Sports and “Sports”

August 23, 2008

I’ve been watching some of the Olympics this week (despite the fact that I think the USA probably should have boycotted them), and thinking about the nature of the competitions.

One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not saying this is a particularly startling insight on my part – is that the sports can, for the most part, be divided into two categories. There’s the ones where you win by earning points, or runs, or whatever, through your own actions, and there’s the ones where you win by convincing judges to give you points. Examples of the former would be, say, baseball or soccer or tennis or the 100 meter dash or something like that; examples of the latter would be stuff like gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming.

Now, is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the latter type of “sport”? I’m not sure they even deserve to be called “sports”. Sports are supposed to be tests of the athletic skill of the competitors. The competitors in gymnastics, diving, etc, are athletes, certainly, but it seems to me that these so-called sports are not testing their athletic skill – they’re testing their ability to convince the judges to give them points. This leaves the ultimate responsibility for determining the winner in the hands of the judges, not the hands of the competitors.

Which means that ideology-related bias (I could easily see a judge from the US not giving high marks to a gymnast from China because those two countries are seen as adversaries), home-field advantage (it seems to just be acknowledged fact at these Olympic games that the Chinese have an advantage in judged “sports” because the roar of the crowd is louder for their athletes, making them seem more impressive), and pure whim play much too large a role.

And don’t try to tell me that the way the judges determine the scores is in some way scientific and they are just applying a set of simple rules to what they see. Even if that is in theory the case, it is clearly not the case in real life – a sport where one judge can give a 10.0 and another an 8.5 to the same dive, for example, cannot be based on objective observation of what happened.

Still, you do have sports that are kind of on the border – I don’t know much about boxing, and so am not sure if it falls into the sports or “sports” category, and while it seems like wrestling is objective, there are apparently judged involved to determine when exactly to award a point. And even with sports like baseball or football or soccer, you have umpires or referees who have an influence on the game even though they are on neither team.

But I don’t think this is the same thing. With calling balls and strikes in baseball, for example, the umpire does have to make the call, but he is saying that an event happened a certain way. He is making a call about facts. With judged sports, they are not making calls about facts, they are translating their opinions into a pseudo-scientific scoring system. They are not saying “this dive was worth 8.5 points and anyone who disagrees with me is in error”, they are saying, “oh, let’s see, he did X, Y and Z well but messed up on W a bit… let’s give him an 8.5, that sounds about right”. And different judges can come to different conclusions, and give different point values, and this is seen as acceptable, even perhaps a good thing.

Good thing, bad thing, I don’t care – but it does make it, in my opinion, not a sport.

It would be interested to see what would happen to the Olympics if all of these “sports” were taken out, though. Most people probably wouldn’t watch if the Olympics consisted only of track and field and swimming and soccer and stuff like that. But it would be more of a contest of pure athletic skill. It would also probably result in the US beating China in the Olympic medal count; right now the US has more medals total, but the Chinese more golds, but I suspect this is largely a result of the Chinese winning in the judged “sports” (IIRC they swept men’s gymnastics, and diving too, and did really well in the women’s of both those sports too) – if you take those out, the US probably wins by a hefty margin. I don’t know, though; the US probably has a lot of medals in those sports too, after all.


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