Monday, August 25, 2008

Biased Opinion - What Is a Sport?

The other day, I had the Olympics on, and NBC was showing the team synchronized swimming event (I know, but no other channels were carrying any Olympic coverage, so I was stuck with that). I was not paying a whole lot of attention, when my 10 year old son came upstairs from the basement and asked what I was watching. "The Olympics" I said. He studied the screen for about ten seconds of the Spanish women whipping their legs about in the air, and pronounced "That isn't a sport."

There has been a lot of controversy this Olympics about subjective sports. Of course, there is always a lot of controversy about them - that seems to be inherent to such endeavors. And the Olympics seem to breed these silly things: synchronized diving appears to be the most recent. The silly nature of a lot of these sports has spawned reactions, such as the "Real Medal Count" tallies in the media, and within the sports themselves, ever desperate attempts to somehow make the scoring systems less subjective and open to abuse.

The list of purely subjective sports in the Olympics is long, and getting longer. The original, 1896 Olympics only had one: gymnastics. All the others appear to have descended, in some way from gymnastics (like diving, developed when gymnasts practicing their routines would dive into water). A possibly incomplete count of those currently in the Olympics is: Gymnastics, diving, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, ice dancing, dressage, synchronized swimming, >synchronized diving, half pipe snowboarding and other freestyle skiing or snowboarding events. Further, there are several subjective sports knocking on the door, trying to get in are such things as ballroom dancing, skateboarding, and other "X games" type events. So, what is a sport?

One may ask, as an initial question, why does it matter? Shouldn't we just decide if something is a good competition and add it to the roster? Well, the IOC doesn't see things that way. The IOC has imposed limits on how many sports can be in the Olympics - no more than 28 sports for a total of no more than 301 events, and a limit of 10,500 athletes. These definitions are not always adhered to - the 10,500 athlete limit has been ignored for the most part, and the definition of what a single "sport" is is so loose as to be meaningless (for example, synchronized swimming is part of aquatics, which means that to get rid of it, using the IOC rules, you would have to eliminate the swimming races as well, which is silly; rhythmic gymnastics is also protected, by being part of the "gymnastics" sport). But the 301 even limit is pretty much strictly adhered to. The upshot of this is that to add a sport, one has to get rid of an existing sport. So, if you want rugby, or golf, or now, baseball, you have to axe something that is currently on the roster.

This is stupid. The mammoth stupidity of this sort of "limit" is simply almost indescribable. It does a good job of demonstrating the paucity of the IOCs vision of the Olympics. Rather than providing a world stage for sports, they simply want to have a select few so the games will be "manageable". The given reason for the limits is this: the games are expensive to run, and adding more events means that poor cities in poor countries won't have a shot at hosting the games. Okay, that could be a problem. On the other hand, there are numerous ways of overcoming this without putting an artificial limit on inclusion. (How did they come up with the limit you ask? It appears that they simply decided to freeze the Olympics in place as they were when they made the decision. Good thing they didn't freeze it in 1896, then we'd have nothing but track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling). For example, allow cities or smaller countries to submit joint bids, the Beijing Olympics weren't really held entirely within Beijing anyway. But no. We have to limit the games, so we can have sports beg to stay. And really, if rhythmic gymnastics is in the Olympics, why isn't ballroom dancing in? What makes it distinctively different so that one is a sport and one is not?

Further, it is my opinion that many of the sports, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming cheapen the games and devalue the medals earned in events like the marathon and the triathlon. A friend of mine has what could be called the "make-up" standard, which is this: if it would be unthinkable to compete in an event without your make-up, then the event isn't a sport. And while I disagree with the standard, that, to me, sums up why these events devalue the objective athletic competitions. When you are concerned with how pretty you are when competing, then you aren't an athlete (and, in my opinion, most of the so-called athletes who are in such sports are far less attractive than those in the objective sports: Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor, Muna Lee and so on are all much more attractive to my eyes).

So, finally, what is a sport? In my opinion, the definition of what is not a sport boils down to this: if any part of the sport is dependent upon whether you have pointed your toes, straightened your arms completely, or kept your legs together properly, then you aren't competing in a sport. Yes, I know, this eliminates pretty much all of the subjective sports, and that's the point. Pointy toes are not sports. What is that I hear from the peanut gallery? These are difficult and require lots of skill? Sure they do. I won't argue with you there. But it takes more than effort and skill to make something a sport. Here are some other activities that require either effort or skill, or both: ballet dancing, construction work, guitar playing, ditch digging, chess, and auto repair. None of them are sports. Neither is diving. Things can be hard and not be a sport. Deal with it.

Some people have come up with the "real medal count", eliminating what they believe are the subjective sports - and have tossed out boxing, tae kwon do, judo and wrestling too. I disagree with that assessment because I believe those sports can be salvaged. Yes, boxing and tae kwon do have had significant scoring controversies (and those questioning the scoring in those events are, in my opinion, justified), but if fencing can come up with a neutral electronic scoring system, then those sports can too. Wrestling and judo are a harder call, because there is no way to come up with an electronic scoring system for them, but they have objective rules concerning what should and should not score, so I think they could be handled fairly, and thus get to stay on a probationary basis.

If I were somehow made king of the world, I would dump all the "pointy-toe" sports from the Olympics. Synchronized swimming? Gone. Diving? No more. Half-pipe? See ya. And so on. I would be magnanimous - artistic gymnasts and divers in individual events in previous Olympic contests can keep their medals. Medals earned by synchronized swimmers, synchronized divers, rhythmic gymnasts and so on? I'd revoke all of those retroactively. But that's just me. And it's unlikely that I will ever be king of the world.

But the serious note is this: The IOC has created an artificial situation with an arbitrary limit. Then it has added obnoxiously corrupt subjective sports in the Olympics and kept out things like rugby (and kicked out baseball) because of that artificial standard. Are these really the guys who should be running the centerpiece world sporting event? I don't think so.

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