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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Definitive Essay On Sports

The Olympics are back again.

For me it means that many people around the world will be doing something I haven’t done for a while: watching sports with non-stop mesmeric addiction. 

Our idea of sports is molded by TV’s definition of sports. Back in the day, ABC's Wide World of Sports, created to fill winter weekends after football and basketball and before baseball seasons, broadened the definition of sports: ski jumping, downhill racing, bobsled, gymnastics, tennis, soccer, billiards, demolition derby. WWS eventually blurred the definition of Sport beyond recognition. What they presented was "athletic competition" in all its forms. But athleticism exists in many endeavors (like ballet). It does not become a Sport simply by engrafting an artificial scoring system to create competition.

We have survived to the cable age. Remote in hand, I have viewed the "extreme" sports: ski-diving, mountain skiing, snow boarding half-pipe, (sounds more like pot smoking). Now, in the Olympics, we will be subjected to them all: including synchronized swimming, shooting, and beach volleyball. 

But wait a minute. Where do these events fit into the Olympic motto: "Citius, altius, fortius"; faster, higher, stronger? How do they relate to the ancient Olympic sports, which were exercises in heroism related to skills of warriors?

It is important to remember that what we are watching are the Olympic "Games", among which are some "sports" and some "games" which are something other than "sports."

Through the years, I have engaged in many debates with friends about the crucial philosophical issues: whether golf is a sport; which sport is the truest sport.

I have come up with some criteria to define sports and to judge which are the most sport-like.

To define the truest sport, I go back to the basic pre-historic origin of sport, that of a contest between children proving power over one another.

The first sport, as anyone who watches tiger cubs (or chimps) will admit, must have been wrestling. One cub tries to show his or her domination over another by pinning him to the ground, or breaking his neck. This mano a mano contest is the rawest form of sport.

I hold that the closer the sport is to this ideal, the more it is a sport. The further away you drift from this ideal, the less it is a real sport. Thus, wrestling, judo, ju-jitsu, are the purest sports. The fact that rules have been imposed to decrease the risks, to quantify the gains short of pinning the opponent, diminishes the purity only slightly.

Do not misunderstand: it is not the dangerousness of the activity which is the criteria, though it is an exciting element added to the "sportness." Risk of injury is present in many human activities that are not necessarily sports.

Boxing adds the next level of sophistication. True, the fight is ritualized, with gloves, helmets, and layers of subjective rules for point scoring which further lessen the purity of the sport aspect. In other so-called sports (gymnastics and figure skating being the prime examples) the subjective nature of the scoring is fatal to its consideration as sport.) But, because at its foundation, boxing is still a face to face power struggle of one person against another, it remains one of the purest sports.

The next category of pure sports also stems from natural activities of boys and girls (as well as other animals): running. In children and other animals this contest often is part of the fighting game: hit and run. The swiftest child has a status in challenge: "Hey, race you to that tree?"

Races, the sprints to the marathon, are also basic sports. 

Swimming is in the same cubbyhole. 

Running over obstacles - hurdles, steeplechases, also are in the same category. 

So, too, races with machines that assist, but do not eliminate physical labor: bicycles, rowboats, skis, skates. 

Races with machines that do most of the physical labor, like motor and sail boats, cars, bobsleds, fall in a completely different category and must be considered under different criteria which will be discussed below.

Other sports stemming from the same primitive urge to best the other kid and answer similar fundamental questions such as who is faster include: the high jump and pole vault (who can jump higher); long jump, triple jump (who can jump farther); weightlifting (who is stronger); discus, shotput, hammer throw, javelin (who can throw this object - rock, stick, disk, or spear the furthest).

The javelin and other events related to it raise another important point about sports. Many began as contests among soldiers in skills needed for the hunt for meat and later, for enemies in battle. The javelin -- a spear -- is one of the most primitive of weapons.

It is not difficult to imagine ancient hunters and soldiers, in those many hours of boredom between battles, challenging each other to such contests. One of them must have then picked up a cannonball and tossed it. It is also not hard to imagine officers encouraging these games as healthy diversions for the troops which had the added benefit of honing skills, rewarding aggressiveness, and identifying the most skilled and competitive among the troops.

When I first watched the biathalon, a winter Olympic sport which consists of rifle shooting and cross-country skiing, others with whom I watched, mocked the seeming incongruity of the violent with the idyllic pastimes; but I remembered the black and white footage of Finnish troops fighting Germans in World War II when both these skills became deadly serious business.

In this category, we must acknowledge fencing, archery and shooting, although shooting and archery, by interposing mechanisms which do most of the physical labor, are closer to auto racing in the skills they require, and are thus diminished as sports.

Before we go further, it is best to discuss some of the criteria I have devised to test whether a sport is really a sport. Some are self-evident, others are slightly biased according to my taste, others are stated with tongue at least partly tucked in cheek. None are perfect, because exceptions always exist in this complex study, but a few standards are absolutes.

Mere athleticism is not enough.

There is no question that ballet dancers are fine athletes. Anyone who watched Barishnikov’s sculptured body in tights leap gracefully and turn thrice in the air, landing perfectly in time to lift his partner as if she weighed 90 pounds (which she usually did) cannot deny his status as a premier athlete, probably superior in conditioning to many sportsmen. However, none would argue seriously that ballet is a sport.

Neither is ice dancing, synchronized swimming, or women’s floor exercises in gymnastics. What these athletic achievements lack to be called a sport is hard to define. But there are two elements they possess in common which disqualify them in my judgment.

First, they are measured by a purely subjective scoring system. 

(Although boxing scoring is also subjective - unless the opponent is knocked out - it is so basic a sporting contest that it passes the test.)

Second, and fatally, they are accompanied by music. My fundamental rule of sport is that it cannot be a sport if it is accompanied by music.

I must note that the tendency to accessorize popular sports with music is disturbing: baseball, football and basketball games are more and more accompanied by orchestrated crowd-pleasing chants: Queen's "We will, we will rock you!"

There may come a day when entire basketball games have musical scores like movies, continuing throughout the game, and I will get back to you when that comes.

On the other side of the coin, a total lack of athleticism is also fatal to sportiveness.

Golfers, bowlers, dart throwers, auto racers, pool players, shooters, sailors, horse riders (equestrians, if you wish), come in this dubious category.

What they have in common is a tendency to have pot bellies, wear street clothes (or worse, bad looking shirts and pants). Thus if you can be completely out of shape, if you can smoke a cigarette between or during shots, or drink a beer while you are competing, it is a less sportive sport.

This is not to say that these activities do not require athletic skill. Eye-hand coordination, muscle memory, courage, strength, agility, nerves of steel, extreme skill are all required.

But the questions often asked: "Oh yeah, you try bowling a 300, or hitting a 300 yard drive, or sinking a three cushion shot in the corner pocket" are beside the point.

The fact that a superb athlete like Tiger Woods was the world’s best golfer seems to some to elevate golf to a sport, and I must admit that watching him perform it is hard to deny his athleticism.

It is also true that just because out-of-shape people participate should not disqualify the sport. I’ll get to baseball soon; and of course there are some boxers and many football players who look like they’ve had too many hamburgers during training.

Other criteria are more playful, and less certain, but illustrate the point.

If you don’t sweat during the contest, it is not a sport. If you do, it is more likely, though not certainly a sport. I note that swimmers probably don’t sweat, but they would if they weren’t being continuously cooled by water. Golfers sweat from southern heat and over a two foot putt, but not because of physical exertion. Ice dancers probably do, but it is still not much of a sport.

Someone trying to be clever said that Black men and women should be good at it. It is true that if there are few Blacks participating in true sports, look for a defect in the society which causes it (or a geographic reason - meaning there are few people of color in the area). I leave it to racists and / or geneticists to explain whether slavery or fast twitch muscles have anything to do with this. (Some jerk once got into hot water by explaining the lack of people of color in swimming events: "They aren't buoyant.")

Events that are simply exhibitions of showing off are not sports.

It is clear that the attraction of sports stems from the basic human urge to show off, to prove one’s superiority over one’s peers. Performing better tricks with one's body or device (such as a skateboard or motorbike) is fun, but attaching a score to the stunt doesn't make it a sport. Of course,many sports that are closer to the borderline of sport definition award style or form. 

Here, I am referring to diving, gymnastics events, figure skating. These are akin to muscle building. They are exhibitions of great bodies doing extraordinary things. But the NBA Dunk contest is not a sport although basketball certainly is. The subjective nature of the scoring defines it as an exhibition: a 9.9 distinguished from a 9.8 by what the judge’s perceive as a minuscule flaw in form is insufficient to fool the true sports lover.

It is the raising of "form" over result that defines the event as an exhibition, more akin to ballet than to sport.

If a boxer flattens his rival, or a sprinter gets to the line faster, the one with better form gets no added points. Better form may lead to better results, but in true sport, it is the result which counts. Debates rage over which boxer had the prettiest form, and was thus the better artist, but the result is still what counts.

It is worthwhile to remark that observers who note that baseball players, notably pitchers, are in less than tip-top shape, have a point. It is certainly arguable that pitchers like CC. Sabathia, or Phil Neikro, who played into his forties, couldn’t bat (and didn’t have to, in the dh era) were lesser athletes than Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus.

But that is beside the point. Baseball is more a sport than golf. One reason is that baseball excellence requires a combination of objectively measurable and comparable athletic achievements that separate the great baseball players from all others. The abilities to run fast, throw far, fast and accurately, catch, hit for average and with power are rare. A second reason is that generally, those talents and skills are necessary to success.

However, baseball is less of a sport than basketball or football or soccer. I freely admit that, although I much prefer watching baseball than the others. But that is because baseball is a better "game" than the others.

It is more interesting to watch (for me) because of the many mystical elements which (for me) accompany any game I watch. There is history, childhood memories of playing catch with my dad or brother, little league, hero worship, summertime nostalgia, and many more elements to it. 

But in defining the sport one must separate the pleasure of watching the game from the participation in the sport.

The distinction between the "game" and the "sport" must be kept in mind when rating the "sportiveness" of team sports.

Basketball is a good example for analysis. Here is a sport which satisfies most of the criteria laid down above: it requires superb conditioning and the elements of sport - jump higher, be stronger, be quicker, be smarter. It has one-to-one contests within the game. Participants sweat plentifully (and Blacks are great at it). On its most basic level, it is simple: get the ball in a basket which is placed high above one’s head. Give a basketball to young children, show them a basket and they quite naturally understand the goal, and feel the pleasure of the game.

But there is a basic flaw inherent in the sport of basketball which diminishes its universality. It rewards natural height. Although one can develop shooting, dribbling, defensive skills, there is little a boy or girl can do about height. Shorter boys and girls are eventually deterred from participation by this disability.

There is nothing they can do about this problem. This fact does not mean that basketball is not a sport. There are many sports which favor natural physical attributes. Some sports favor small stature (such as horse racing -- for the jockey, not the horse). However, this fact diminishes its pleasure as a viewing event because it is harder for ordinary people to identify with the participants; and to some degree, it lessens its status as a sport because it is so specialized that competitiveness is reduced. It was fun to watch the Dream Team destroy all opposition by 50 points, it is awesome, but it is not as good a sporting contest.

The point is that team events have to be considered on two criteria: as a game and as a sport.

In recent years the Olympics has lost much of its gloss, especially with the current generation. They seem to be unimpressed by the nationalism inherent in the event. They have lost the television habit. They prefer video games, whether playing them or watching them online. 

Scandals involving corruption and drugs have tarnished the Olympics and corporate involvement is so pervasive in the production, promotion of the event as well as the sponsorship of the professional athletes that the event is far from the claimed idealism of its founding. 

I may watch a few of my favorite "games" but not with the passionate interest of past years. Too bad, in a way. 

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