Roman Ciapalo, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the Andrew P. Studdert Chair of Business Ethics and Crisis Leadership at Loras College.
Competition and the desire to win play significant roles in our culture. And competition in sports and athletics is particularly important to many people, whether they are participants or spectators. But, what is the nature of competition in sports and athletics, and what is its relation to winning?
Let us first distinguish two terms that are often considered to be synonymous: sports and athletics. Both are organized, physical and competitive types of play. But, while sports emphasize the process (participation in the activity) over the outcome (winning), athletics emphasize the outcome over the process. How are they related to competition and winning?
Although there are at least three perspectives on the connection between these concepts and sports/athletics—winning above all else, participation above all else and cooperative pursuit of excellence—it is the third of these that is most intriguing and worthy of further attention.
The first two perspectives seem to overvalue and undervalue winning, respectively. But winning is important, isn’t it? The question is: how important? The third perspective argues that while winning is worthy of attention, it should not be and, frankly, is not ultimately the reason why people compete with one another.
It is our desire to be excellent, our striving to be better today than we were yesterday, that seems to characterize our competitive spirit. True competition is ultimately with ourselves. But, since we are by nature social beings, we realize that our quest for excellence is essentially communal and can only be achieved through cooperation with others. And it is for this reason that it is important for opponents to shake hands after the contest, regardless of the final score. Because it is ultimately an expression of respect for, and gratitude to, each other for having been partners in the pursuit of excellence. It is this paradox of the cooperative nature of competition that defines it.
Now, admittedly, this is an ideal, and hence not easily fully achieved—perhaps even impossible. But, is it perhaps a worthy direction for ourselves and our children if it promises a context in which respectful and ethical behavior can be more readily nurtured?
And, if this third concept of competition is indeed viable and reasonable, are there some lessons to be gleaned which might then guide behavior in other areas of human activity— business, for example? This is an interesting question to ponder further.