Fair Play: Sport’s Universal Code of Ethics


Karen Northshield looks at sport’s universal code of ethics: Fair Play

The important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete… not victory but combat… not winning but taking part…” These are the founding words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and father of the modern Olympic Games (Athens, 1896).

In this founding text lies a fundamental principle, not only in sports but also in life. The act of participation. Within this act lies the values of respect, or more precisely known
in today’s sporting world as ‘fair play’. Fair play exceeds more than respect for oneself, or others, for the rules and regulations, for sport and the environment. Fair play also encompasses ethical codes and behaviour and playing clean and openly. Fair play suggests that winning should not be the reason for participation but rather to cultivate one’s ethical and moral behaviour (i.e. human excellence). Therefore, the universal value of fair play lies in how (and not why) one competes and participates, and promotes the quality of effort, not results.

De Coubertin understood that sport can be used as a medium to spread values across cultures and beyond boundaries. De Coubertin revived fundamental values of Olympism (776 BC) with the objective of striving for human excellence. Today this engagement in sports is referred to as fair play. But our attitude towards fair play is equally essential in other if not all aspects of our lives. We teach our children basic values and principles such as respect in school and in the playground. Throughout adulthood and our professional lives, the same value acts as a guideline towards personal achievement and success.

Fair play is a concept that reunites various virtues. It is a compound word made up of ‘fair (in accordance with the rules and standards) and ‘play’ (engaging in activity, participating) or in other words ‘acting in accordance with the spirit of the game’. Engaging in a sport is to respect the game (adhering to the rules), to respect other players (no cheating or foul play) and to respect officials (their decision making). In life, fair play is just as much an attitude as it is a behaviour towards oneself and others. It is synonymous with integrity, self-control and respect for colleagues and opponents.

Sport, through organized rules and regulation, can create moral and social strength. Rules are enhanced to preserve the spirit of the game and to avoid cheating. Without fairness of play, the game (sports) would be void of purpose. Yet herein lies the catch. We are taught to go after a win or success. But if we lose, we have a tendency to lose our sense of respect for oneself and respect for others. However, fair play dictates that we equally accept a loss or a defeat as we do a win.