Three hours a practice, twice a day, six days a week. This was my workout schedule when I was a rower both in high school and in college. We would row for hours working on stamina, power, and technique all in order to cut an extra tenth of a second off of our total time. What is amazing, though, is that in the world of rowing we were not doing anything above and beyond what any other team was doing.
Come race day we would “know” that we had worked as hard as possible as a team to insure that we would come out on top of those who we were rowing against. We knew that we were going to row our hardest and that we were going to make every stroke better than the last. In knowing this we would assume that we have to be better than our competitors for if their strokes were better than ours they would win. We knew that if someone on our boat caught a crab we were finished (for non-rowing folk that means that your oar gets stuck in the water and completely stops the boat). We knew that if we took one stroke off it would be the stroke that our competitor was trying just a little bit harder and that would make a difference in a race decided by inches. With all of these assumptions it is hard to say that we would stop if our competitor made a mistake. In fact, we more than once capitalized on our competitors’ mistakes to ensure that we would win. The difference between a team that won and the one that lost is that the winning team made the least amount of mistakes. Therefore it is hard to say that there are any ethics in a competition. Everyone is trying to capitalize on their opponents weaknesses. Everyone is fighting for that extra inch.
That being said, there is a baseline expectation for the sport as a whole. Going into the competition we would assume that all of our competitors had the same opportunities as ourselves in terms of training. When athletics becomes unethical is when an individual or a team does something which increases their chances of winning that other competitors have agreed they will not do. To clarify, if every cyclist in the tour de France used doping it would not be an unfair advantage and therefore not unethical. Conversely, if it was in wrestling’s by-laws for its members not to weight train, as silly as that might sound, any person who used weights to train would be using an unethical advantage. Ethics in sports is all about context.