Sunday, July 27, 2008

When is a sport not a sport?

Speedo_lzr_twoI was watching the Olympic trials on BBC yesterday; the track and field events are always remarkable. The way the hurdlers flow over the jumps without breaking stride, or the pole vaulters know just how to bend and when to push to arc over the bar, demonstrates the years of practice and dedication behind the competition.

There are over 400 events in the Olympics, listed on the IOC website. Most are of exactly this type: sports where the athletes must be in superb physical and mental condition, have practiced to the limits of their endurance, and meet the competition at a very basic level of muscular strength, flexibility, technique, and endurance.

Some of the sports seem out of place, though. Shooting, for example, would seem to be based on having the better equipment; Equestrian on having the better horse. In each case, the competitor isn't the one primarily determining the outcome in a physical sense. The sailing competitions divide among eight classes of boats: it's physically difficult to control them, but how much depends on the equipment rather than athletic prowess?

Wikipedia defines Sport as any competitive activity governed by rules. By this measure, all of the Olympic events are clearly sports. But, for that matter, so are auto racing and poker. I'd be less inclined to take this broad definition: sports should embody athleticism: head-to-head, person-to-person, physical and mental engagement.

However, I concede that I think of archery and skiing as sports (which might lie outside my definition), and am less inclined to think of ballroom dancing or synchronized swimming as sports (which clearly lie inside my line). It's genuinely hard to be consistent.

And, in an increasingly technical world, winning at even traditional sports can seem driven by equipment. The issue of swimsuit design in this year's Olympic competitions shows how fine the line can actually be.

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