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Is it really a sport?
Posted at: Feb/24/2014 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Perspectives, Sports,
It is February 2014 and the Winter Olympics hosted in Sochi Russia are underway. Thanks to the miracle of television and the internet I get to enjoy watching the competition in a variety of events. Some of the events I have enjoyed to this point include Speed Skating, Snowboarding, Cross-Country skiing, 2-Man Bobsledding, Ice Hockey and Super-G. As a lover of sports and competition I have to admit to enjoying nearly all these events, but I struggle with accepting whether they are all really ”sports.”
I have been involved in sports for most of my life. Growing up I played in nearly every team or individual sport my parents would let me join. As I entered my adult life I continued distance running competitively for decades even though I was a middle of the pack runner. As a parent I followed my kids into soccer as a coach and referee. We are all ultimately the accumulation of our personal experiences. From this accumulated personal history I periodically find it difficult to define everything in the Olympics as truly a sport; maybe that is why the Olympic programs refer to them as events.
Am I a ‘Sports Curmudgeon?’ The purist in me would like to say that any sport that has music outside of halftime isn’t really a sport. Nevertheless, when I watch a figure skater do a triple Lutz, it is hard not to respect their physical skill and dedication to training. I am not especially good at being a purist, so I struggle here to define what is really qualified to be called a sport.
Most sports enthusiast when defining a sport would include some statements like no subjective judging, direct competition, physical fitness, mano-a-mano, etc…
At first glance, no subjective judging seems like a good criterion. During the figure skating US Nationals just before the 2014 Winter Olympics, one of the judges openly admitted they were taking into account previous performances that a skater had shown in other competitions during the same season. If it is really competition, I would naively think the skaters would be judged solely on their performance at that moment in front of those judges. We all know that athletes have peaks and valleys in their skill and performance. If a newcomer to the National stage is just starting to peak, this historical mindset weighting previous performances would seem to exclude them from success or representing their country at the Olympics.
Judging is not unique to figure skating or gymnastics. Snowboarders on the half-pike are also judged subjectively for their performance of thrilling aerial moves. Weight lifters are scored for their amount of weight they lift and subjectively for their form during the lift. Extending this argument is the sport of boxing. Every professional boxing match includes two judges outside the ring and one inside the ring scoring each round. If the fight is not decided by a knockout, it will be a “decision” of the judges. In baseball, the umpire is tasked to determine strikes and balls based on a strike zone that varies from hitter to hitter and their critical visual assessment. American football has a large officiating crew on the field tasked with determining everything from pass interference to intentional grounding. A college football coach I know once told me that every football play has offensive holding, the officials get to decide subjectively whether it should be called with each snap of the ball. As a soccer referee, I am often accused of making calls that appear to not align with the perspective of the coach or spectators.
I know, while sitting in your basement recliner with a beer in one hand and remote control in another, you can confidently tell me that boxing is different from figure skating, but that line is getting hard to see.
Many people point to direct competition as a defining characteristic of sports. There is no doubt that when competitive sprinters or swimmers race side by side, or wrestlers face off the essence of who is a winner is pretty clear. It is also true that when Manchester United meets Liverpool on the soccer pitch, there is definite competition, but what about golf? Golfers seldom end out actually competing directly against each other. Most golfers battle their own composure and measured skill much more than the other golfers in their group. Even during the final round of a major golf tournament, the first, second and third place golfers are seldom in the same group. Clearly, when a weight lifter or pole-vaulter performs, they know who their competition is, but their focus is on their individual achievement and performance meeting or exceeding anything that they have previously accomplished under the extreme pressure of the moment.
Speaking of achievement, is accomplishing something requiring great physical stamina and perseverance a sport? I have run in a number of marathons, and the world’s best at distance running truly amaze me. What about Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norkay conquering Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen? What they accomplished is truly a feat of conditioning, stamina and persistence: does that make mountain climbing a sport?
If physical prowess matters, is archery or curling a sport? Archery and curling require coordination and the development of very specialized skills through practice. Both endeavors also include a level of direct competition against others…would you consider them sports?
When querying others on this matter a number of my friends suggested that a sport should be a demonstration of physical fitness being honed to excel in some form of competition; sure sound good! Obviously, world class football, soccer and basketball players all have well toned and conditioned bodies. In a similar spirit, swimmers and runners all have toned and conditioned physical forms that are deemed as standards to aspire to. I am challenged to view the bodies of a heavy weight Greco-Roman wrestler, or a Sumo wrestler as models of physical excellence; yet these wrestlers compete one-on-one in battles of strength and specialized skills.
Horse racing is often called the “sport of kings,” but the horse is doing nearly all the work. Is a jockey or a race car driver an athlete? In both of the aforementioned, the individuals are dependent on an apparatus or creature to propel them. I wonder if a horse appreciates that it crossed the finish line first at the Kentucky Derby, or is it just happy the jockey has stopped harassing or prodding it? There is no doubt that most racing cars are so tightly regulated to common standards that the driver skill is a critical factor, but is skill alone enough to call it a sport?
I suppose we could categorize sports in terms of purity. Clearly, direct competition such as swimming or running races, wrestling and jumping distances would be on the top shelf along with similar events like downhill or cross country ski racing. These sports have a clearly defined and simple way to determine who is best at any given time and performance depends on developed skill and conditioning. On the next shelf down I might include soccer, baseball, basketball, boxing and similar sports. These sports have referees and officials, but the contestants can quickly learn to adjust their game to the expectations of those same officials. On the next shelf down I would include events such as gymnastics and figuring skating. Clearly, the competitors in these events have trained and conditioned themselves to do amazing things; unfortunately, the competitive aspect of their sports is hindered by the subjective nature of being judged. On the next shelf down I would place archery, golf and curling. Competition in these sports is seldom head-to-head. Additionally, while learned and practiced skill matters, these are seldom events that demonstrate the accomplishments of those with superior physical conditioning. On my last shelf I would put horse racing, car racing, and similar competitions. The competitive element is clearly present for who crosses the finish line first in a horse race, but the horse did nearly all the work. We reward jockeys and racing drivers for their ability to make well timed and often daring decision, but their steeds did all the work on event day.
I have no interest in watching two gladiators duel to the death, but displays and competitions where the athletes demonstrate their superior training and skill have always intrigued me. Gymnastics and figure skating have always been a pleasure to watch because they both demonstrate what a dedicated athlete can accomplish with rigorous training. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of skating reminds me more of the race for an Oscars than of a race for a sporting medal at the finish line.
I guess I am back to being a curmudgeon. There are lots of excellent and entertaining ways to demonstrate conditioning, training and prowess in an event. Unfortunately, when the score is supposed to be objectively determined, but clearly includes a subjective matter of opinion…the element of being a sport is lacking.
It is clear that I have been unable to answer my initial question, but as long as I have control of the TV remote I can watch what I want regardless of whether you agree with me or not. In the midst of this mess, I am puzzled why something as pure and simple as ski-jumping is scored for their distance and “judged” for their form on landing, it must be time to change channels.