February 21, 2008

Rhetoric

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Logically bad arguments are annoying. It is almost as annoying when people argue that a premise is clear when it is not. Often people make assumptions about their argument’s starting points, perhaps to avoid examining the implications of their premise. Sometimes this is done for rhetorical reasons (they just want to win an argument – politicians seem particularly guilty of this). Other times it appears to be due to a lack of thought.

That small rant was prompted by a segment on breakfast TV about performance-enhancing drugs. The premise was that performance-enhancing drugs were unfair and how hard they were to detect. Why it was unfair was never examined. The situation may well be unfair, and being a fan of cycling I mourn the damage drugs have done to that sport. However, what caught my attention was the background of the presenter. He was a UK Olympic gold medallist in rowing. Many people would consider such a person eminently qualified to talk about fairness in sport. I would not be so sure.

One of my earliest memories of the Olympics was watching the cycling team time trial, a 100km 4-member team race against the clock. The competitive teams were on the latest expensive bicycles costing thousands and had been in intensive high-tech training camps to ensure their best performance. Then the Ethiopian team was shown. Their bikes were clearly of a much older and cheaper design – lacking all the aerodynamic finery necessary in modern cycling. They had no chance in the race. Is it unfair that the Ethiopians were not as competitive as others because they had worse technology? Is it unfair that having more money spent on an athlete (in support, training, a high-tech bike or better boat) makes them more likely to win?

It may be possible to say that the best athlete at the start of the competition has the best chance of winning. However, drugs and money give a distinct and often insurmountable advantage before the competition begins. Drugs and money distort the playing field from the very start and always have. The breakfast TV presenter benefitted greatly from this situation. While people suggest a complete ban on performance-enhancing drugs for the sake of fairness (at least on this breakfast TV show), there is no similar call for fairness in money. It could be argued that money fairness is impractical and could not be enforced, but that’s not the point (incidentally HGH use can’t be detected and thus its ban can’t be enforced at present).

If fairness is defined as all have the same chance of winning at the start, then competitive sport is inherently unfair. I’m not sure that is a bad thing – I certainly don’t have a problem with it. The best have advantages (I haven’t even touched on the concept of genetic unfairness) and that should just be accepted, it is the nature of the competition. I would prefer to see a different argument against performance-enhancing drugs.


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