Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympics: Gymnastics is Not a Sport

By Brad Oremland

I really like the Summer Olympics. Most of the winter sports, I can take or leave, but I love the Summer Games. Actually, I'm not getting into the Olympics as much as usual this year (I blame NBC's horrendous coverage), but the events are much more to my liking, with popular sports like basketball, soccer, and tennis, plus a huge number of races.

In the Winter Games, most of the races feature competitors going one at a time and striving to beat the clock, which doesn't do much for me. But every four years, we're treated to cycling, swimming, track and field, marathon, rowing — competitors directly racing one another, first one over the finish line wins. It's such a pure form of sport, and I love it. I've also enjoyed portions of the Olympic gymnastics programs, but they're almost as frustrating as they are entertaining.

The problem is that gymnastics is not a sport.

Let's start here: gymnastics requires enormous skill and raw physical ability, and I do believe that gymnasts are athletes. But in my mind, any sport must fulfill two essential conditions:

1. Athleticism
2. A clear winner

Games like poker and chess satisfy the second condition, but not the first. They aren't sports because they don't require anything athletic. A computer can play those games at a high level. I mean, if poker is a sport, Monopoly is a sport, and the day they put Monopoly in the Olympics (Summer Games or Winter?), I'm going to jump off a bridge.

Activities like gymnastics and synchronized swimming satisfy the first condition, but not the second. They're athletic, sure, but the competition is totally artificial. You take something beautiful and try to quantify or rank it. It's like judging yoga, or grading painters. How do you give Van Gogh a 9.6 and Monet a 9.4?

The primary virtue of these "sports" is aesthetic, and the competitive aspect is problematic. In 2003, I wrote a half-joking piece I called "A Sports Manifesto", including a paragraph in which I decried the idea that ballroom dancing could be a sport. But reading the paragraph now, I could have been writing about gymnastics:

"Ballroom dancing is a demanding physical activity that requires an enormous amount of talent and practice. But it isn't a sport, either. The competition is forced. In football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer, anyone watching knows who won. Races — sprints, marathons, you name it — have a clear winner. If you need judges from seven countries to vote on who won, your activity is not a sport."

All sports have a clear winner. In sports like basketball and soccer, whoever scores the most points wins, and barring the occasional argument about officiating, the winner is clear. In races, whoever finishes first wins, and with the aid of modern technology, that too is clear. The Summer Olympics feature events like weight-lifting and pole vaulting. Whoever lifts the most weight or vaults the highest wins such competitions. Those are sports (though pole vaulting is a little weird). Those are actual competitions.

Judging in gymnastics — and I use that an example because it's the most popular of the non-sports in the Olympics — is subjective. It's happened less often in London than in Beijing four years ago, but NBC viewers have repeatedly heard puzzled gymnastics announcers predict high scores for Americans who scored low, and low scores for foreign athletes who scored high. And for most of us it's impossible to tell whether the announcers are biased, or the scoring uneven.

Gymnastics performances can be enjoyed by anyone, appreciated for their beauty or for the sheer physical talent necessary to perform certain routines. But a layperson — which is most of us — can't usually tell the difference between one routine and another, noticing only the most obvious errors, things like a step on the landing or a fall. Important distinctions between 1½ rotations or a full two are lost on most viewers.

In my mind, the biggest problem with modern gymnastics (besides 16-year-olds who look like third graders and dress in form-fitting outfits) is that people have tried to make it a sport. Watch old gymnastic routines, and many of them are stunning. They're beautiful and impressive and artistic and precise, and altogether fun to watch; Nadia Comaneci never gets old. Contemporary gymnastics is all about the degree of difficulty, meeting the weird grading system, and other than the brief tumbling runs in a floor routine, I generally don't find it very entertaining. Certainly I don't find most of it beautiful or artistic any more.

I get why they've moved away from subjectively scoring artistry, and I applaud that. But instead they're subjectively scoring other elements of the program. It's still wildly controversial, and the judges are still largely unaccountable, but now all the passion has been sucked out. It's about doing the most difficult maneuver, not putting together a routine that's inspiring or fun to watch.

I don't know how much scoring has changed in the last four years, but I remember the women's vault final in Beijing, featuring U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone. Following Sacramone was Cheng Fei of China, whose second vault ended in apparent disaster: she landed on her knees. Despite what looked to me like a game-ender, Cheng's second vault received about the same score as Sacramone's. With the disclaimer that I have no background in high-level gymnastics, it looked to me like the Chinese gymnast simply did not complete her vault — that the second one was a complete failure, or close to it. But evidently it was such a difficult vault (a high "start value") that completing it was not necessary in order to get a good score.

You know, I've met a lot of people who could fail to complete a 7.3 difficulty vault. That doesn't seem to merit a bronze medal. There's a great reward for high-difficulty routines, but in Beijing there appeared to be no risk. Mess up a 6.5 and you'll probably beat someone who nails a 5.5. Falling scored less than a one-point deduction. Sacramone's vault looked good; Cheng Fei's looked like a train wreck, but it earned the higher score. That's a soulless way to score an event, and I think it's a mistake for gymnastics. We can't prioritize ambition and difficulty over aesthetics and success, and we shouldn't try to judge artistry objectively.

Ultimately, the reason gymnastics is not a sport is that it cannot be scored objectively. From tennis to long jump to 100-meter backstroke, there's an objective winner, and those are sports. Gymnastics is subjective, and in the eye of the beholder, there's a lot of room for both conscious and unconscious bias. It's also very difficult to hold a judge accountable for a bad score, which means that an appearance of corruption can easily be present even if no actual corruption is.

This doesn't just apply to gymnastics: it's true for any "sport" where the winners are determined primarily or solely by judges: diving (especially pairs diving), synchronized swimming, ice skating, etc. Actually, in the Winter Games, I prefer ice dancing to ice skating. The latter features difficult jumps, and routines are scored mostly on difficulty, but at real speed I can't tell the difference between a double axel and a triple. Ice dancing is pretty; it's fun to watch. And if people want to score it and choose winners, that's okay, too. But you can't tell me ice dancing is a sport. Sports have a clear winner: who finished first, who scored the most points, who went highest or farthest or fastest. That's what makes them sports, what separates the event from practice: there's a clear and fairly determined winner.

Gymnasts are athletes. I'm not trying to take anything away from the competitors or their immense physical abilities. I will add, though, an important complementary reason that gymnastics cannot be a sport: the best performers in the world are 12. Normally, humans reach their athletic peaks some time between the ages of 18 and 30. If hitting puberty can end your career, you are not playing a sport.

I am not suggesting that gymnastics should be removed from the Olympics, which are billed as "Games" rather than sports. But it would be nice if the results were a little more intuitive, and it would be great if we could enjoy activities like gymnastics and ice skating and even cooking ("Allez Cuisine!") without trying to make them more like boxing. And it's a shame, I think, that synchronized swimming has a spot in the Olympics and softball does not. Two essential conditions must be fulfilled by any sport:

1. Athleticism
2. A clear winner

I still believe what I wrote almost a decade ago: "If you need judges from seven countries to vote on who won, your activity is not a sport."

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