This “level playing field”, where is it?

One of the main pillars of the current political correct trend in elite sports is the so called “level playing field” . What it comes down to is that every athlete should have equal chances in competitive sports and should be subjected to the same set of rules. However this concept is totally illusionary, unless we start cloning athletes and put them in the exactly same environment. Even at the basic level of participation in sports, it is easy to see that the presence of adequate sport facilities, in the broadest sense, is a factor that ruins the concept of “level playing field”.  It is hard to get onto the playing field if there is none. The athlete entering a stadium, pool, pitch or hall is the result of his/her history.

Any idea why the endurance events in athletics are dominated by African athletes, but why in the endurance events at the Paralympics like in the wheelchair distance events, the African athletes are a very small minority?  The total of the environment of the athletes is making all the difference for the playing field: geography, climate, facilities, training and competition equipment, medical and paramedical support, support from OC and federations, and the clubs and sponsors, political support, the role of the media, and not to forget the quality of the coaches. So every athlete is playing on a completely different playing field! To take it a step further: even on a virtual level playing field like sprinting 100 meters in athletics, the 100 meters is the same distance on the same surface for all the sprinters in the same race. But starting in the middle lanes 3,4,5,6 or outside lanes 1,2,7,8 can make a significant difference. Even the effect of wind, tailwind or headwind, might differ significantly e.g. between lane 1 to 8.  And could make a difference between winning gold or winning silver.

The current Corona situation sharply increased the difference in the playing fields. Where in some countries the athletes are already free to train, to travel and to compete again, in other countries they are not. This has nothing to do with the risk of contamination or the disease statistics. This is a political decision, based on national perception or on the political power of the sport.  Athletics is a sport that only exists by the presence of measurable comparison and competition: who is running faster, throwing further or jumping higher or further.

Athletes need competitions and I have seen the disastrous results of the lack of competitions for a longer period of time. And the difference between being able to train in more or less normal conditions, on the track, in the gym, in a group, with a coach or being restricted to train in your living room or in the park by yourself. The gap in the level of playing fields has sharply increased to the extent that athletes loose motivation to train and compete. They see their opponents train properly and compete and perceive the lack of equal opportunities to prepare and to compete at level playing field.

Recently I was at the national championships athletics in the Netherlands, very well organized, no spectators allowed and all preventive measures strictly applied. After the competition I passed by a local soccer match, next to the athletics track. Not a single restriction there, spectators allowed, no distancing, shouting, no hand sanitizing and of course physical contact during the match which speaks for itself. Where the athletics people fear the repercussions of enforcement, soccer people realize they are beyond the rules. No mayor of any city dares to seriously restrict soccer clubs, players, spectators or fans in the name of public health risks, just out of fear of social protest.

Where it concerns the application and enforcement of rules, it is like George Orwell observed brilliantly: ”all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

In hindsight I have to conclude that I have been chasing the illusion of level playing fields – they do not exist and they never will, stop dreaming and mentioning this as being a pillar of sports.

One comment

  1. Ivan

    I think situation in many sports is even worse than what you describe.
    In some sports, athletes don’t even have access to the same equipment/technology/resources. Cross-country skiing is a sport where equipment (skis, wax) plays a
    huge role.

    But the current pandemic also showed that we are not part of the same world.
    If some government decides to restrict movement or business activity,
    if you work “from home” as a paper pusher you are not impacted while
    if you need to do physical work, you certainly are.

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