February 14, 2002
It is, of course, Olympics Time, and I suppose because of that I’ve been seeing a lot more sports-related discussion and commentary around the blogosphere. "Sports-related" is probably the proper term for Olympics discussions, since they are almost invariably not about the competitions and events themselves, but rather about the myriad of tangential issues that surround a particular Olympics. There’s a ton of preliminary hype for a month or two, with discussions about the strange customs and practices of the locals (in this case, Mormons) and a heated argument or two about some specific controversy, such as which flag the U.S. team should carry. Anyway, the hype builds and builds until the point where you actually turn on the TV and say to yourself, "Oh yeah, speed skating. I don’t care even one little whit about speed skating." and go on with your life until something bizarre happens.
This year the bizarre occurrence is definitely the major judging scandal in figure skating, which held my attention for the few minutes it took me to remember that I hadn’t seen the competition, and that a complete and catastrophic upheaval in the world of figure skating would have very little impact on my between-Olympics life. The combination of the scandal and the preponderence of judged and individually timed events has started an interesting discussion about the very nature of sports, or what a sport is.
David Janes presents his definition of a sport, along with his hierarchy of sport and sport-related activities:
David does give credence to the simpler Balloon Juice definition: "A sport is an athletic event that requires you to play offense and defense. Anything else is an athletic event." This view is also held by the excellent King Kaufman over at Salon:
- It has a "natural" measurable scoring — i.e. someone goes the highest, goes the fastest, or finishes before others.
- It requires skill.
- One can be hurt in the normal course of the sport if that skill is not exercised properly.
The hierarchy of sport
- Sports (hockey)
- Athletic Competition (100m sprint)
- Athletic Event (ice dancing)
- Entertainment (WWF; The Lion King on ice; anything with Tanya Harding)
When it comes right down to it, I don't like sports where: A) One competitor or game or match looks strikingly similar to all the others; or B) there's nobody trying to stop you from doing what you're trying to do.The aforementioned Blogistan, in a discussion about figure skating, takes issue with the opinion that objectivity is the key to sports, offering a wide tent:
The Winter Olympics are filled with sports like that. All of the racing sports, the skiing and bobsled and speed skating and luge, are exercises in déjà vu. One guy flying down a mountain on skis looks pretty much like another guy flying down a mountain on skis, and doing it in one minute, 39.13 seconds looks a heck of a lot like doing it in one minute, 41.25 seconds, which is a range that on Monday encompassed 20 skiers.[…]
With the exception of hockey and, to a certain extent, curling, all of the sports in the Winter Olympics feature indirect competition. It's athlete vs. clock or athlete vs. competitor's score. The competitors take their turns, sequentially. They never face each other -- I mean literally, face each other, the way a hockey forward and defenseman do, or the way two boxers or wrestlers or even tennis players do.
That facing each other, that me trying to stop you and you trying to stop me, is what makes the great sports great.
Figure skating — on the vast continuum of sports, with, say, pro wrestling on one end (an entirely fictional, and hence entirely subjective sport) and, say, billiards or bowling on the other end (sports with minimal or no human judgement as to what constitutes victory, and hence entirely objective sports) — lies on the subjective end, toward pro wrestling. The great American team sports would lie in the middle, with maybe the NFL right in the middle and the NBA and MLB heading towards subjectivity. Anyway, the subjectivity of figure skating is no reason to say it isn't a sport. It's just more subjective than most.My position would be on the side of objectivity, with the understanding that there is no such thing as a purely objective competition (the closest would be the bowling example from above, or perhaps a non-judged, no-limit boxing match, but I’m sure if I looked I could find my share of subjective controversies there as well). I certainly understand the incredible dedication and athletic ability required in figure skating, but the further an event moves away from having a winner decided immediately, on the field of play, the further away from a compelling spectator sport it becomes for me.
For me, nearly all of the events in the Winter Olympics fall into one of two categories:
- Events where 25 people who look the same perform an activity where everybody does the same thing, and at the end it’s announced who did it a millisecond faster than everybody else.
- Events where people do different things, and at the end the Wizard appears and announces who he thinks did it the best.
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