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Offside, 14 July

The International Olympic Committee’s cull of dubious sports didn't go far enough.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The world of softball has been reeling this week at the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to axe the sport from the London 2012 programme. The US Amateur Softball Association (ASA) immediately issued a strong statement declaring that ‘The vote by the IOC Members is a crushing blow to the millions of young women around the world who dream of taking the field as Olympic athletes in our sport’.

At the risk of upsetting the many softball enthusiasts who regularly read this column, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. Softball is just a crap girly version of baseball, a sport which also got the axe last week. Baseball apparently fell foul of the IOC because its star players had not been competing at the Olympics. Softball doesn’t have any star players but I’d like to think it suffered the same fate as baseball because it too is a parochial American sport that the rest of the world couldn’t give a monkey’s about.

The exclusion of softball and baseball means that London will host a slimmed-down 26-sport tournament. Frankly, I don’t think the IOC cull of Olympic sports went far enough. A cursory scan of the roster for the 2012 Games reveals plenty of events that should never have been classified as Olympic sports in the first place. Synchronised swimming is a prime candidate. Heavily made-up competitors performing underwater choreographed routines to music al la Esther Williams? How can that be a sport? The whole event is preposterously gay.

According to the IOC website, synchronised swimming demands ‘strength, endurance, flexibility, grace…artistry’ as well as ‘exceptional breath control’. Grace and artistry are epithets often used to describe great sportsmen but these attributes should not determine who gets the prizes. Any competition in which a panel of judges awards points for artistic merit should not qualify as a sport. The scoring system in a proper sport should be objective with a referee or judge simply deciding whether a goal has been scored or a punch has been landed, or else measuring the distance thrown or jumped. This definition would also rule out diving (and its camp offshoot synchronised diving), gymnastics and dressage from the Olympics.

As well as dumping baseball and softball the IOC also decided last week not to admit squash, karate, golf, and rugby sevens to the 2012 Games. Golf fans might feel aggrieved that their event is excluded while quasi-sports like synchronised swimming remain Olympic events. But let’s face it, golf is no more a sport than running-to-catch-the-bus or nipping-out-to-buy-a-pint-of-milk, activities which are just as strenuous. Golf is not so much a sport as a pastime, a form of gentle exercise for OAPs. A proper sport requires athleticism whereas golf requires little more than a beating pulse. Can Colin Montgomerie be described as an athlete? Of course not. No further evidence, m’lud. Not a sport.

If golf is insufficiently athletic to count as a sport then logically neither should shooting or archery. Yes, these events require considerable skill but the same can be said for darts, which is effectively a modern pub-based descendent of archery, and nobody would claim that Andy ‘The Viking’ Fordham is an athlete. You only have to look at the clothes worn by archers and shooters to see that these are not really sportspeople. As with golf, you can get away with sports casual clothing in these events because no athleticism is required. If there’s no need for lycra or shorts then the chances are it’s not a sport.

It is tempting to conclude that the IOC is dumbing down the Olympic ideal by admitting events like synchronised swimming – no longer just citius, altius, fortius but artisticus meritus as well. In reality the ideal of sporting excellence has always been compromised by the inclusion of events with rather tenuous sporting pretensions. Croquet, golf, and water-skiing have all found their way on to the programme in previous Olympics. In 2004 the Observer Sports Monthly ran a feature on the 10 oddest Olympic events, which included tug of war, motor boating, pistol duelling, solo synchronised swimming, rope climbing, and long jump for horses. Most intriguing was an event called ‘club swinging’ which made an appearance in the 1904 and 1932 Olympics and involved ‘swinging a club festooned with ribbons very quickly around the body and head, in a complicated routine’ (1). (I tried Googling the phrase ‘club swinging’ to discover what happened to this bizarre sport but sadly the search results consisted mainly of links to wife-swapping websites.)

Maybe the Olympic ideal has always been more myth than reality, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t make a start now by rooting out the song-and-dance routines masquerading as sports. London 2012 should be about sport and sport alone. If you want artistic merit go and see a West End show instead.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

Olympics: let the real games begin, by Rob Lyons

(1) The ten oddest former Olympic events, Observer, 1 August 2004

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Topics Politics

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