Saturday, 21 March 2015

Some Thoughts on Time and Success in Elite Sport

I am writing this blog from the new Wellcome Trust Reading Room, which is truly an inspirational place. Just to give you an example, take a look at this fantastic dress called 'The closure of the neural tube'.

'Closure of the neural tube' dress,
at WT Reading Room
(The neural tube is the embryonic precursor of the nervous system, and the closure of the neural tube is a fundamental process in embryonic development in vertebrates. Defects in this process lead to malformations such as spina bifida). I found it simply brilliant, and it reminds me of the times when I was working in a development biology laboratory at IFOM (Milan, Italy) during my lab rotation for my PhD.

I am a biotechnologist by background, and I still find anything related to biology/biotechnology fascinating, even if about ten years ago I have decided not to work at the bench and pursue instead the study of the ethical and social implications of biotechnology. I am now a Lecturer in Bioethics & Society at King's College London, and I have been working at the Strand Campus for the last five years.

My interest in investigating the concept of success comes from my explorations of direct to consumer (DTC) genetic tests to scout out children's athletic potential. What do DTC-tests have to do with success, you might think? Well, to start with DTC-genetic tests are sold to parents and coaches with the claim that they are able to identify early on an athletic potential in children of three, four or five years old. In the US, summer camps for talent scouting are not a recent invention, but the incorporation of genetic tests is. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the soundness of the science (how justified is the inference that a certain genetic polymorphism can form the basis for a 'successful' future sprinter, or long-distance runner?), what I have been interested in exploring are the decisions that parents and coaches make on the basis of these tests. These decisions shape the future of their children (see vignette from the New Yorker).

Parents shaping the lives of their children.
The assumption is that in the context of sport, an early specialisation and professionalisation is a necessary condition for the development of a future successful elite athlete. On the basis of this assumption, and in hindsight on the basis of the success of the individual, many decisions made by parents to pursue an aggressive education are justified.

In a paper published in 2013 on Sport Ethics & Philosophy I investigated whether such assumption is justified. I have only tangentially explored the concept of success in elite sport, but the more I have been looking into the narrative of success of professional athletes [and this relates to Zoƫ's project on stories of success], the more I have started to realise that success in elite sport (but also in other contexts where we think that an early specialisation is necessary, think of music!) comes about only at the expense of trade-offs, (and often very big ones!) with other things that we value in life.

Empirical studies have demonstrated that elite athletes discount their future health in favour of short-term goals (i.e. winning), and that they engage in risky and harmful behaviours in order to gain a edge in competition. To the best of my knowledge, there are no empirical studies that look at the relations of success with a broader concept of well-being, and at what trade-offs athletes or other successful professional are willing to make in order to gain that quite narrow understanding of success which is specific of their specialisation. Matteo's interests in looking at other kind of trafe-offs (whether success of an individual is ever possible without being at the expense of somebody else) fit in well and complement this line of inquiry.

In addition, the normative frameworks that are usually employed to investigate the philosophical and ethical issues surrounding these questions lack the dimension of temporality, which is so key in whatever we do in life. Genetic tests are used on children on the assumption that only an early [time] intervention and steering from the parents in a particular direction can lead to a future [time] success. Successful athletes discount their future [time] health, and possibly well-being and social relations in favour of short-term goals in the nearer future [time, again!].

How can we account from a philosophical point of view of this key dimension of temporality, which is currently absent from the discussions? I suspect that a fruitful line of inquiry lies in a virtue-ethics approach, developed elaborating on Michael Slote's "Good and virtues" (1990), but I look forward to discussing these and other ideas with the other members of the team. I am ready to be surprised by serendipitous connections and discoveries enabled by such a project!

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