Lindsay Vonn and the Fairness Obsession

Ethicist Rushworth Kidder has challenged the fairness of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, specifically the Ladies’ Super-G skiing event. U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn, the gold medal winner in the Ladies’ Downhill Alpine Skiing event, only won the bronze despite finishing the course in one minute and 20.88 seconds, because Austria’s Andrea Fischbacher at 1:20.14,  and  Slovenia’s Tina Maze at 1:20.63 were less than a second faster. Italy’s Johanna Schnarf, the fourth place finisher, got no prize at all, because she was a miniscule  11 hundredths of a second behind Vonn.

Dr. Kidder is crying foul. “Comparing skiers on a changing track is about apples and oranges,” he writes. “When the Super-G began at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, the sun hadn’t yet risen on some parts of the course. Some of the early skiers, apparently unable to see some of the bumps, were knocked flat and didn’t finish. By the end of the race, the sun was fully up and visibility was better. But by then the icy slickness of the early morning had given way to a softer surface toward the bottom….So let’s be honest about it. Let’s admit that Fischbacher “beat” Vonn, who in turn “beat” Schnarf, not because any of them were hundredths of seconds better. They won or lost because each was assigned a different starting time. Let’s admit that, unlike swimming, part of their winning resembled a gambler’s lucky streak in a casino. Let’s admit that the claim of double-digit accuracy is disingenuous, even dishonest, and that frankly we can’t tell who deserves the gold.”

Oh, sure we can. The skier that deserves the gold is the one who conquers whatever special obstacles fate, luck and the peculiarities of the sport throw in their path more effectively than the other skiers. Luck and chance aren’t unethical. They are permanent conditions of human existence.

There is nothing especially unfair about inequities in sport; indeed, more sports have them than don’t. So what? As long as the competitors know that such factors are part of the competition and randomly determined, there is nothing unfair or unethical about them. All sports played outside can be affected by the weather. A gust of wind can spoil a tennis player’s serve, turn a potential home run in baseball into a fly ball out, or send a perfect golf drive into a sand trap. That contributes to the excitement and the fun. The Saints and Colts, the NFL teams that played in the Super Bowl, didn’t play the same teams to get there: the process was full of variation. But it was a great game. Did the Saints “deserve” to be champions? Of course they did…because they won.

Fairness is a virtue, but it does not require equality in all things. Our society currently is obsessed with fairness in outcomes, and is constantly fighting over how or whether to “even the playing field.” But playing fields are always going to be uneven. One of the benefits of sports is that it inspires us with the exploits of underdogs and surprise champions who face special disadvantages and bad luck but win anyway. Sports is not about outcomes, even though we cheer and throw money at the winners. Sports, like life, is about the journey and the quest, doing it right and honorably, rising above and overcoming the bumpy ski course, the learning disability or the single parent home. By all means, let’s try to make both as fair as we can, but don’t say that the winners don’t deserve to win because some inequities remain. Lots of skiers fell on the smooth track too. The lesson for Lindsay Vonn to take away from her millisecond loss isn’t that the system is unfair, but that the next time she needs to be a little bit better.

4 thoughts on “Lindsay Vonn and the Fairness Obsession

  1. Good observations. You were right about our culture’s obsession with fairness. But if you think about it, true fairness doesn’t even exist in the real world. That’s why I like to talk about Justice rather than Fairness.

    I see this all the time in the law enforcement field. I tell police officers that we work for the criminal JUSTICE system, not the criminal FAIRNESS system.

    Fairness has to do with treating people in regards to have we have treated others. It is a constantly changing standard and impossible to pin down. It is much better to focus on treating people according to an unchanging standard. That is a reasonably good working definition of justice.

    Something that is not fair, might still be just. I can’t write everybody that violates a traffic law a ticket, which would be FAIR. But I CAN write you a ticket for a violation, which would be JUST.

    That’s the situation with the skiers. The track conditions might not make it “fair,” but the rules of the game make it “just…”

    Sheriff Ray

  2. Ray, that’s a great distinction, although I don’t think the fact that you can’t right everyone a ticket makes it unfair for me to get one—that’s both just and fair. It’s unfair that other violators get away with it, but that’s not unfair to me. I have to think about whether anything that is truly just can be unfair. I’m not so sure about that.

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