Insights Preslav Tonkov

A Fair Game

What the recent problems in elite sport can teach us about the future of capitalism?

In the Tyranny of Merit, philosopher Michael Sandel outlines the problem with our modern conception of meritocracy. We tend to champion meritocracy as an ideal to be upheld at any cost because it embodies the idea of fair competition, but instead what Sandel shows is that meritocracy has a dark side.

Take one example from his book, admission into Harvard University.  Even though students there are likely to claim their admission is solely based on “merit”, the relationship between social class and SAT scores are well-documented and two-thirds of students there come from the top fifth of the income bracket. Meritocracy, in its current form, increasingly serves to defend a status quo rather than to advance social mobility.

This mode of thinking about talent and opportunity has also penetrated the world of sports. The recent debacle of the European Super League is a good example of this. Leading clubs who argued they merited the creation of a separate league would have suspended competition. Merit and fair competition are only useful until we reach a point when competition can be effectively suspended.

Once the established positions at the top are secured, privilege is fortified through barriers to entry. The Super League attempted to create a closed shop in which new teams could not enter in the same manner that Harvard legacy admission makes it difficult to make the university more inclusive.

The world of tennis is an even better example of this long-term trend. No one seems to be questioning how a sport can have “world rankings” on tennis players, yet the most elite tournaments – The Grand Slams – are always held in London, Paris, Melbourne and New York. The very nature of this global competition is protected by an elite that managed to get in early. Meritocracy exists only up to a point.

While armchair commentators in the West, bicker about the dividing lines in the “culture wars”, the issue at hand is much deeper. It is about the idea of fair competition, which is the key selling point of the idea of the West.

Football came under criticism recently for being out of touch, but football is also a game in which a kid from the streets of Senegal like Sadio Mane can end up being a star player at Premier League giants Liverpool. Can the same upward journey happen with tennis?

Liberal capitalism promises to create a meritocratic system where such upward trajectories are the norm, not the exception. Tennis has a much deeper problem than football in being a “global sport”. By its very nature, it is geared towards a specific audience, but as the recent Naomi Osaka episode highlights, the mood is changing.

Admissions into Harvard University or elite tennis tournaments share a common feature. They project the idea of being world leaders, but historic barriers have meant that a large proportion of the world is left out.

This is evident everywhere we look. This week, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo shut down Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga during a state visit to Bern, arguing that Ghana would no longer export cocoa to Switzerland. It is difficult to justify historic neo-colonial patterns of trade in which exporting raw cocoa rather than chocolate is the standard practice for developing countries. Again, the same pattern occurs. Western states claim to be free traders and competitors but maintain institutions that skew meritocracy, just like Harvard legacy admissions or elite tennis tournaments.