Inside Sport: ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’

In the BBC programme ‘Inside Sport‘, Ed Smith asked, ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’ This isn’t meant as a literal question, but rather one that focuses upon the individuals participating in sport at a professional level. Smith’s argument is essentially that being a professional (where the goal of winning becomes paramount – whether that is monetary reward, medals or status) requires putting aside those things that enable individuals to get to that level in the first place; things such as: fun, self-expression, enjoyment, playfulness, flair and instinct. This, Smith argues, is a bad thing, as he concluded towards the end of the programme when he threw his lens upon Tiger Woods:

“People usually argue that the rest of his life is damaging Tiger’s golf. In fact, maybe it’s too much golf that has harmed the rest of his life.”

It think it’s this sentiment that is the most important aspect of Smith’s analysis. It’s not that the levels of performance in sport have got worse through professionalism; as records will show. Humans now run faster, kick more accurately and tackle more powerfully (in rugby for instance). But all this improvement in overall performance is at the detriment of the eudaimonia (well-being) of individual athletes and also at the expense of other aesthetic and emotional values of sport.

I’m giving a talk in October for the Gloucestershire Philosophical Society on the technologicalisation of the athlete, which is going to focus upon some of these issues. The problem, I will argue, is not to do with innovations in technology which are used to dissect and analyse performance in order to perfect techniques and movement, but rather the real problem is with our attitude towards sporting performance believing that it ought to be treated in this technological way. The upshot of this technological attitude is that we treat humans as automatons that can be controlled and manipulated in every way to achieve a specific sporting goal. We forget that the human experience and what it is to live a good life is so much more than this reductionist approach to improving sporting performance. As Ed Smith quite rightly demonstrated through his interview with former England cricketer and Strictly Come Dancing winner, Mark Ramprakash, there is more to life than this narrow view of winning in sport.

Incidentally, if you fancy coming along to my talk to discuss these ideas in more depth then details can be found here: 27 October 2010,  19:30 – 21:30, Room HC203, FCH, Uni of Gloucestershire, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ.

2 thoughts on “Inside Sport: ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’

  1. I agree with your point; the technological and physical advances made by athletes transcend the inherent enjoyment that comes from playing sport as a child. Below is a section from my recent article which further explores the perspective taken by Ed Smith:

    The weight of professionalism can often stifle creativity due to its emphasis on performance and results, although some sportsmen are unaffected by such pressures. Usain Bolt continues to mesmerise audiences worldwide with his Herculean performances on the track, regardless of the opaque doping allegations that plague him. Bolt’s congeniality comes from his inherent enjoyment of athletics that has been sustained since his childhood. It is a similar kind of joy that we reap from seeing the childish grin of Lionel Messi every time he scores a goal. Other sportsmen such as Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton, Ryan Giggs are successful because they maintain that child-like enthusiasm throughout their careers, playing principally for enjoyment rather than fortune.
    Perhaps this is why Colin Montgomerie carries an unbeaten record into the Ryder Cup, a tournament that holds no cash prize?

    • Thanks Keith. I’d be interested to read your article in full if you can provide the link. I’d be interested to see your argument / evidence for your statement that “sportsmen such as Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton, Ryan Giggs are successful because they maintain that child-like enthusiasm throughout their careers”.

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