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.


The Blade Runner

June 8, 2008

I read recently (broadly speaking) that it has been decided (by some committee somewhere, I suppose) that a man with artificial legs will be allowed to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a sprinter.

This just seems absurd to me. On the surface, yes, it might appear fair – why shouldn’t a disabled person be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied people? But that, I think, misses something extremely important: running, as a competitive activity, is something that depends on both the mind and the body. You can’t separate the runner from his body – you can’t be a “good runner” in the abstract, without part of that good runner-ness coming from the fact that your legs are longer, you have a lot of muscle, you don’t weigh much, etc.

And so, if you don’t have natural legs, but rather artificial steel legs, then whatever you’re doing when you move really fast using them, you’re not running, at least not in the sense that competitive runners are running. You’re not using your body to go fast, you’re using something that is not part of your body to go fast.

I think the idea that this man should be allowed to compete because it has not been proven that his legs give him an advantage misses the entire point and tends towards a flawed gnostic view of the world. It  says that the legs of a normal runner are just tools that he uses to run quickly, and if the artificial legs give roughly the same capability as natural legs, then they’re equivalent tools, and so a man with artificial legs should be able to compete in a contest normally performed with natural legs, no problem.

The thing is, the “tool” that natural legs supposedly are is of a power determined by the skill of the runner, and a good runner has better legs than a bad runner. Which of these is the artificial legs supposedly equal to? Are the steel legs specifically calibrated to be just as useful as the legs of your average Olympic sprinter? If so, a runner using these artificial legs will finish in the middle of the pack, and what’s the point of them competing? Are they calibrated to be as good as the best Olympic sprinter? Then a runner using them who wins the Olympics will be considered to have won because of his more powerful legs, not because of any achievement on his part. Either way, there is no point to a person with artificial legs competing in the Olympics. The Olympics, and sports in general, are to find who is the best whole person – mind and body, not divided – at the given activity.

Put simply – there is no way to nerf or buff artificial legs so that they put a runner using them on a level playing field with the other runners. They are fundamentally unbalanced. They take a part of the contest – the quality of the runner’s legs – and remove that from the control of the athlete, instead arbitrarily giving him legs of a given quality. It would be like having a contest to paint the best picture where one person was given an outline to work from and the rest were not – it doesn’t matter how good or bad the sketch would be, it wouldn’t be fair because it would remove any skill from that part of the contest, but from that person only.

I don’t mean to take anything away from what Oscar Pistorius has done – he is clearly a great athlete, and I have nothing against the disabled – but the fact remains that what is doing is not running, but something else. That’s why they have separate contests for it – the Paralympics, which he competes in. If the Olympic committee wants to add a sport where you use a standard-size, standard-quality metallic extension to the legs to move quickly, fine, do so and let this guy compete in it. But if they don’t, then this man should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics.

P.S.: This is somehow related, I think, to the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball and other sports, but I’m not sure how yet. It is mostly, I suppose, a clear example of something that does too much to alter the body and make it so you’re not competing with the other players in the same way – I think it would be unacceptable in baseball, just as in running, for one of the players to have artificial legs. But where the line is drawn, I don’t know. I tend towards saying performance-enhancing drugs fall on the other side of it (and this applies even if they posed no danger to the user and were not illegal, neither of which are true), but I’m not sure.


Academia (Dezember)

December 2, 2007

Heute ist Samstag, der erste Dezember.

If that’s correct – and it’s quite possible it isn’t – I just said “Today is Saturday, the first of December”.

Well obviously, you say. So what? Well – it means that today I took the Putnam today. It was a lot of fun. I think I got five questions correct (out of twelve). Not bad for a freshman, if I say so myself.

But now I won’t get to participate in any math contests until next December, when the Putnam comes around again. That’s one thing I miss about high school – we had various contests every few months or so, and if you didn’t do well on one of them, there was always another one coming up. I’m going to get to take the Putnam just three more times, and then I’ll be done with math contests. Yes, that’s three years away, but still – I don’t think I’m going to want to stop doing these sorts of things in three years. They’ve been a major part of my life for quite a while.

That sentiment seems to be one I’ve had a lot recently. Other freshmen are already talking about their plans for getting a job after college. My current plan is to go to graduate school, get a math PhD, and then teach math for the rest of my life (doing creative writing on the side, of course). In other words, I want to stay in academia for the rest of my life. I want to keep doing what I’m doing now, forever. (In fact, I had originally considered graduating from college in three years – I could do so fairly easily, I think – but now I wonder, why the heck would I want to get out of college and into the real world sooner rather than later?)

This sounds like a character from Orbivm to me. Who? Ptolenai, the mathematician. He isn’t in any campaigns, for a number of reasons – he lived in the Age of the Spear / Saecula Gentorum, he was a philosopher/mathematician not a political figure, and his story is not particularly dramatic. He lived in the Dardanoi version of the Academy his entire life. His main accomplishment, from what I’ve written so far, is his mis-calculation of the radius of the earth, which indirectly leads to the Apocalypse. Perhaps that’s a clue as to how my subconscious views academia – in which case, perhaps I ought to consider a different career path…

The astute among you will notice that Ptolenai is quite similar to the historical figure Ptolemy, though with several important differences I won’t go into here.


==> Quiz Bowl

May 24, 2007

I leave tomorrow for the national NAQT Quiz Bowl tournament in Chicago. I’m going to be there 4 days. Or maybe 5, I don’t remember. 3, maybe, if we get knocked out the first day. Whatever.

Anyway, the point is – it’s a Quiz Bowl tournament. Quiz Bowl is a type of competition where there are two teams of 4 players, and a series of questions are asked, giving various numbers of points. The team with the most points wins. There are “tossup” questions, where the first person to buzz in and answer correctly gets the points (10, or 15 if answered before a specific point in the question – answering incorrectly gives -5), and “bonus” questions, which are answerable only be the team that got the corresponding tossup question and which the team works as a whole on.

It’s a pretty fun game, actually. And it does seem to test your knowledge, to a certain extent. But my complaint with it is that it seems to emphasize memorization of information more than understanding of what that information means.

For example, there are a bunch of questions on classical music. They mostly involve matching composers with works. You could be very knowledgeable about musical criticism and musical theory and get none of them, simply because you haven’t memorized what people wrote what works; conversely, you could memorize all of these lists and get all of the musical questions without ever listening to any of the pieces of music or really knowing anything about them.

I’m not sure what to thing about this. It’s true you could sit down and memorize list after list after list, but I think that would help you less than being culturally learned and picking up all of this stuff about composers through listening to conversations and reading about topics that interest you. But that still isn’t as good as actually listening to the works.

For example, because I find the topic interesting, I’ve read a lot about and now know a lot about the composers Sibelius and Dvorak, more than I would actually need to answer the questions about them. And knowing this will probably help more on the QB questions than just memorizing lists of names, because I’ll be able to answer questions about Sibelius and Dvorak before other people who only studied the names will be able to. But I’ve never actually listened to any of their works, simply because I’ve never found the time.

So QB does seem to promote a sort of ‘cultural literacy’, more than just memorization of facts. But it doesn’t really promote, in my opinion, actual knowledge – in that the kind of knowledge you could only get from actually listening to the works of Sibelius and Dvorak will never come in handy at QB competitions.

Still, promoting cultural literacy does has a place, I think. So QB isn’t a complete waste of time – and it is fun.


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