Last week the Scottish ultramarathon runner Joasia Zakrzewski was banned from competing in the UK for 12 months. This was her punishment for accepting a lift in a car around the 25-mile mark of a 50-mile Manchester to Liverpool race in April.
Zakrzewski travelled over two miles that way and had, she said, intended to pull out of the race at the next checkpoint with an injured leg. However, encouraged by an official, she went on to complete the race, on a non-competitive basis.
Except she then inadvertently accepted the medal and trophy for third place. A week later she still hadn’t mentioned her little boost, and even posted about the event on social media. Post-race analysis of GPS tracking data revealed what had happened.
Although Zakrzewski has apologised to the runner she had bumped out of the third-place medal, explaining that she was feeling spaced out after the race and not thinking straight, most of us would still see this as cheating. The evidence doesn’t set her in a good moral light.
Zakrzewski chose a much more efficient way to get to the finish line than her competitors, but not one permitted by the rules. She then kept mum about that. That’s unsporting. It’s literally not playing the game.
In his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, the American philosophy professor Bernard Suits gave a philosophical analysis of the nature of games – for him, a running race was a kind of game. The short version is that a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.
When we step back and look at games and sports they are a little weird: we deliberately make things hard for ourselves when we compete in them, and usually enjoy, or at least are challenged, by that. We put arbitrary obstacles in the way of achieving specific goals that it would be easier to attain more directly.
It’s only when someone chooses to ignore these obstacles that the oddness of this sort of activity becomes apparent.
For Suits, the concept of a game or competitive sport has three parts: the prelusory aim, the constitutive rules, and the lusory attitude.
The “prelusory aim” (from the Latin ludus meaning game, and pre meaning before) is a goal that can be described independently of the activity. Here the prelusory aim was to cross the finish line in Liverpool, ideally before other competitors.
The constitutive rules are the limits that the game or sport sets on how you achieve the prelusory aim. The constitutive rules provide a series of obstacles for participants that usually forbid the most efficient ways of achieving the goal.
So, for example, in football, there are only certain parts of your body you can legitimately use to get the ball into the net, even though in some situations it would be a lot easier to use your hand to pat the ball over the goalkeeper, Maradona-style. In table tennis, you have to let the ball bounce before you hit it, even though it would be more efficient to smash a high return on the volley.
And in ultramarathons, you have to get from the start line to the finish by running (or perhaps walking some of the way), but you can’t travel by car any more than you can hitch a lift to the mountain top by helicopter in competitive climbing.
Suits’ third ingredient of a game is the lusory attitude. This is the voluntary element, the participants’ willing acceptance of constitutive rules of participation, because without those rules the sport or game would be impossible. Any competitor tacitly (or sometimes explicitly) agrees to adopt this attitude to the rules. Zakrzewski knew what the constitutive rules were and failed to adopt the appropriate lusory attitude to them. Hence her ban.
We play games and engage in competitive sports because they can be fun, challenging, and rewarding. But in other aspects of life, taking faster routes can be a sensible thing to do when it doesn’t destroy the activity itself.
Many people, for instance, who’d otherwise have spent years trying to lose weight by following diets and exercise plans are being drawn to the shortcuts of surgery or taking weight-loss drugs. There are no constitutive rules of weight loss. So that’s fine. Losing weight for health reasons can be achieved just about however you like, provided that the process doesn’t harm you and defeat the object.
But running an ultramarathon requires you to respect the rules. It’s just not an ultramarathon if you travel some of the way by car.