Sports: A Modest Proposal

Recent Olympics have had all sorts of controversy about the judging of Ice Skating, and whether this or that activity should be in the Games at all. Rancorous arguments were caused by people disagreeing with calls or judging. Some years ago the Daily Blog on the SI web site wrote a piece that echoes something I have been saying for a few years. The Blog made the point that judged events should not be in the Olympics for the simple reason that nobody can say that they are the best, when the best is determined by someone else with their own axe to grind. Only events where their is an unambiguous winner can declare a champion with any authority. We need to settle on a clear definition of what is a sport and I would propose the following

Sport; A physical activity, graded by an empirical set of standards, i.e. points, speed, time, distance, etc.

Art; A physical activity based on and judged by aesthetic and subjective criteria.

Art should not settle for being treated like a sport. Art is too important. I came to this conclusion many years ago when I was watching the Olympics and saw Torvill and Dean perform their breathtaking Bolero routine. They, of course won the gold. Years later they did poorly even though their routine was just as good. Why? Because the way they skated was out of style. I realized that if an event took into account any degree of style, it could not be considered a sport.

Aesthetics is not sporting.

Would we ever put Picasso and Monet head to head in a painting contest? Would we ever put the Bolshoy and the New York Ballet together in a winner take all grudge match? Of course not, the idea is silly. Yet we take some of the finest athletic artists and make them perform at their peak ability and then have a group of judges get together and, based on their own imperfect standards, prejudices, and biases declare who is the champion and who has wasted their life. At the very least it borders on the sadistic. Let me reiterate that this is not to say that these artists are not well trained athletes. You have to be in fantastic shape to do these things. I just don’t think you can compare artists and declare a winner.

OK, if we accept the postulate. Empirical = Sport, Subjective = Art. Only Sports belong in the Olympic Games, (that is why they are called Games). What does this mean for the Olympics. Which events stay and which ones go?

All racing events, weight lifting events, throwing events, vehicle events (boat racing, bicycling, etc), swimming racing, and such are clearly sports. They are scored by who runs, jumps, throws, or drives the fastest, furthest, highest, or heaviest. There is no question who is the best at each event.
Points based team events (Baseball, Football, Soccer, and Basketball), are sports even though some of the outcome is up to the judgment call of the referee. In these cases, absolute ways of determining fair or foul, inbound and out, are needed. As if to answer that need, professional baseball in some countries is in fact experimenting with robot umpires as is tennis.
Anything that is at it’s heart Dancing (Ice Skating and Dancing, and Gymnastics,) is not a sport.
Synchronized events (synchronized swimming or diving) is most likely not a sport unless there is a way of determining who is best in synch without resorting to judgment calls.
Strangely, Ski Jumping is not a sport because it’s to a great extent based on style. If it were based on pure distance then it would be a sport.
Boxing, much to my surprise might be a sport because I believe the outcome is based on punch counts, Don King not withstanding.
Almost nothing in the X-Games or Gravity Games is a sport because they are all judged subjectively, even if they are fun to watch. The exception I saw recently was the Motocross High Jumping which was impressive as all get out.
Much to some peoples surprise, motor-sports, (auto and motorcycle racing) are sports because they are based on time and speed and are actually very physical activities.

Now I’m not so naive to think that figure skating and gymnastics will be dropped from the Olympics. They are too popular. If we eliminated the arts, the Olympics would become just another track meet. Ratings would fall, sponsorships would dry up, the best and most fit would no longer put their careers, whether the NBA or regular job, on hold to travel to some exotic land to compete in an event with no cash prizes. Soon cities would no longer be competing to host the event. and the games would fade away. (OK, I will admit that there is part of me that would not see this as a tragedy.) No, their are very practical reasons to keep arts associated with the Olympics. Some of the events might be reconfigured to make them empirical, but for some, such as Ice Skating this is really impossible. Another solution is needed.

How about this; Two events running at the same time.
The Olympic Games would be for sports as defined above. Gold, silver and bronze would be decided based on absolute standards of measurement.
The Olympic Performances would be for arts as defined above. Gold silver, and bronze would be decided by the participants themselves.

In each artistic event, the athletes would vote by secret ballot for who they thought should be in first, second, and third place. Their votes would be based on whatever standards each athlete decided on (they could, however not vote for themselves). The athletes obviously know the events even better than the judges, and perhaps the acclamation of ones peers is the only really fair or accurate way to judge artistic performance. Personalities might come into play in that someone was talented and a really nice, friendly, person might win over someone who was supremely talented but a jerk. I don’t see that as a problem because when you are dealing with pure aesthetics, personality does matter.

This two event solution would let people watch the Olympics without questioning whether synchronized swimming is a sport. As defined above it’s not, but the people that do it are supremely talented and deserve accolades for their performances. It would settle once and for all the constant harping over judges errors and omissions. Most importantly, it would let all of us settle back and enjoy the Olympics without the arguments. Two events would also split the cost between two different locations/cities/countries so as to be less a burden on the citizens of either. This would also be a very good thing. Two events would also split the cost between two different locations/cities/countries so as to be less a burden on the citizens of either. This would also be a very good thing.

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