Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When a Sport is Not Really a Sport: Olympics Edition


In a recent ESPN.com Sports Nation poll, 73% of those who responded said that, given adequate time to train, they could be an Olympic-caliber curler. Are the Olympics not set up to showcase the finest athletic talent in the world? If almost 3/4 of the general public thinks itself capable of competing with you, are you really all that elite? (How many people think they could swim with Michael Phelps, run with Usain Bolt, or compete on the half-pipe with Shaun White?)

In December 2008, I created a list of 10 sports that are not really sports, based upon what I feel are minimal standards for sport. As a refresher, he goes: a “sport” should involve 1) athletic skill or prowess on the part of a human being, 2) be at least minimally aerobic, 3) promote physical fitness and 4) be somewhat competitive in nature. (I realize that Corry studies sports newspapers from the 19th century that “covered everything from chess tournaments and regattas to hunting expeditions and masked balls”; fortunately, since then, we have developed the phrases “Sports & Leisure” and “Entertainment,” as in ESPN: the Entertainment and Sports Network, which justifies its showing poker, bowling, NASCAR, etc.) Based upon these criteria, let us analyze and weigh in on a few sports in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics that many feel fall well short of the mark:

1) Figure Skating (er… Ice Dancing): Twice this month, Corry (and many others elsewhere) has approached the question of whether Ice Dancing is a sport, basing comments on various factors (i.e. the power of judges, choreography, sequins, etc.). While I was no more impressed by the Gingerbread Man couple posing as Native Canadians than anyone else, the sport of figure skating requires unquestionable skill, is highly aerobic, obliges the utmost fitness, and, as a “competition” that necessitates judges, is certainly competitive. Verdict: SPORT!

2) Curling: How was this game invented? Were janitors at a granite warehouse in Manitoba sweeping up after hours and nipping the flask? (Oddly, still, I must say I enjoy watching it—the competition is, at least, entertaining.) BUT, while requiring a skill set (i.e. the ability to simultaneously walk on ice in sneakers and sweep without a serious pratfall) and being competitive, the skill is neither athletic, aerobic, nor does it promote fitness. A game of strategy and execution, not unlike bowling: you cannot call it a sport if you are just effective with a beer bottle in your non-dominant hand. Verdict: NO sport!

3) Biathlon: Before unnecessarily drawing the ire of Scott and the many avid skiers that read this blog, let me say that the cross-country skiing aspect of biathlon perhaps qualifies the most as a sport. Still, where did rifle shooting come into the mix? Is this how they hunt in Switzerland? Now, I get that if you are not in peak physical condition, fatigue (accompanied by shaky hands) figures into the mix. All the same, it is an odd combo. Unlike the summer triathlon, which combines three speed/endurance events, x-c skiing and rifle shooting are as odd as 1500 meter swimming followed by archery. Verdict: Sport.

This raises an important question for quite a few summer “sports”: archery, rifle shooting, shot put, discus, javelin, hammer throw, etc. Most minimally fit the sports criteria; but, the summer Olympics are shrewd in calling these Field Events.

4 comments:

Jeremy said...

Did a southerner just imply that NASCAR wasn't a sport? :)

I've been giving this some thought, and I would alter your classification a bit:

1. Equestrian events are obviously sport (you originally categorized them as non-sport) not of humans, but of horses. I bet a larger percentage of people know the last *horse* to win the Kentucky Derby than know who the jockey was.

2. I would add this to the criteria: The outcome of the event must be based on an objective, measurable property. Did the ball go through the hoop? Did the puck cross the goal line? Who crossed the finish line first (and in what time)? Whose arrow is closest to the center of the target? How much weight did he lift? (BTW - is dead lifting "minimally aerobic?")

The degree to which points are awarded subjectively is the degree to which the competition is *not* a sport. Figure skating and ice dancing: Not a sport. Ski jumping: Half a sport (I don't care what the form looked like; who went further?). Snowboard Cross: Sport.

What about snowboard half-pipe? Not a sport. However, all subjectively-scored competitions could become sports with an H-O-R-S-E format where competitors must land (stay upright, no hands touching, etc.) successively more difficult maneuvers.

That's actually how "figure" skating started: Skaters were required to make "compulsory" figures and judges would measure their symmetry, etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_figures . The whole "free skate" is relatively new.

BTW, last night they compared two bobsled runs by superimposing on run over the other. That got me thinking. They should widen the track and start bobsled cross. Man, think of the ratings!

Anonymous said...

You obviously have never curled if you think curling is not aerobic.

Robert J. Hudson said...

Jeremy: Not only did I imply NASCAR is not a sport, I am emphatically proclaiming it. In equestrian, you're correct, the horse is the athlete. And, while I like the idea of objectivity, half-pipe and ice dancing, like diving and gymnastics routines, have certain techniques with prescribed degrees of difficulty that knowledgeable judges take into account as part of their subjective rating. So, I disagree with you here.

Both J. and anonymous: No, I have never curled--but I have swept my garage and shoveled snow from my driveway. Neither was nearly as aerobic as deadlifting. Guess bowling can technically be considered aerobic depending upon one's fitness level.

Corry Cropper said...

I use a shop vac to clean out my garage, so I'm afraid I can't comment.