Josh Elliott beats me to the rant

Josh Elliott posts a fine rant in Sports Illustrated‘s blog about the Olympics that echoes my own thoughts on the matter: No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can’t be won on the track, in ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Josh Elliott posts a fine rant in Sports Illustrated's blog about the Olympics that echoes my own thoughts on the matter:

No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can't be won on the track, in the lane lines or with one more goal than the other folks, it has no place in the world's premier festival of sport, one that purports to give us the world's greatest champions. For if a win can't be unquestionably achieved, what's it worth, really? Without an objective, inarguable method for determining victory and defeat, the very meaning of the competition is lost. (After all, this isn't my niece's toddler soccer league, where one team scores 49 goals and the other scores two, then the exhausted competitors are told, Saturday after disillusioning Saturday, that it was a tie.) Without an absolutely certain outcome, an event such as, say, the men's gymnastics all-around, isn't a sport at all. It's a talent show. (Disclaimer for the knee-jerk brigade: The Blog is not impugning the wondrous athleticism of world-class gymnasts, platform divers and bantamweights. At the Olympic level, they are physical marvels, able to do things that most of us would find more torturous than exhilarating. Problem is, there's one thing none of them will ever do: definitively win their competitions.)

One could argue that there is some degree of subjective judgment in any sport -- umpires calling balls and strikes, officials determining if a runner jumped the gun, etc. However, it is exceedingly rare for the subjective elements in these sports to overwhelm the objective components. In gymnastics or ice skating, the entire competition is based on subjective judgments. This doesn't mean that judged competitions aren't exciting. Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence -- but they're not sports. I fully recognize that this will never happen, but that doesn't change the fact that Elliott is right. UPDATE: Hmmm.... I'm not sure Laura McKenna would approve. ANOTHER UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias and Belle Waring weigh in with some counterarguments. Belle is misinterpreting my post in think that I was laying out a necessary and suifficient condition for an activity to be labeled a sport -- I was just articulating a necessary condition. Matt raises an interesting point:

Josh Elliott posts a fine rant in Sports Illustrated‘s blog about the Olympics that echoes my own thoughts on the matter:

No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can’t be won on the track, in the lane lines or with one more goal than the other folks, it has no place in the world’s premier festival of sport, one that purports to give us the world’s greatest champions. For if a win can’t be unquestionably achieved, what’s it worth, really? Without an objective, inarguable method for determining victory and defeat, the very meaning of the competition is lost. (After all, this isn’t my niece’s toddler soccer league, where one team scores 49 goals and the other scores two, then the exhausted competitors are told, Saturday after disillusioning Saturday, that it was a tie.) Without an absolutely certain outcome, an event such as, say, the men’s gymnastics all-around, isn’t a sport at all. It’s a talent show. (Disclaimer for the knee-jerk brigade: The Blog is not impugning the wondrous athleticism of world-class gymnasts, platform divers and bantamweights. At the Olympic level, they are physical marvels, able to do things that most of us would find more torturous than exhilarating. Problem is, there’s one thing none of them will ever do: definitively win their competitions.)

One could argue that there is some degree of subjective judgment in any sport — umpires calling balls and strikes, officials determining if a runner jumped the gun, etc. However, it is exceedingly rare for the subjective elements in these sports to overwhelm the objective components. In gymnastics or ice skating, the entire competition is based on subjective judgments. This doesn’t mean that judged competitions aren’t exciting. Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence — but they’re not sports. I fully recognize that this will never happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that Elliott is right. UPDATE: Hmmm…. I’m not sure Laura McKenna would approve. ANOTHER UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias and Belle Waring weigh in with some counterarguments. Belle is misinterpreting my post in think that I was laying out a necessary and suifficient condition for an activity to be labeled a sport — I was just articulating a necessary condition. Matt raises an interesting point:

The trouble with the Olympic sports Dan objects to is that the quality of the athleticism on display is so uniformly high that human error is frequently the decisive factor. When you think about it, though, any basketball game that was seemingly decided by a last-second shot was always, in fact, decisively impacted by the inevitable human error in the officiating. The thing about the Olympics is that every gymnastics competition is like an extremely close game, because it involves several participants capable of near-perfection. If the competitors exhibited a very wide range of ability, small imperfections in the judging wouldn’t matter, just as they don’t matter in a blowout basketball game.

I’ll confess one source of bias that went unmentioned in my original post: it could also be that the Olympic sports I consider to be dubious require musical accompaniment.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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