Arguably because the ideals of that time were aligned with it.

Our ideals today also change, as we learn and progress. And thus, so do the rules of our respective sports. After all, the rules of a contest are in the end a democratic process (yet another ideal), sometimes open to interpretation, but certainly changeable. It happens all the time.

But this postulate inherently states that we need to make a choice. It says that, as athletes, we can either accept the rules, refuse to accept them (and therefore not participate), or work to change them so they align with our ideals. It says that it is not enough to look at rules as simple instructions, or as directives that might be creatively undermined or worked around to allow us to outsmart our competitors. It says that we need to see them – and to formulate them – so that they reflect a greater purpose. If we agree with this postulate, then we see a deeper meaning in our sport, and our participation in it.

3.The outcome of the contest is valid only when decided on an even playing field.

This postulate might also seem like a given to many. Why would anyone want to participate in (or watch) a contest where the cards are stacked in favor of one party, or against the other? No real athlete or spectator would want the referee to prefer one team’s success, or the race to be shorter for some than others.

This does happen, unfortunately. Match fixing has been a problem throughout history, and continues to be today. Judges and referees can be biased or bought, athletes may use banned substances to alter their physiology, and gear can be rigged. The questions we must ask are: can the people who are sloping the field be considered athletes anymore? Do such behaviors necessarily exclude them from our society?

The reality is more complicated than these obvious infractions, however. There are a number of situations in sport today where one could claim that exactly this kind of unevenness not only exists, but is promoted – consciously or unconsciously. Individuals, teams, or even countries may use an abundance of resources to gain advantages through better equipment, pre-competition intelligence, or other methods that the athlete has nothing to do with. Some of these methods may not (sometimes ever) be available to other athletes.

These are things that may help athletes do sport, but have little to do with the athlete’s own capacities and abilities. They might be seen as rewards for having made it to a certain level, but once there, such rewards often have the effect of ensuring that others do not obtain them.

4.Training, preparation, strategy and tactics within agreed upon rules and ideals are the only means in which to gain an advantage over one’s competitors.

This postulate might be seen as a continuation from number 3. If the field of play is even, how does one go about pursuing victory? The fourth postulate clearly defines this.

Training is teaching, learning, and practicing the skills we need to enter a contest. If we train more thoughtfully, systematically, or vigorously than our competitors, we bring this advantage to the contest. Preparation through acclimatization, focus, rest, logistics, studying our opponents, or other activities can also yield benefits. Strategy and tactics, while initially military terms, involves the planning to achieve defined goals in the contest, and the actions needed to execute that planning.

These probably sound fine to most, but the postulate also qualifies them with a condition: within agreed upon rules and ideals. Some obvious rules include the world anti-doping code, which prohibits the use of specific substances and medical methods to gain an advantage. Some others based on unspoken ideals; not sabotaging your opponent’s preparations and training might be one of them. Grey zones might also arise: ”psyching” your opponent through various means, using advanced espionage to study them, or creating unwelcoming conditions when hosting opponents, to name a few.

The main question we need to ask ourselves here is: why are we having a contest in the first place? Is it to determine who has been more cunning, devious, or most creative in bending the rules? Or is it to compare the dedication, effort, and diligence of two opponents approaches and abilities? At what point does gaining the upper hand become an issue of trickery or guile, instead of devotion and will? It is in many cases not a clearly defined threshold, and how and why we may choose to near that zone requires deep personal reflection.

5.The crowning of a victor is essential.

It has become popular in some circles to promote participation in sport that doesn’t record results, or recognize any winner. This is more commonly applied to sporting activities with younger participants, or in informal or unorganized settings.

This postulate states that this kind of approach in sport is not acceptable. It might be acceptable in non-sporting activities – that is, something that follows different ideals and rules. Sport is defined by a contest, in which someone comes necessarily comes out on top. Knowing that the contest has been decided is therefore non-negotiable when participating in true sport.

It logically follows that sport can’t take place without a contest between at least two parties. And as such, the victor can only be crowned because of his or her fellow competitors’ efforts. Victory is, essentially, impossible without their engagement. Someone needs to agree to the rules, voluntarily enter the field of play, and see things through to the end – as a victor, or as the defeated.

If that sounds harsh, try thinking about it in a different way. Someone has trained and prepared for a contest, or at least feels they have the skills, abilities, or determination to throw their hat into the ring. When someone else agrees to that contest, they are giving that other party a chance to show what they’re made of – and potentially take home the win. It is, in its essence, a deep form of respect. One cannot win without the engagement of other competitors. Losing is a necessary outcome for one of the opponents, but it is an honorable one, because it means they have shown respect to their fellow competitor. We serve each other through our participation.

Is this our common purpose? To give others a chance to succeed, if we get the same chance in return? This postulate makes that possible.

What it does not say, however, is that it is essential to provide any specific rewards to the victor that is crowed. Only the victory itself is addressed.

6.One’s best effort must always be given.

It could be argued that postulate 5 would be meaningless without this one. A victor is not worth the podium he or she is standing on if the opponent simply let them win. Each part must do their utmost to achieve victory.

If one gives up, rolls over, or simply takes it easy, and let the opponent jog in for the win, it defeats a central principle of sport: to challenge. This postulate states that a challenge shouldn’t be ended, or made milder, because one is tired, unmotivated, looking for an easier opponent in the next round, or trying to save their efforts for another contest. To give one’s best is to honor one’s fellow competitor and oneself, and both will become better for it.

This postulate therefore doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of stating that the result of a competition is authentic (although that is essential as well). It reflects, as in postulate 5, a form of deep respect. It gives our opponents a chance to show their true abilities – even to try and bring these out. To deprive someone of that in sport is to disrespect them. By giving the best that we have at any given moment in the contest, we show loyalty to and solidarity with our fellow sportsmen and women. It is only when they show that same loyalty and solidarity to us, can our best be achieved.

And if our best wasn’t good enough to take the victory, then we’ll know what needs to be done next time – and we can take steps to do it.

7.The competitor is no longer valid as such if he or she diminishes the contest or its other competitors.

In the end, a competitor needs to thrive, to give their all, to continue to challenge, and most of all, to improve themselves, in order to be the best opponent that they can be. Diminishing them in some way is achieving the opposite of this.

What does diminishing mean? It means taking away their potential to perform to their best. This doesn’t mean giving up your tactical advantages or not working them to the bone to win that point, ball, or meter. It means physically or psychologically damaging them in a way that prevents them from challenging you in a meaningful way, either temporarily or permanently. It is the difference between finding their weakness, and directly imposing one upon them.

Accidents will happen. Sport is not without risk, after all. But our intentions are what matter. Am I trying to put my opponent out of commission when going into this contact? Make them regret they ever challenged me? Or am I looking to take a point, win the ball back, or find a chink in their guard in accordance with the rules and ideals of the contest?

This postulate states that if you’re the former, then you’re no longer a competitor. And if you’re not a competitor, then what is your place in our society, if any? It implies that a member of our society values his or her competitors the most when they are fully ready for the contest, and has the integrity to ensure that happens as often as possible. That member also shows reverence and compassion for their fellow competitors when this isn’t possible for some reason.

8.The contest is no longer valid as such if it diminishes its competitors or their vitality.

In some cases, the rules or ideals of a sport risk diminishing its participants. This might not always be apparent at the time. The rewards for certain behaviors or actions might delay any apparent disadvantages for long periods. Promoting certain kinds of physical or mental wear-and-tear (or abuse), hazardous conditions, exposure to threats, playing while injured, or treatments to keep things temporarily ”patched up” can all lead to athletes losing their desire – or even ability – to compete later on.

Some might say this is part of the game, and we have a choice to pick our level of risk. Nobody forces us to enter the ring if we know that we’ve had a concussion or two in the past year. We don’t have to tape that swollen joint to make the team for the season’s biggest match. If the cold or heat is too extreme, then we can just quit.
But we’re athletes. Sometimes the challenge is too tempting for us to turn down, or the desire to endure too great. And that’s when we need to look at the sport itself. Is it encouraging us to participate unsustainably? Are we going to get stronger, physically AND psychologically, if we do this again and again? For how long?

Some sports, from their very inception, may not be sustainable at all. But we need to consider that the game can change over time, into something that might no longer good for us. Its rules, ideals, or culture can be steered in a different direction, or even hijacked, by those that don’t see the athletes as the most vital resource. Its participants might be treated as more expendable than previously.

This postulate states that such contests need to be called out. It says that a sport must strengthen its athletes, allowing them to engage more actively with each other – and their society. It relates to the responsibility, compassion and humanity that postulate 7 states we athletes must show to each other, but on a system level. It means that we want our society to thrive.

9.Only those that enter and participate in the contest under these auspices are entitled to determine its outcome, and its overall development.

In sporting federations, there are all kinds of hierarchies, administration, and decision-making forums. A lot of these – especially internationally – have very few requirements to make the details or their operations known to those outside of the federation. There are arbitration courts in sport to deal with conflicts and disagreements that don’t have to motivate their decisions in any particularly transparent way. Even local sport clubs can be ”black boxes”, where things that can affect our society’s members just seem to get decided by people who seem to have some kind of position of authority.

This is in many cases organizationally logical. There is a lot of work involved in keeping a sporting movement worth it’s name afloat. Much of this is done by volunteers that mean well, and some is also done by people who have over time accumulated a type of expertise in sporting activities.

But are these decision-makers, administrators, and authorities athletes? Are they members of our society for real? Would they adhere to any or all of the above postulates if given the choice? Or do they talk the talk, but walk differently? Do they think in terms of ideals and values that promote societal cohesion? Do they actually know, and do, sport?

This postulate states that only athletes – practicing members of our society – are allowed to determine their contests’ and their sport’s fate. There are similar principles in any healthy, democratic society, but this postulate requires a different kind of participation than simply existing within a context. It says that to affect the sport, you need to do the sport. It says that only when you live, learn, and promote a sport’s ideals through contest, do you earn the right to steer its course. It’s more than saying if you don’t play it, you don’t have a say in it. According to this postulate, it is not possible as an athlete to be a subordinate to sport. It is only possible to be a creator and decider of it.

This engagement, this responsibility, is what a thriving society is built upon. It is not enough to let others decide about rules, formats, or future directions, and simply take part. The ideals and values of a society must be kept alive and at the forefront by its foremost practitioners – and in our case, it’s us. The athletes.