Why Sport Is Always Unfair

Gattaca came out in 1997. It is a movie about eugenics. The name Gattaca is a remixed word of the D.N.A bases guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine. The main character, Vincent, is born naturally, lacking the (by-then) routine personality editing all babies undergo. He struggles to compete in society because he needs contact lenses, and his heart is imperfect. He poses as a ‘class one’ person, Jerome, working in a spaceship launch conglomerate, where you can only be a class one. A class one colleague falls for him, but he must hide his inferiority from her. And before then, even, his parents love him less than his better-engineered brother. The movie is feel-good, for despite the biological odds Vincent prevails the majority of his adversity through hard work and willpower. As pleasant as it is to believe that Vincent, like any average human, can prevail through their performance and labour, the definition of average has hypothetically risen in the movie; he would not stand a chance.

Gattaca caters to an audience, the public, who believe the message: that hard work and meritocratic performance pay. Sanctified successful people are given social prestige and the rights to more objects than others because they have earned it, “they deserve it!”, we are told. At the same time, Gattaca advertises anxiety about human nature, justice and the sad scientific reality that most of our existence is out of our hands; fate hands us the cards. Indeed, destiny can be how you choose to play them, but despite that benefit, your play is limited by the hand you are dealt to begin with. Fate is what happens; destiny is how you shape what has happened into what happens.

This becomes obvious in the thought-experiment: “why can I not be someone else, if I choose?” Because we do not select the majority of what happens to us nor do we choose who we become. Most of life happens to us, we do not happen to life. According to genius-analyst Warren Buffet, no one with an IQ under 130 can make chapter headings in History books. And more obviously: no one with Trapped-In Syndrome has won the 100-meter sprint. No one has gone from lifelong poverty to a Nobel Prize. (Malala Yousafzai’s father was relatively okay-off and a studied educational rights advocate just like Malala.) As in dystopian eugenics, so in the real world. And especially in sports. The notion of meritocratic equality and sporting fairness is a myth.

Let us consider the fastest runner and the fastest swimmer in the world, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. First, the culture aspect. Bolt was born into Jamaica where many people run far and wide by tradition; Phelps was born into the United States where a swimming pool was near to his home. Both trained from a young age, without even deciding to become a success per se, they gained traction by becoming good and then reframed who they were – sportsmen – after the fact rather than before. (Rather like boy Bill Gates becoming man Bill Gates because his school had a rare computer and his brain a rare IQ).

Both of these athletes succeeded because of mere chance opportunity and outlier biology. The success of Usain Bolt is due to fast-twitch muscle fibres which he, and most athletes (and more Jamaicans than Americans), have more of because of the common (‘sprinter’) gene ACTN3. Bolt, like most sprinters, has longer muscle fibre bundles, a shorter ankle, longer toes, and has sacrificed thousands of hours to spend sprinting. Bolt seems to have such an advantage over his rivals that he freely eats worse than them. Bolt indulges in chicken nuggets and deep fried fats against the verified sense of nutritionists. Given Usain Bolt’s running technique and basic physiology is comparable to other athletes, what makes the difference – gives him his edge over the competition – is the length of his skeleton. His six foot five height. Greater height together with long fast-twitch strides won him the prizes and record, and in turn more skilled or hardworking or sacrificial athletes lost just because of their shorter skeleton.

Michael Phelps is six foot four and, by chance, suited to swimming. Like other swimmers, he has lean muscle mass and has dedicated thousands of hours to swimming. But what makes the difference is again the skeleton. He has short legs but a long torso and spider arms. He has disproportionate large hands and feet which act like flippers in the pool. Phelps and his trainer have time-and-again gone through the perfect swim with visualisation and repetition; he has gained more Olympic medals than anyone else as a result. But, as with Usain Bolt, the difference between a good swimmer athlete and the best is not meritocratic, but aristocratic: they are born with it. If the body and family are fate, then all the training was shaping what was dormant rather than creating an idol; it is more a matter of bringing out what would be faults in one situation as happy qualities in another.

And in more complex games, where teams work hard and there are more variables the unfairness is easily explained by money, management and a host of contingent factors (not all traceable) which ignore fairness. Fairness is more an imposed idea rather than a practicable reality for while they play on an equal playing field their backgrounds and bodies (age, baseline temperature of competition, brains’ moods) are by definition not equal for an unequal result to have the pleasure of winning or the sorrow of losing.

In everything human, including sports, randomness plays an underestimated role. If that randomness weren’t true, game-betting guesses would be high-probablities or certainties instead of comparative guesses with the thrill of being right or wrong.

Now, there is no getting rid of competition, or humans’ more animal instincts for games and tribalism. Play is omnipresent in our lives, and although some evidence suggests domestic abuse incidents go up when the world cup is on, humans need entertainment and group solidarity. Even if it is solidarity against others. Alas, there is no means to solve the unfairness by creating the same baseline of comparison for each person, for that would mean each person would be exactly the same. What we can do though is re-alise the contingency of success; Phelps is a bad runner, Bolt, a bad footballer. Sport meritocracy depends on the situation and what humans implicitly agree to value and decide ‘counts’ over time.

Ability comes from fated gifts and the luck of environment. The self of the achiever is not the same as the causes of said success; and this matters because conflating the two can lead people to feel inadequate or guilty for what is beyond their agency, choice, or responsibility, anyway.

Therefore an elitism, while inevitably still celebrated, ought to be seen for what it is. Were there a pie chart for life, the portion of fate would be substantively bigger than that of destiny. This becomes most evident in gold medalists and athletic outliers. We are more fated body than chosen mind. And this is the real world, not dystopian science fiction.

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