Olympics: Gymnastics is Not a Sport

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."

Comments and Conversation

September 10, 2012

gym mom:

Brad Oremland is a freaking idiot. I’d love to see him tell some male gymnast he doesn’t participate in a sport and watch he get pounded into the ground. Better yet, tell it to a gym mom.

October 11, 2012

Soccer player:

ok I loved this artical it eloped me prove a point to my ignorant friends that GYMNASTICS ISN’T A SPORT. Thanxs

November 21, 2012

I Love Gymnastics:

unfortunately, i have to agree with this article. I love gymnastics and my daughter has been doing it for years but i do believe it is extremely political and the scoring is, at times, fixed. there, i said it. makes me sad but i do believe it is true. =(

November 30, 2012

Holly:

So what you’re saying is..the only reason gymnastics isn’t a sport is because you think scores are based strictly on opinion?
This article is really dumb. No clear winner? Gymnasts get a score after each routine. The judges don’t just say after a routine, “Well, that was pretty good, I’ll give her an 8.2” NO! They replay routines in slow motion from different perspectives multiple times with computer programs. And gymnasts do NOT quit their sport once they hit puberty - in fact, many people start gymnastics around the age of 11 or 12. Elite gymnasts usually retire anywhere from 18 - 24. Please get your facts straight before you put out your bias for everyone to see.

December 13, 2012

Not Holly:

Holly,
As evidenced from your comment you missed the entire point of the article. It’s not about scoring or playing routines back in slow-motion, it’s about human involvement in determining a winner. No matter how you try and justify it, if it involves a human judging someone’s performance it involves opinion. Once you insert this human element into the scoring of a performance, you are now subject to all kinds of human problems. How does a gymnast know that he or she has performed better, or bested their opponent. By looking at a clock, crossing a line first, etc? No, they have to rely on a human element to determine who was better. All you need is one judge who feels that his fellow countrymen are better gymnasts and you have introduced a bias into the scoring. That is a relatively easy bias to catch mind you, say nothing of human emotions and subconscious behaviors that factor into the scoring equation. So it doesn’t matter if they play back a routine with the worlds most sophisticated computer, the end result is still painfully human determined. And no, cheer leading isn’t a sport Holly.

December 23, 2012

Gymnast:

Before you write an article about the unfair judging make sure you know how routines are judged because this article is not completely true. Get your facts straight before you say how gymnastics isn’t a sport.

January 27, 2013

Tess:

This is just bs. No clear winner? I guess boxing isn’t a sport either. Or for that matter any sport that has refs whose subjective calls change the tempo and sometimes the outcome of the game (scratch football and basketball too). I hate people who don’t understand a sport trying to judge everything about that sport. Learn about the rules and scoring system before you comment. Gym moms who say scoring is fixed usually just can’t admit their daughters aren’t the most talented.

Stop hating!!

February 25, 2013

Lilly:

For the vault paragraph, il just saying I’m not in a very high level in gymnastics or anything but I do know that only one vault counts so ur first vault can be a complete fail but if the second one is amazing they will choose the second vault to mark only one vault counts and that’s the better one

March 6, 2013

Maria:

Just saying, the judging behind gymnastics is very mathematical and logical. For example, if the gymnasts legs are crossed during a spinning salto, that’s an automatic 0.1 deduction. If a gymnast takes a step bigger than shoulder length, that’s a 0.3 deduction. Similar deductions are taken for almost everything, like not reaching 180 degrees for a split jump or doing a handstand late on the uneven bars. Spotting these errors, I admit, aren’t as simple as determining if a ball goes out or not, but just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t undermine the validity of it. There are artistry deductions in gymnastics but they are rarely used, which is why Aly Raisman could win gold on floor. The judging is a tad too complex to explain here, but if you take the time and effort to go through the Code of Points (the gymnastics bible), you will also be able to appreciate gymnastics, not only as something that looks pretty and cool, but also as a sport.

March 8, 2013

Brad Oremland:

Great comment, Maria, and certainly the best defense posted here of gymnastics as a true sport rather than merely athletics. However, I’m not persuaded.

I not only believe that the primary virtue of gymnastics is aesthetic, I believe it should be. By emphasizing degree of difficulty and going to slow-motion replays to look for the details you mention, we’re taking something that used to be beautiful and making it robotic. That detracts from gymnastics more than losing a name like “sports” does.

I also believe, and maybe this is just me (though I don’t think so), that difficulty is overemphasized and execution underemphasized. As a layperson, it’s jarring to see a gorgeous routine score lower than a technically difficult routine with several obvious mistakes.

That brings me to the third point. I also have a real problem with judging that remains subjective. In sports, humans don’t pick who won. A scoreboard does, or a clock, or something else divorced from opinion. Gymnastics still employs multiple judges, an acknowledgement that even experts might score the same routine differently.

Most viewers are laypeople, incapable of holding judges accountable or knowing whether a score was fair. It’s hard to enjoy a competition if you don’t understand the scoring, and gymnastics used to make up for that with artistry. The technical scoring system makes it more like a sport, but that’s a misplaced goal. Gymnastics doesn’t need to be a sport, and it probably can’t be. But it can be beautiful, and the scoring system in place deters that. This is why I prefer ice dancing to ice skating competitions. None of them are sports, and that’s okay.

April 26, 2013

Corrine:

Sorry but those who say gymnastics isn’t a sport r stupid mofos. And uh yeah there’s a clear winner for Each event and all around. Do you know how hard gymnastics is? Those gymnast (me included) work their asses of and you sit here saying its not a sport I’d like to see you do it. After you try you come tell me it’s not a sport.

April 29, 2013

Brad Oremland:

Corrine, you obviously didn’t read the article.

May 16, 2013

Gymnast:

AHHH this article makes me so angry. I’ve been a gymnast for 13 years and counting. OKAY 1. you said you agreed we are athletes, thank you. 2. We do have a clear winner, it is at the end of every meet when they announce the gymnasts with the highest scores. Where you agree with the judging or not there IS a clear winner. Team scores also count too so at the end of every competition a team wins also. 3. Obviously puberty is going to play a huge role in this sport because our bodies are physically doing things they wouldn’t normally be doing, like bending in half, bending over backwards, splits. That’s why gymnasts start at young ages, their muscles are still loose and their flexibility is a lot better than most adults, it takes work just like anything else but it is easier. Once you hit puberty, your body chemistry starts to change no one can control that so to say that gymnastics isn’t a sport because it’s effected by something that we can’t control is ignorant. 4. Gymnastics is not only based on entertaining and amusing the audience, we’re not looking for your approval, we don’t really care what the audience thinks of our routines. We are just trying to follow the rules of gymnastics, which there actually is a rule book with all of the deductions so no it’s not all subjective, we are trying to impress the judges. Every level requires a gymnast to have certain skills in their routines to compete at that level. It’s not all just random skills we feel like doing. We do them because that’s part of the sport we signed up for. 5. You think just because we have judges deciding our scores means its not a sport? Then what’s a referee? Because I’m pretty sure they have the power to take away points if they don’t believe they were scored appropriately, they can throw players out, and don’t tell me that some of them don’t make biased calls towards one team over another. 6. Clearly you don’t understand the system of how gymnasts are judged so before you start talking like you actually know what you’re talking about you should learnt he facts. There are 4 judges on a panel. The top and the bottom scores get thrown out and they average the 2 middle; so even if one judge did give a bad score it doesn’t count anyway. Scores are not supposed to be more than 4 tenths a part so when a gymnast receives there score whether it be good or bad its 9 times out of 10 the score they deserved.

I don’t even know why this article was published, you have no credibility and clearly your opinion is biased and you have no idea what you are talking about.

GYMNASTICS IS A SPORT

May 16, 2013

Brad Oremland:

I’m the one who’s biased? Sure, and you’re obviously impartial. I also like that you’re “pretty sure [referees] have the power to take away points if they don’t believe they were scored appropriately.”

I have great respect for gymnasts as athletes, but all the defenses you cited for gymnastics as a sport also apply to “Dancing With the Stars”. Until every judge submits exactly the same score, it’s subjective. You have people picking a winner. It’s not a sport. End of story.

But so what? Why does it need to be a sport? This is what I don’t get. I write that gymnastics “requires enormous skill”, mention “the sheer physical talent necessary” and “immense physical abilities” and people think I’m trying to be insulting? I’m just calling something what it is — or in this case, what it isn’t.

May 16, 2013

Gymnast:

In basketball if a player makes a basket or dunks a basket and his body touches the rim before the basked goes in the point does not count. The ref is the one that makes that call. In soccer and other field sports (like soccer) when points are scored on offsides the goal does not count. The ref is the one that makes that call.

They don’t pick a winner, the reward the best gymnast as the best gymnast. They do not go into the competition with one gymnast in mind that they are all going to favor. It doesn’t work like that. And clearly you don’t know that considering you’ve never done gymnastics before or talked to a gymnast or a judge; you have no credibility.

Dancing with the Stars is a TV show, they do not dedicate the majority of their childhood to dance, and dance itself is a sport.

Why does it need to be a sport? It doesn’t, but it is. We spend countless hours in the gym practicing and chasing perfection which we already know doesn’t exist. But we strive for it anyway. That is what judges look for; perfection. There is a rule book, like I sated before, that explains each skill, how much it is worth, and what “calls” (deductions) can be made. A fall is 5 tenths, never more, never less; showing of undergarments is 2 tenths, never more, never less; extra steps are 1 tenth every step and they stop after 2; everything is a calculation. So please continue telling me how these calculations are equivalent to picking a winner. And you said there has to be a clear winner, you never said how it had to be decided.

Gymnastics is a sport.

June 8, 2013

None of your business what my name is:

The official definition of a sport: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others.

Gymnastics most definitely is an activity involving physical exertion and skill. Notice how the definition says nothing about it needing to be CLEAR who the winner is, just that there is a winner. So, when competing in gymnastics, your competing against other people to win. It won’t be absolutely spotlessly clear that you’re the winner but you’ve won.

By the official definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, gymnastics is a sport, so suck it!

November 4, 2013

Vonda:

In respond to Lilly - the two vault rule is still very much in effect, EXCEPT in elite level competitions. Collegiate gymnasts, and gymnastics up to level 10 still use two vaults.

January 17, 2014

Jess:

This is the stupidest article I have ever read. You have no clue what the heck your talking about. I’d like to see you run full speed toward a table and attempt to flip over it, or do flips on a 4 inch wide surface. I bet you couldn’t even do a flip on a trampoline. I would actually really like to see you do gymnastics because if you did you would feel embarrassed of how stupid your article is. I do gymnastics and I beat every single girl and boy in my gym class at school on all the fitness test. Plus, I’m a girl so the boys should be stronger than me because that’s how they are developed. This article is so pointless, and you don’t even have any correct info. It’s all completely wrong. Your right about NOTHING in this. I hope me saying this makes you feel bad because you deserve it. People like you try to make others feel bad about themselves. Do you understand that by you publishing this on the internet, your basically saying, “hey! To all you gymnast out there! Your so called sport is STUPID! GET A LIFE!” I know you said your whole “it takes courage” and what not, but by you saying that it’s not a sport can really hurt someone’s feelings. THINK BEFORE YOU TALK NEXT TIME!

November 2, 2014

Claire:

Jess
He did not say that gymnastics is easy. No he probably can’t vault or do a back handspring on a beam, but he didn’t say “gymnastics is so easy, I can do all of that.” The point of the article isn’t to insult gymnasts or the sport of gymnastics. It’s just his opinion.

He doesn’t deserve to feel bad, either. All of what he says is just his opinion. And he’s not trying to make people feel bad. Did he once say “gymnastics is stupid”? Nope. He says at the very beginning that it requires lots of talent. He’s complimenting gymnasts for their talent. And what he says doesn’t amount to him saying “your sport is idiotic, get a life.”

And seriously all he said was that gymnastics isn’t a sport. He didn’t say “gymnasts are idiots” or “gymnasts are wasting their time.” So it’s dumb to feel bad about yourself if someone says, “gymnasts are extremely talented and are amazing athletes, but gymnastics doesn’t have a clear winner, so it doesn’t fit the definition of a sport.”

And honestly does it NEED to be a sport? The that that he says it isn’t doesn’t make it easier or less physically demanding. It stays the same. So why are you getting all upset over his opinion if it doesn’t matter to you? I am a gymnast as well, just to clarify.

I’m not trying to offend you. If i do, it is purely by accident. I just think that you are overreacting a little.

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