Whatever happened to all the sportspeople? If you are of a certain generation, you can  maybe vaguely remember a time when the sporting idols of this world seemed to be a little… more gracious. It appeared that these wondrous individuals seemed to be more interested in the challenge rather than the outcome or their associated rewards. Perhaps this is due to the time elapsed since my childhood and a somewhat jaded memory. Perhaps this is due to a true shift in priorities within the contemporary sporting world. It is my opinion this is an area that should be considered in order to guarantee that future generations are remain equally enamoured with sport as previous ones.


‘Sportmanship’ has always been associated with moral relevancy albeit its specific place amongst moral virtues is uncertain. That said, many notable individuals from varying walks of life have stressed the importance of ‘sportsmanship’ and ethics in sport and life in general. Indeed, Albert Camus, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1957 said it was sport that he learned all there is to know about ethics.

Pope Pius XII spoke of ‘fair play’ as an essential part of sport stating:

“From the birthplace of sport came also the proverbial phrase ‘fair play;’ that knightly and courteous emulation which raises the spirit above means and deceit and dark subterfuges of vanity and vindictiveness and preserves it from the excesses of a closed and intransigent nationalism. Sport is the school of loyalty, of courage, of fortitude, of resolution and universal brotherhood.”

Contrastingly, the philosopher James W. Keating warns of the temptation to broaden the concept of ‘sportsmanship’ until it becomes an all-embracing moral category and a unique road to moral ‘salvation’.


Indeed, Keating utilises Webster’s dictionary to provide a definition of sport, and, thus attempt by extension define ‘sportsmanship’. According to the dictionary, sport is “that which diverts and makes mirth”; it is an “amusement, recreation and pastime.” As such, sport is a diversion from the rigours and stresses of ‘normal’ day-to-day life when economic factors allow us the luxury of ‘free-time’.

Therefore the question arises – in todays ‘sport industry’ – can one seriously define sport as a source of amusement? Indeed, are for the majority of sports fan[atic]s the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, The Royal and Ancient’s Open Golf Championship or FIFA’s Football World Cup ‘only’ a source of a pleasant diversion? I think not.

Keating goes further by arguing that the media do not highlight the ‘pleasant diversions and amusements’ of a nation’s citizenry, but rather focuses on “national and international contests that capture the imaginations, the emotions, and the pocketbooks of millions of fans.”

Whilst sport maybe defines as a ‘pleasant pastime,’ athletics is not. Athlete is derived from the Greek verb athlein meaning to “contend for a prize.”  A deeper understanding into the nature of athletics can be obtained when one realises that the word “agony” comes from the Greek agonia meaning a contest or struggle for victory in games. Therefore, athletics is essentially a competitive activity, with the ultimate goal of victory. As such, athletics can be characterised by dedication, sacrifice and intensity. Consequently, it becomes apparent that sport and athletics are two differing forms of activity.


Sportsmanship is not the combined sum of moral qualities displayed by an individuals whilst undertaking sport. The primary function of sportsmanship within sport is to derive pleasure from the activity and afford pleasure to one’s fellow participants. As such, generosity and magnanimity are crucial factors in an individual’s conduct and attitude in order to establish whether they are sportsperson-like. Indeed, the immediate sporting pleasure of the activity – by both participants – will not be sacrificed for more selfish ends. As such an individual’s ‘sportsmanship’ can be determined via the practical maxim of:

Always conduct yourself in a manner that will increase rather than detract from the pleasure of the activity, for both yourself and your fellow competitors.  

‘Sportsmanship’ is a the required spirit and attitude to enhance the mood of all those competitors (including themselves) involved in a sporting activity primarily undertaken for ‘pleasant diversion’ and amusement. Therefore, a true sportsperson is magnanimous and self-sacrificing, and, by doing so contributes to the overall enjoyment of the game.

Regardless of the maxim above, a sportsperson makes a determined effort to win. By doing so a sportsperson’s goal is to derive enjoyment from their efforts and the activity itself. Therefore, the effort an individual expends during the activity is undertaken not only to overcome their opponent but also conquer any technical, physical or psychological complexities the sport may present.  These difficulties should be perceived more as a source of pleasure rather than frustration. Thus, competitors should not only be identified as opponents, but rather as ‘co-operating partners’ enhancing each respective participant’s level of performance. By doing so, the collective pleasure derived from the activity itself will be heightened.


Within athletics victory is the main aim of individual participation. Therefore, co-operation is no longer a goal. ‘Sportsmanship’ within athletics suggests the proper behaviour of the athlete owing to the binding influence of rules. Such rules apply to all competitors equally and are abided by in order to accurately determine the superior athlete.  As such, athletic contests are designed for one specific purpose: to determine superior performance. Consequently, athletic victory has no meaning if a competitor is willing to violate the sport’s specific guidelines.

‘Sportsmanship’ also refers to an athlete’s conduct in times of extreme elation or disappointment. It is simple for a spectator to forget that an athlete has engaged in considerable amounts of training and sacrifice. Paradoxically, it is at these times of unbridled joy through victory, or contrastingly, defeat and its associated bitter disappointment that the spectator, and ‘sportsmanship’ demand impeccable levels of self-control and behaviour. 

In victory, the true sportsperson exhibits modesty. Perhaps this task is more simple than that of the defeated athlete who must display self-control in adversity. Whilst a simple handshake demonstrates no ill-will, it is the lack of post-match complaints, excuses of bad refereeing or unfavourable conditions that demonstrate the true sportsperson.

Perhaps the ever-increasing economic benefits of superior performance has led to a lack of sportspeople. Perhaps that is only to be expected within the realms of professional sport, perhaps not. That is a debate which strikes to the very heart of whether professional athletics, in its current guise is appealing. Alternatively, is it more desirable to consider sporting history and its associated athletes as a template for increasing spectator pleasure.

Regardless of the above argument, it is my opinion that the lines have now become incredibly blurred between sport and athletics. Indeed, many participants in sport and sports fans have lost sight of the true goal of sport: a pleasant pastime and diversion from the rigours of the ‘real’ world.

Currently, a major issue with sport is that a high number of individuals participating in sport have been led to believe – from many varying channels – they are athletes. This has undoubtedly been aggravated by the increased coverage of athletic endeavour within the media highlighting world-class performance – almost in real-time – from around the world. This has undoubtedly cemented the perception that elite performance – verging on athletic perfection – is ‘the norm’ and should be expected from the vast majority of participants.

“Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

– John Wooden

Moreover,  society’s increased desire for enhanced competence has led to many individuals involved in sport to believe enhanced performance brings with it more enjoyment. This is flawed thinking as many individuals lack the required innate traits or characteristics to potentially develop into elite athletes. This problem may be exacerbated due to an absence of available resources, whether they be physical, psychological, financial or temporal. As such, the acquisition of those factors required in attaining elite athlete status becomes increasingly problematic if not impossible.

The additional demands and pressures an individual puts upon themselves to improve athletically may not necessarily enhance their enjoyment of their chosen sport. Indeed, it may detract from it.

After over 30 years involvement in the ‘sport-industry’ it is my considered opinion that the majority of individuals should regard their free time as nothing more than that: free time where one can wind down and relax from the rigours of work and general life. Why not just enjoy it?