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July 2000

Spoiled Sport

What's next, Tiddlywinks?

The Sydney Olympics are just around the corner. Soon our television screens will be filled with the pretension and fluff that masquerade as sports. Let’s get this straight — synchronized swimming is not a sport. Neither, for that matter, is ballroom dancing, pigeon racing, pistol shooting or golf. While we’re at it, neither is Formula One, darts or ten-pin bowling. Hunting can never be considered a sport until they “play” fairly and arm the animals. These activities may be pastimes. They may be hobbies. They may be recreations. They may even require highly tuned sets of skills and be organized into deadly serious, multi-billion dollar competitions, but they are not, definitely not, sports. Furthermore, the recent bankruptcy of Munich’s “virtual sports” center Olympic Spirits is further proof that the general public would agree that physical involvement is required to be considered a sport.

Definitions of sports are, of course, arbitrary and subject to changing fashions. Eighteenth-century aristocrats considered both a game of backgammon and the seduction of maids good sport, while King James I of England’s “Declaration of Sports” mentions both morris dancing and bear- and bull-baiting. At one time, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only outdoor recreational pastimes, such as fishing, shooting and hunting, were considered sports. “Games” were organized athletic contests, played by teams or individuals, according to prescribed rules.

Today, however, the distinction has grown murky and the terms are used interchangeably. If, however, the definition of sport has changed, then the question is what now actually constitutes a sport? Watch either Eurosport or DSF, particularly in the late hours, and you might get the impression that sports are any activity involving seriously large people doing bizarre things with any object requiring a massive engine. This includes monster trucks, speed boat racing, tractor pulling and that peculiar activity involving logs and loud chainsaws.

It is not that I wish to deride these activities or the people who take part in them — at least not to their faces. I am sure they, in their own strange way, require stamina, training, concentration and determination. It is just that these activities don’t fall into quite the same genus as say triathlons, track and field athletics, tennis, rugby or even traditional wood chopping. In these activities, outcome is largely dependant on the physical stamina and mental agility of the individual or team — and not on having the largest and most finely tuned vehicle.

Admittedly, I tend to tow a purist line. Sports for me are any recreation or competitive activity committing a person to physical exertion. It can be inside or outside. It can be undertaken alone or in teams. It can be engaged in for fun or profit. It can be made against the clock, against other competitors or just for the hell of it, in a park or on a beach. You can even do it stark naked in the light of a full moon for all I care — but the basic definition remains a game or competition undertaken by people and involving a fair bit of sweat and grunt. Therefore, billiards, lawn and ten-pin bowling and anything having to do with animals are all excluded. So too are curling, motor bike racing and archery. I have always held golf to be evidence of women’s intellectual superiority — at least until I discovered they play the game as well.

As for activities such as ballroom dancing and figure skating, I can admire the fitness, am astounded by the skills, but they don’t quite crack the nut when it comes to my definition of sports. Art, yes. Sport, no. And, as comedian Billy Connelly once noted, “Dancing is not a sport — it’s foreplay.” I also have a problem with any activity where the result is determined by judging, such as gymnastics or diving. How often do you see the judge from some tin-pot little country chip in at the last second and award a 10 so either the Russian or American athlete can clinch the gold. It happens time and time again, and you know in the back of their minds is either: next year’s foreign aid package or the threat of foreign invasion by a mighty irked larger neighbor.

Why does this matter? It probably doesn’t really, except the cyclical collision of first world marketing and third world politics known as the Olympics is soon to begin. A line has to be drawn in the sand at some point. If we don’t, the Olympics after Sydney will probably feature monster trucks, tractor pulling, World Championship wrestling and, for all I know, sheep dog trials, horse shoe pitching and Welsh bog snorkeling. If they get under the rope, then the 2008 Olympics will feature Stefan Raab grabbing the gold with “Wadde hadde dudde da” and that, surely, would be destroying the credibility of all sports. <<<

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