Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Figure Skating IS a "Real" Sport... or... How Phil Jackson is "Merely" a Choreographer

Over on Nate Silver's blog "Five Thirty Eight," attached to a post about the number of medals each country is projected to win, is a discussion about whether or not figure skating is a sport. Some readers complain that figure skating is not a sport since the outcome is entirely in the hands of the judges. Here was my comment:

Nearly every sport has judges, they just intervene more and play a larger role in determining outcomes in some sports than others. In baseball the umpire makes a call with every single pitch. In golf, the refs only intervene on rare occasions.
The reason figure skating bugs so many people stems less from the fact that results are determined by judges and more from the fact that "choreography" and "interpretation" are written into the judging rules.

But these categories are implicit in diving, ski jumping, half-pipe, too.

The bottom line is that it's hard for most self-identified sports fans to get excited about a sport where the athletes hire choreographers, choose music, wear sequins and put on makeup as part of the sport.

In the past we have discussed the level of intervention on the part of judges/referees and attempted to demonstrate that sport is defined in relationship to the hegemonic power structure in a given culture.

In an article published in the Michigan Journal of Political Science, Andy Markovits argues that sports cultures are male dominated and that they create barriers to prevent unauthentic sports fans (usually women) from entering them. These barriers tend to be technical (terminology, knowledge of a particular sport's rules) or historical (a knowledge of trivia or the ability to discuss teams and games from the past). Markovits suggests that many women wear sport clothing in an attempt to circumvent these barriers and gain access to a given sports culture.

"Men’s fluency in the language of sports culture needs no outward affirmation. It is assumed by all. For women, however, this is not the case. Women still have to prove to men—and to themselves—that they, too, have acquired fluency in the language of sports culture. One signifier of that language is wearing sports paraphernalia."

Markovits goes on to point out that men try and maintain distinctions by dismissing the newcomers as "studied" or superficial.

Figure skating, a contest in which costuming and presentation--the superficial--are in fact at the very core of the sport, will quite naturally push "real" sports fans into making numerous arguments to exclude it from the world of "real sport."

One argument is that in figure skating the judges have too much influence. But their influence is about the same as that of an umpire in baseball or a referee in basketball; in other words, they can all definitively influence the outcome of the contest.

Another argument is that if there are choreographers, costumes, and music, the competition has passed from the realm of sport to the realm of art. But this is once again an attempt on the part of "real" fans to linguistically exclude the sport. In baseball, for example, a choreographer is called a coach, costumes are called uniforms, and music IS played between innings and each time a player from the home team walks up to the plate. Baseball players even wear make-up under their eyes!

As we have argued before, saying a competition is not a sport is simply a way to marginalize it and its fans. And while I personally find figure skating tedious and would rather watch, well, just about anything, I'm sure this is in part because I am a product of a certain culture and hold to some of its biases.

That said, let me add that I think Joe Girardi is a heck of a choreographer, and that I really like the New Orleans Saints' costumes. Very classy...

4 comments:

Jeremy said...

You compress the concepts of "sport" and "competition." They are distinct and it is useful to prescribe criteria for inclusion in the more exclusive category.

But, cool. I didn't know American Idol was a sport!

Corry Cropper said...

In the 19th-century, a newspaper called "Le Sport" covered everything from chess tournaments and regattas to hunting expeditions and masked balls.... One man's talent show is another man's sport...

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