Olympic “sports”?

On my Facebook feed I recently made a comment that I make every time the Winter Olympics come around; “How is ice dancing an Olympic sport?” Many people piped up about other sports such as synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics that also would fall into this category. Needless to say it provoked some discussion, and so I wanted to spend a bit more time in a long-form venue to explain what I meant by my comment.

To start, I want to be very clear that I am in no way diminishing the physical capability of these competitors. People who participate in these competitions are incredibly talented, and they work just as hard as any other athlete in any other sport at the top of their capabilities. I have a niece who is involved in dance, and I’m always seeing posts from my sister about the toll it takes on her body to be at the top of her game for competitions. I’m not physically capable of doing what these people do, and I never will be. They work very hard to achieve success.

My issue is with the definition of these events as “sport”. When I think of the Olympics I think of sport played at it’s highest level. These people are the fastest, strongest, most agile people on the face of the planet, and they have dedicated their lives to being the best that they can be. Every four years we put them in a contest to see who is truly the best in the world. We determine who is best through many different means, but in almost all cases, the defining factors are objective measurements of success.

For speed sports, the amount of time it takes to finish is the objective measurement. For sports of strength and agility there are measurable factors that determine if something was done successfully. Did the person lift the most weight? Did they complete the agility exercise completely? These objective factors are measurable, and they create the basis on which we can determine who is “the best”.

There are some events in the Olympics that contain a subset of subjective measures. Sports like snowboarding have a certain component of subjectivity, however, I feel that they still tilt towards the objective end of the spectrum. If someone is performing a complex snowboarding trick, they either complete the trick or they fail. The performance of a specific maneuver is the focal point of their attempt. The addition of any artistry or style simply pads their score, but their base completion of a task is still the most important factor.

Some events tread very close to this line between objectivity and subjectivity, and there could certainly be arguments made for some events that they are too subjective. But when you look at events like synchronized swimming, ice dancing, and rhythmic gymnastics, the bulk of what they are judged on is style. If you can’t make it look good, it doesn’t matter if you complete an element or not. The overarching goal is to impress the judges, and hope that they “liked” your performance better than the next competitor.

This subjectivity is why I don’t enjoy these events as a part of the Olympics. I 100% believe that these competitors in these events are amazing, incredible, athletes. They do amazing things that most us could never do. However, the structure of the event itself does not lend itself a competition where someone can be objectively crowned as “the best in the world”, which is, for me, what the Olympics are all about. These events are all visually enjoyable, but yet they feel out of place in a world where winners and losers can come down to thousands of a second, and the analysis of high speed photos to determine who got the tiny little edge across the line.

That’s my thinking today, and maybe that will change in the future. I firmly believe that there’s a place for these subjective events in the world, which are amazing and beautiful. I simply don’t think that place is in the Olympics.

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