All Sport Is Unfair, According to Geneticist. Is That True?

Theral Timpson

Yesterday a court ruled that the South African running sensation Caster Semenya must take medication to lower her level of testosterone to compete in certain women only running events such as the 400 and 800 meters.

Some are calling the ruling discrimination against a certain athlete or against transgener or intersex athletes.  Some say the ruling is necessary to keep the sport fair.  It’s a worthy debate.  

What I find particularly useful about the debate is what it tells us about how our colleagues in the science community are thinking.

Geneticist and media personality Adam Rutherford tweeted:

The assumption behind this tweet is that fairness is a quality that is determined by biology.   Let’s say for just a moment that we went with this assumption.  How would we determine its validity?  How would we get into the position to determine it?  Let’s say we could devise a “great scale” where one could measure all the molecules of each individual person.  Or would it be a scanner?  Would it be a sequencer?  What would it be?  Would it be an HPLC instrument or all of the above?  Would it help to have Craig Venter on hand?  How would we measure each and every molecule of each top athlete and compare them with each other?  Where is—or who is—this biological deity which can see through us and determine our biological “fitness” to compete?  

Furthermore, are we able to reduce all competitive qualities to molecules?

In other words, this debate over sports fairness is another iteration of the biology reductionism debate.  It appears (I'm in the middle of two of his books about humans and their genetic makeup) Rutherford is a reductionist.  For him, it looks like all of biology can be explained by physics.  And every athlete’s performance can be explained by molecules.  All sports by the science of biology.

And many in his following agree.  One of them, a Martin Waring, tweeted: 

"Michael Phelps shouldn’t haven’t been allowed to compete at swimming as his size 14 feet and flexible ankles gave him an unfair advantage.   He also had unnatural arm reach.”

Phelps achievement has been reduced here to physical biological qualities.  There is no acknowledgment of any of Phelps’s perserverance, his skill, his determination, his work ethic.  No.  He is the sum total of his bodily parts.

Is there anything more to competitive sport than measurements and parts?  It's like saying the great Chicago Bulls team from the 90's that brought home six championships that decade was just a combination of their feet, legs, hands, reach, and jump height!  What about skilll, strategy, an amazing coach who went on to do some magic with the LA Lakers--and, let's ask about the big one, what about imagination?!  Has there ever been a great performance without a dynamic, creative imagination at work?

To the question about fairness being a quality that is determined by biology,  let me offer some alternatives there as well.  Fairness might also be created by the agreement of the players to compete.  When a group of young kids come together in the street for a pick-up game of soccer, is it not a fair game?  They immediately and intuitively size each other up and agree to a game.  The agreement itself generates the fairness.  If they see that one is older, bigger, “out of their league” they will automatically exclude this person.  Fairness may also be created from the very rules of a game.  While it may be true that life is unfair, sport is our way of creating a temporary “fair” space.  

In Semenya's case the issue of fairness will be decided by the community, just as it is in the pick-up soccer game on the street, and the sport will go on.

The drive by biologists to reduce competitive drive and success in sports (or music or other pursuits) to smaller ingredients is admittedly vigorous and complex.  But it is not only complex in the way they seem to suggest:  we just don’t have enough machines and data and PhDs yet to figure it out.  

You can have machines and biological data stacked to the moon.  This will never get you more than so far.