No matter who you are or where you’re from, the Olympic Games are a pretty big deal. Placed perfectly at the intersection of sports, nationalism and geopolitics, the Games are one of those rare events that capture the attention of the entire world. Even if you are not captivated by the incredible athletic feats, national pride is at stake. Strong allegiances produce fierce competition.
But amidst all the storylines that accompany such a globally prestigious event, one age-old debate always emerges at the forefront of discussion: Which “sports” actually belong in the Olympics? Sometimes it’s ice dancing that sparks the conversation. Sometimes shooting or curling. Regardless of the event, some viewer will invariably roll his or her eyes every time NBC switches coverage. Given the patriotic significance assigned to the Games, it’s a topic worthy of discussion.
I’m tempted to start by defining a sport. Predictably, any dictionary definition includes vague references to competition and physical exertion. Yes, these elements are crucial common denominators, but they do nothing to reconcile or explain the dramatic differences between, say, baseball and billiards. Colloquially, “sport” may be a general umbrella category for athletic contests, but distinctions can clearly be drawn along multiple dimensions. How do we assign weight to different levels of athleticism, strategy, teamwork and subjectivity?
Okay, so clearly there’s a lot to consider here if we want to define a sport. But, perception aside, do the Olympics necessarily imply sport? Defining an athlete is a fundamentally different task than defining a sport. One could viably claim that sport is inherently team-oriented, so most Olympic events are actually just “athletic competitions.” But this argument misses the point. Rather than trying to disentangle a vague definition, we should try to categorize activities based on their relevance to the spirit of Olympic competition. Simply put, what belongs and what doesn’t?
As originally intended, the ancient Olympics were meant to isolate pure physical talent and applaud those who showcased it. Today, the modern Olympic Movement broadly aims to promote athletic competition as a means to achieve global harmony and “link sport with culture.” But its criteria for inclusion are extremely weak: Any event that is widely practiced, is regulated for doping and does not rely on mechanical propulsion can be considered. This definition determines eligibility based on popularity and fairness, not any sort of athletic standard.
History, though, gives us some context. The first modern games in 1896 featured nine events: athletics — essentially the modern decathalon plus a marathon — cycling, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling, swimming, tennis and shooting. All nine are individual events that require elite physical abilities, but each event stresses a different combination of skill and athleticism. Shooting’s inclusion shows that the modern Olympic athletic requirement is a bit more lenient than the traditional definition of sport. Suspiciously regarded events like luge and curling thus pass through the filter.
But that’s not to say any activity involving athletic ability makes the cut. An event’s physical component, regardless of how strenuous, must serve as the primary competitive index. Sure, knitting may require precision as a criterion for participation, but its results don’t depend chiefly on these attributes. Beyond a minimum threshold, I doubt you’d find a strong correlation between hand-eye coordination and knitting prowess.
The intensity of physical activity may not be at the center of the Olympic spirit, but the role of such activity in the competitive process is crucial. No one would dispute that cheerleading can be physically demanding and highly skilled, but it’s easy to see that artistic expression — not athleticism — is its main component. This is the benchmark that should flunk events like ice dancing, slopestyle and figure skating. The original Olympic motto was “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The games are supposed to reveal the best athletes in the world. If judgment reflects opinion, it becomes impossible to determine a clearly defined winner. There’s just no way to objectively compare the athletic quality of one ski jump to another. The International Olympic Committee needs to draw a line between athletics and performance art.
Yes, there are elements of bias in many sports. A referee is no machine, but his job is to minimize subjectivity and enforce designated rules. When subjectivity is targeted as the primary means of evaluation, though, the athletic components — no matter how impressive — take a backseat. The boundary between art and sport is definitively crossed when competitors aim to cater to the subjective preferences of a judge rather than simply trying to achieve an objective physical end.
Take American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg, for instance. Last week, Kotsenburg wowed slopestyle judges with the “Holy Crail,” a brand new trick he invented on the spot. Kotsenburg’s run was original, gutsy and downright awesome, and he was rewarded with a gold medal. From an athletic perspective, though, Kotsenberg was undeniably outperformed. In the same final, Canadian Mark McMorris pulled off a triple cork 1440, widely considered snowboarding’s most complicated and difficult trick. The Sochi judges chose creativity and style over snowboarding prowess. But how can Kotsenburg rightfully be considered the best snowboarder in the world?
Look, figure skating is damn impressive. Slopestyle snowboarding is easily one of the most entertaining Olympic events. But there’s just no room in objective competition for judgment of glittery costumes and creativity. It’s tough to draw lines, but ultimately what’s the difference between ice dancing and ballet? Why is one a “sport” and the other an “art”?
Every Olympic event is fun to watch. Each has its own devoted following. But if the Olympics charter is to be upheld, the IOC has to be more scientific in its measurement of supremacy. If it must include the likes of ice dancing in the Olympics, fine. I certainly won’t complain about the preservation of slopestyle. Just acknowledge that the Olympic Games are now more about entertainment than about identifying true athletic excellence. International competition brings the world together every two years. Let’s raise the bar and finally start comparing apples to apples.
Mike Firn ’16 belonged in ancient Greece. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.