Philosophical Sports Films

As part of my contribution to Cesar Torres’ ‘Companion to the Philosophy of Sport’ (due out next year) I wanted to include a list of films that covered philosophical issues in sport. I use a few for a module I teach called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ as films and documentaries provide a real wealth of resource for discussion. I quickly discovered that there were far too many to include in a book chapter so decided to collate a list of as many as I could find, put it online, and provide an electronic link to the list.

So here’s the list: Sports films relating to philosophical issues

Many thanks to all my friends and colleagues that have provided suggestions to this list, particularly to members of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and the British Philosophy of Sport Association.

Some of the films I would not rate at all but obviously other people do (otherwise they wouldn’t have suggested them to me) so I’ve included them anyway.

Nevertheless, here’s my top 5 and why:

  1. Dogtown and the Z Boys (2001) – There’s always been something about skateboarding that has fascinated me. The idea that within urbanisation there can be freedom and creativity. I’ve spent many an hour just watching skateboarders, either just hanging around at the South Bank in London, or in competitions on huge vert ramps. This film shows the history and development of skateboarding as well as the (often troubled) lives of some of the more famous names in the sport. It also highlights the relationship between technology, sporting performance, and creativity.
  2. Step Into Liquid (2003) – There are many good surfing films (and many that are more beautifully shot) but this is probably my favourite as it is so wide-ranging in the types of surfing that it covers, from the big (and I mean BIG) wave surfing, to children mucking about in the water. Coming from a surfing county (Cornwall) I grew up in the water so have first hand of the beauty, but also sheer power of the wave. Surfing really does have something to say about the sublime.
  3. Man on Wire (2008) – Technically this isn’t a sports film at all but I like to include it because it’s a very powerful and emotional demonstration of the human spirit and physical endeavour. You see this in the fact that those that took part are still brought to tears by the memories 35 years later. It is all the more poignant because it is set around the building of the Twin Towers in New York.
  4. Rollerball (1975) – Although many aspects of this film got the future (today) completely wrong, there is also a lot that does resonate with today’s world, particularly the power of multi-national corporations. There is also something to be said in the way that the commercialisation of sports feeds the base desires of the masses and that athletes are merely pawns in the entertainment world to be used and disposed of at will.
  5. This Sporting Life (1963) – This is a dark and slow film that highlights the absurdity and mundanity of life (don’t expect any Hollywood special effects or fast action). It slightly plays on the stereotype of northern English life but it does demonstrate the relationship between sport, meaning and life more generally.

Looking for web resources on the philosophy of sport

Just a quick update on my book. It is slowly progressing… At the moment, I’m working on a chapter for Cesar Torres’s book ‘Companion to the Philosophy of Sport’ on resources in the philosophy of sport but this will provide quite a bit of ground work for my own book. I think I have pretty much included every book on the philosophy of sport – and believe me, it is a surprisingly long list – but I’m now on the search for relevant blogs. So if you know of any then let me know. So far, I’ve got the following:

Philosophy of Sport

The most comprehensive blog dedicated to the philosophy of sport with contributions by a great many eminent scholars working in the field.

Dr Ted’s Sport and Pop Culture Blog

The blog of Professor Ted Butryn of San Jose State University, California, USA.

The Sports Ethicist

Blog dedicated to ethical issues in sport, run by Dr Shawn E. Klein of Rockford University, Illinois, USA.

Sports Technology Ethics

Blog exploring ethical issues concerned with technology in sport run by Dr Rosemary Barnes, Coombes, NSW, Australia.

The Philosophy of Sport: The basics.

I have a contract with Bloomsbury to produce a text book on the philosophy of sport. This seems quite timely as with the London 2012 Olympics, I have received many requests recently to discuss philosophical and ethical issues in sport, as well as being invited by the Royal Institute of Philosophy to give a lecture as part of their Philosophy of Sport series.

So I’m going to use this blog as a medium in which to get things going on my book. Here’s a summary of content:

The aim of this book is to provide an accessible but comprehensive guide to the main issues in the philosophy of sport. It will cover key issues, ideas and literature in the philosophy of sport, including the concept and definition of sport, the relationship between sport and the body, the aesthetic value of sport, as well as an overview of several contemporary ethical concerns in sport including doping, violence and sexual equality. This will be complemented by short interviews with experts, questions to aid revision, an extensive glossary and suggestions for further reading.

The book is due to be published sometime in 2014 – though it’ll probably be towards the end of the year.

If you’ve got any specific thoughts or questions on what’s going to be included then get in touch.

It’s a Fair Game – Cheltenham Science Festival 2011

I’m speaking at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival later today and for those of you that can’t make it, or those of you that are coming but want to have chance to think about the discussion in advance, here’s the first draft of my 10 min talk (apologies for any bad grammar or spelling – I said it was ‘rough’!):

It’s a Fair Game

Are the anti-doping rules and policies fair?

Well, in order to answer such a question we need think about what we mean by fair?

Does this mean; everyone is subjected to equal treatment?

A cursory glance suggests, yes, the rules are the same for everyone and therefore these rules and policies are fair.

However, you only have to dig a little bit deeper to realise that it isn’t quite as straightforward as we might like to think.

When sport is discussed the metaphor ‘level playing field’ commonly crops up. And this is founded on the idea that sport should be about testing the natural capacities of the athlete. And by ‘natural capacities’ we mean the raw God-given talent that we are born with, and the mental courage and tenacity to be dogged and determined in developing this talent in order to reach its potential.

And this is one of the odd things about our stance towards doping. One of the main arguments used in support of the anti-doping policies is that using these substances are a short cut to reaching, or even surpassing this natural potential. You are not only cheating the sport, you are cheating yourself.

And yet no-one says the same about sleeping in a hypoxic chamber which has a similar effect on the red blood cells and oxygen carrying capacity as living at altitude. No one says the same about wearing state of the art clothing or footwear (although the recent ban on polyurethane swimsuits is an interesting exception that we might want to discuss further later). No one says that intensive sessions with your sports psychologist are a short cut to success. All of these things are part and parcel of elite sport whereby a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing, between success and perceived failure. Yet if we follow this argument that is often used against doping to its logical conclusion, we would rule out training altogether. Let the winner be the one who manages to get out of bed having never spent a day in the gym or watching what she ate, yet who manages to cross the line first. But this is ridiculous. Just as we value an athlete’s natural capacity, we also value the sacrifices they make in reaching their potential.

So when we talk about fairness in sport – it’s a myth. The countries that win the majority of Olympic medals are not those that happen to have the best gene pool (if we think a genetic lottery should be the basis for fairness) but those that are able to invest millions into talent identification, facilities, equipment, training, medicine, nutrition… the list goes on and on. It is the exceptions to this myth that get highlighted as examples that if you’ve got the raw talent and determination to succeed then you’ll make it. I note that the writer, journalist and former athlete, Matthew Syed, is speaking after this event on these ideas, and if you haven’t read his book Bounce, I thoroughly recommend it.

So sport at the elite level certainly isn’t fair if when we use the term, we mean ‘fairness as equality’. There are countless millions that had they been born in the right country, and spotted at the right time could have a shot at success.

So perhaps we mean fairness in that we are free to determine our own paths. Fairness as liberty and autonomy one might say.

Yet this certainly isn’t the case in terms of doping. Another common argument given in support of anti-doping is that these substances are terribly harmful and we don’t want these poor athletes suffering from their ill-judged decisions.

Now my parents might say that I make ill-judged decisions – not least because I play sports that I probably shouldn’t. And certainly not now I’m well into my thirties. I’ve got a large scar on my forehead from being stamped on in a rugby match, chronic pains in my shoulder from repeated injury to a collarbone I broke quite badly, several broken fingers and if you notice me hobbling about today it’s because I went to a gymnastics session last night and went over on my ankle. I’d be very surprised if you could find any former athlete that doesn’t suffer from chronic pain as a direct result from participation in sport. Sport is a dangerous pursuit.

Yet when it comes to doping, there is a sudden desire to protect athletes from potential harm. I don’t wish to get too side-tracked on the argument against doping from harm because this isn’t really what this session is about, but Verner Moller in his recent book ‘The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping’ makes a very compelling argument that allowing doping, particularly in the world of cycling, might actually reduce the harm done to athletes in their rigorous pursuit of glory.

So fairness as liberty doesn’t seem to stand up either.

Perhaps fairness could be applied then in relation to the fair treatment of athletes as human beings.

Yet I am doubtful of this too for two reasons. First, such is the hysteria that surrounds doping, any athlete that is suspected of a doping offence is vilified, particularly in the media. It is almost akin to serious crimes (and I don’t want to have a Ken Clark moment here) so I’ll leave you to think of which crimes these might be. Even athletes that are cleared of doping offences are seen to have a shadow lurking behind them. Cynical comments abound that the athlete just got off on a technicality whereas they are, in fact, still guilty.

Second, I don’t know whether you are aware of the anti-doping ‘whereabouts rule’ which requires athletes to state where they will be at a particular hour every day of the year. The rationale behind this is that the anti-doping authorities don’t have to go hunting for an athlete if they wish to conduct a test. Miss three of these tests and you’re guilty of an anti-doping offence. Now, I don’t know where I’m going to be from one day to the next but you can imagine that there may be good reasons why an athlete, even with a strict schedule, might not be exactly where they said they would be for every day of the year. This rule has been criticised for going against both privacy rights and data protection laws. Moreover, a rule of this kind is not fair in its treatment of athletes. It is akin to having a tag or curfew order or having to report to a police station on a daily basis.

So the idea of a fair game isn’t as straightforward as it initially seems. Apart from the fact that fairness itself is quite a slippery term, the idea that the anti-doping rules are part of making sport fair, doesn’t seem to ring true.

BBC Reith Lecture on Genetic Technology

I was interested to listen to Professor Michael Sandel’s perspective on the ethics of genetic technology in sport in this year’s series of Reith Lectures. Having spent three years writing my PhD thesis on the subject, for it to be brought to the forefront of public attention is welcomed. This is especially so when little real philosophical consideration is actually given to these types of issues and too much policy is dictated by an emotional gut reaction. Programmes like this highlight how philosophy is of real value in our daily lives.

And if you’re interested in hearing my views on the subject, then either visit my website and read some of my papers, or get in contact with me directly.

Tragedy in coaching dangerous sport

I’ve just finished reading (and crying through) Ferreras’s ‘The Dive: A story of love and obsession‘ which is based on his own tragic experience of losing his wife and free diving protege in the process of breaking the free diving record, October 2002.

The book was recommeded to me by my PhD student Carl Thomen because as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently writing a book chapter on ethical issues in coaching dangerous sports. This real life case exemplifies many important questions regarding the responsibility of those coaching (and implicitly encouraging) other’s participation in something that has a high degree of risk attached.

Pipin Ferreras is a world champion free diver who taught his wife, Audrey Mestre, to sink to unimaginable depths on a single breath of air. Though Audrey found a desire and euphoria in the sport of free diving, it was arguably Ferreras’s competitive spirit which pushed her into making the fatal attempt of diving to 170 meters. Ferreras’s unrelenting drive shows up time and time again;

“So why not break my record?” I suggested. “Why not go for one sixty-three? If you do that now, you won’t have any trouble at all on October twelfth, when we do it for the books.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” she said, nibbling at her nails. “I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Later, Ferreras thought that she should try for even deeper:

I began to think that we were selling ourselves short. I didn’t understand why Audrey couldn’t shoot for 170 meters.

And after a successful 170 dive, he pushed for more:

I’d been obsessed with [diving] all my life, and I was suddenly more obsessed than ever.
“Audrey,” I said. “Why not go for one eighty-two? Six hundred feet even.”

In reading the book it is obvious that Pipin adored Audrey, and it is also clear that Audrey loved the sport itself and consented to the dives she made. However, there is also a sense that Pipin’s bravado and competitiveness was the ultimate force that led to Audrey’s death. It is telling that whilst she says several times that she is not interested in competition or breaking records, Pipin on the other hand, can’t stand the thought of others being better than him. And it is after he suffers from one diving accident too many which puts his diving on hold, that his focus on records becomes more dependent on Audrey. This is illustrated when he says to Audrey, “If you make it, I make it. You’d be doing it for both of us.”

Pipin Ferreras was twelve years older than Audrey and they met when she was 21. He was already an internationally renouned sportsman with high profile sponsorship and media coverage. She was finishing her degree in Marine Biology. One might say that Audrey was awed by Ferreras’s achievements and dominant personality. Ferreras himself concedes that perhaps her belief in her diving ability was solely founded in his own boundless confidence in her.

Nevertheless, despite all these reservations that one might have as to Ferreras’s role and responsibility in her death, it should not be forgotten that ultimately it was Ferreras himself that lost out. Audrey was as competetent as any adult could be in making decisions about her own life, and she was the one who freely consented to travelling down that 170 meter line. Whilst Audrey is no longer able to introspect on what-if, Ferreras will be reliving the event for the rest of his life. Yes, one might argue that Ferreras coerced an impressional young woman into attempting a deadly activity that he himself wouldn’t risk, but this to me seems to neglect the most important facts. We are all impressionable to some degree, we all have an achillies that if pressed in the right way by the right people, might make us do things we wouldn’t at another time. But then without this we wouldn’t be human and we wouldn’t be the person we are. And the picture that we get of Pipin and Audrey from Ferreras’s book shows human personalities in their most radiant of colour.

Coaching Violent and Dangerous Sports

I’m in the process of writing a book chapter on an edited work about ethical issues in sports coaching with Professor Stephen Olivier.

(I just gave an overview on wordpress and when I saved it, it disappeared apart from the first line above…. absolutely gutted!!)

(So, second time lucky… hopefully a shorter version.)

What we originally intended to do was to take a liberatarian position on coaching violent, dangerous and risky sports: essentially that if a person wants to put themselves at risk and in danger of serious or even fatal injury, then there is no obligation for a coach to intervene or prevent them from doing so.

However, after having thought about it for a while, I am now thinking that we may have to take a soft paternalist stance as it may be that the definition of a coach / instructor entails a certain degree of responsiblity towards those coached, even if just to make their athletes aware of the risks and the coach’s judgment of the athlete’s skill level and capacity to accurately assess their own ability and risk.

There are lots of questions all tangled up in this issue (which I wrote down earlier but I’m not going to do so again) so it may be that it becomes too much to deal with in a single book chapter.

Anyway, the reason for this blogpost is to ask if anyone had any thoughts, comments or suggested readings on this.