Olympic discrimination: Sports vs Challenging Games of Skill

In watching the Olympics these past few days, I’ve come to reflect on the debate surrounding which events should be included or not, and indeed, which events are even sports. I thought it would be useful to lay out some criteria for what an Olympic sports should be, and apply those to each sport. I’m sure this will engender much debate, and that’s good.

The Olympics are, essentially, a bunch of sports no one cares about. That even applies to athletics (i.e. track and field) in the sense that we are a niche sport, like it or not, even if we are one of the most popular sports worldwide: in the North American media, track and field is second, even third class, and certainly with the general population, it’s well off the radar. Consider that at a recent trail running event, some participants (runners themselves!) could not identify any Canadian 800m Olympians. They could not even name a Jamaican sprinter not named Usain Bolt. One guy was wearing a Surin t-shirt, and he knew that Bruny was Surin’s first name, but he couldn’t name any current Olympians. Can you imagine if, at a pick-up hockey game, none of the players could name a single Montreal Canadien, Toronto Maple Leaf, or Vancouver Canuck? All this to say, there is no sense of moral superiority coming from this “Track Head” regarding other sports. But instead of having the debate spin around a popularity contest, where all the archers insist that archery is a true Olympic test, and all the divers insist the same of diving, we’ll have some objective criteria to analyse the sports with.

Higher. Faster. Stronger. I think these three words should form our starting point. A sport, to be included in the Olympics, must make a necessity of one of these three. In order to win you must be higher, faster or stronger than the rest. Of course, every sport, or game will be better played with technique that is stronger and quicker, but for the Olympics, a certain purity is required.

It is true that some sports can be derivative of these and still be “Olympic.” The spirit of competition, however, requires a few things. A sport needs to have a clear winner, based on scoring points, besting an opponent in an objective manner. Any sport that requires a judge can’t be a true Olympic sport. I also believe (and sure, this is my athletics bias coming out) that some measure of aerobic fitness is required to play. Of course, increased aerobic fitness will make you better at anything: accounting, chess, darts, simply because you’ll be healthier, and you’ll get tired less quickly, and your brain will be sharper. So it means aerobic effort must be required to play, not required to win. I suppose you could argue that you could play soccer by kicking the ball around and not chasing it very hard, or “run” a race simply by getting yourself around the track. But just as a 5hr run/walk effort is not really marathoning, (as Howard Stern puts it, it’s “blocking traffic”), simply doing the required movements is not enough. I think I’m making myself clear here.

So: faster, higher, stronger, clear winner and aerobic fitness. Let’s go through the sports alphabetically. Let me be clear: none of this implies that I think any of these activities are easy, or that I could do them better than those doing them in London. I just mean to classify them as either Olympic sports, non-Olympic sports, or let’s say, challenging games of skill. Something that has all components is an Olympic sport. Something that is not necessarily based on “higher, faster, stronger” we can call a non-Olympic sport, and something that lacks the aerobic component, or is won based on judging is a challenging game of skill. I may also include certain sports on the basis of tradition. My game, my rules.

Archery: arm strength and technical skill are surely required, and there is a clear winner on points (judging might be required in a tie to see who is closer, but that is more measurement than subjective analysis). Still, there’s a lack of aerobic fitness here that makes me think this is not a sport, but a challenging game of skill. Archery is out.

Athletics: Our sport embodies faster, higher, stronger. An Olympic Sport for sure.

Badminton: An individual competition that requires skill and fitness (we’re not talking your backyard variety badminton here, but something closer to tennis or other racquet sports). The judging here is objective in the sense that it is not the performance that is being evaluated (you don’t lose points for poor form), but the result of movement (in or out, good serve or fault). Because the competition is one against one (or two in doubles) with a clear winner, badminton is in.

Basketball: Team sports are an interesting challenge. They all mostly fulfill all the requirements, except for faster, higher, stronger, even if the athletes are, especially in this sport, aiming high! A non-Olympic sport, basketball is out.

Beach Volleyball: See basketball. This is an example of marketing at its best (or worst if you like). An excuse to show some skin and bring in viewers, beach volleyball is a (sexy) non-Olympic sport. Out.

Boxing: Boxing is judged. However, there is a real element of stronger here, and faster. I am torn. Rare is the knockout in Olympic competition, which would provide a clear winner and make this an Olympic sport. It is perhaps ironic that professional boxing is closer to my Olympic criteria than the amateur version. That said, given that the new “computerized” judging simply tallies the number of hits, the tradition of boxing at the Olympics, and the way this sport embodies the “stronger” ideal, I am going to say boxing is in. An Olympic sport.

Canoe/Kayak: Both the sprint and slalom versions of this event are essentially a race. Races go to the fastest. The penalties add an element of judging, but they are actually quite objective: you can’t miss a gate. So Canoe/Kayak is an Olympic sport.

BMX: This is a flat out race, four-on-four, and there is a clear winner. Fastest. In.

Cycling: I’ll include mountain bike, road cycling and track cycling here and say that it’s quite easy. These are races. Races go to the fastest. Cycling is an Olympic sport.

Diving: Diving is hard, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a challenging, skill-based event that is judged subjectively. Sorry, diving is not an Olympic sport.

Equestrian: I admit to not knowing enough about equestrian to judge. And yes, I am aware that it is ironic that I’m judging sports by excluding judged sports. If this is a race, the cross-country steeple-chase variety, where time wins, then it’s ok. Dressage, no.

Fencing: Fencing, like boxing, is a one-on-one contest with a clear winner on points. The element of tradition that fencing brings also endears it to me. Fencing is an Olympic sport.

Soccer: Soccer, like basketball, is a great sport, but not an Olympic one.

Artistic and Rhythmic gymnastics: Judged, judged, judged. I am not sure why this was ever included. It is more akin to ballet than to sport. Ballet is very hard, and certainly the work a dancer has to put in to be the best is as much or more than any Olympian. But this is not sport. The competition is artificial. Who is a better dancer? Who is to say? The requirement to complete certain elements, and the tradition of gymnastics at the games are not enough to save this.

Team Handball: Perhaps another criteria should be universality. At least team sports like basketball and soccer are played around the world. Handball is oddly ignored in North America, even if it combines the best of soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Regardless, not an Olympic sport.

Field Hockey: Team sport, same fate as the rest. Also, why is this viewed as a women’s only sport in Canada? Is it because of gender rules and CIS schools have to have some teams to balance out football?

Judo: A fighting sport that scores points, but does include some controversial judging. As with fencing, I will include it. Combat sports remain for tradition and for a strong connection to the “stronger” criteria.

Modern Pentathlon: I haven’t gotten there yet, but I will exclude shooting for the same reasons as I excluded archery. That said, there should be an exception for this combined event. The “modern” pentathlon is a kind of “war games” where competitors swim, run, shoot, ride a horse and fence. It might actually be the coolest Olympic sport. The recent rule change to combine the running and the shooting events allows all 5 of the elements to stay. Modern Pentathlon is in.

Rowing: A pure aerobic test, a race to the finish. Rowing is a true Olympic sport.

Sailing: I am not sure about sailing. It is a race, yes, but the faster relates more to the boat than to the individuals. There is an element of removal here that excludes this for me. Similar to car racing, there is not enough of the human in sailing (even if pulling on ropes, just as sitting in a hot cockpit for hours, is exceedingly difficult and challenging).

Shooting: As I said above, like archery, this is a challenging game of skill, but can be included if you have to run in between shots!

Swimming: Another pure sport, the fastest wins.

Synchronized swimming: Dancing in the water. Hard, yes. An Olympic sport, no.

Table tennis: As much as I would like to, I can’t include table tennis. It is exciting, the competitors are highly skilled, and like badminton, it comes down to a battle between competitors. That said, there is not enough of an aerobic component. There’s not enough running around.

Tennis: Tennis, like badminton, is one-on-one, a test of skill, not judged, has a clear winner, and requires a decent amount of aerobic fitness. Tennis is in.

Taekwondo: As a fighting sport, taekwondo is in.

Trampoline: Like the gymnastics, this is an event that requires a high degree of skill, but it is not a sport. I feel bad saying this, as in my coaching course, we have a trampoline coach. As I’ve said before, I am in no way saying that this is easy to do. But if an event is judged, it’s not an Olympic sport, in my book.

Triathlon: another combined event, but this one is easy. One might argue why we need this race when we already have swimming, biking and running in various capacities, but there’s no rule against redundancy. Triathlon is a true aerobic test, and there’s a clear winner.

Volleyball: A team sport, and if we are going to be so harsh as to exclude Bikini, er Beach Volleyball, then this must be a non-Olympic sport. I await the angry email from my uncle who won a silver medal in Sydney in Paralympic Volleyball. Sorry, Lawrence, just going by the stated criteria.

Water Polo: A cool sport, but team sports are out.

Weightlifting: Strongest. Traditional. Yes.

Wrestling: The last on the list, this fighting sport stays.

So, after that brutal and exhaustive analysis, here are the remaining Olympic sports:
Modern Pentathlon

What do you think? Any great injustices? Are my criteria wrong? If so, why? Did I apply them incorrectly?

Are there any sports not in the Olympics now that should be? I can think of one: cross country running. It’s part of athletics, it used to be in, it’s a race. Let’s do it!