Friday, 22 August 2008

Time for an Olympian razor

I"ve been thrilled by the outstanding performances of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps; I've enjoyed every medal every New Zealand Olympian has won; and I've savoured the new Olympic sports added to the programme like triathlon and marathon swimming.

That said, I don't care two hoots what happens to New Zealand's two BMX riders going for gold this afternoon. I couldn't care less, because BMX riding is simply not an Olympic sport.

I was talking about this yesterday with CP, discussing why their success or otherwise means nothing to me, and she reckoned it's not just a matter of tradition that means sports like soccer and tennis, and BMX and beach volleyball shouldn't be at the Olympics -- and it's not just because they're demonstrably silly that so-called sports like synchronised bloody swimming should be sent packing forthwith -- it's that the essence of Olympic sport is that it highlights perfection in the essentials of every sport.

Genuine Olympic sports, she argued, are the abstracted elements of sport -- you can run and jump and leap around playing soccer, for example (and if you're good enough you can do it on a world stage in its own right), but only at the Olympics are the essential elements of running fast, jumping high and leaping around gymnastically abstracted from all other sports, and the world spotlight shone upon the champions in these fields.

I suspect she's on to something here, that real Olympic sports are genuinely Olympian in their abstraction. At the Olympics, we thrill to the sight of the world's fastest man (and wasn't he outstanding!), as we should.

This is clearly an order of abstraction higher and more Olympian than the thrill of seeing a chap bending a soccer ball around a wall of defending players (and I apologise sincerely to readers for any confusion I may cause by using the word 'abstraction' in the same sentence as a reference to David Beckham), or kicking said ball to each other for ninety minutes. If she's right, then the more abstract the sporting feat, the stronger are the grounds for its Olympic inclusion; and the more specific it is, the more the grounds for exclusion.

If she is right, and I think she is, then we can formulate a new 'epistemological razor' by which to ensure the Olympic are restricted to their essential sports, and not multiplied beyond necessity.

Athletics, for example, contains the abstract elements of most sports, and is therefore the core of the Olympics -- as are sports that involve shooting things, throwing things, leaping over things, punching other people while they try to punch you back, and lifting heavy weights. And cycling, for all it looks like it might be too specific, is basically about riding things fast -- the abstracted essence of the means by which human-powered machinery can be made to go fast -- so that has to be there too.

But BMX cycling? That's just too specific, and therefore far too un-Olympian.

That said, I do of course wish New Zealand's two BMX Olympians every success, but I trust they'll forgive me if I don't tune in to hear how they got on. After all, if we come to accept sports like BMX and synchronised bloody swimming as part of the canon of Olympic sports, then come 2012 and the London Olympics we'll be seeing arguments from the English that pub sports like snooker and darts must be included.

And down that way, madness surely lies.


  1. "..we'll be seeing arguments from the English that pub sports like snooker and darts must be included.."

    Ha ha..gotta love the English working class...

  2. What about things like the gymnastics? My problem with the gymnastic events is that they are judged (rather than refereed) and the winner is chosen subjectively. On the other hand, it could be argued that (some of) the gymnastic events have a sufficient degree of abstractness to qualify them for inclusion (on the basis that physical bodily control and raw athleticism are abstract qualities of all sports).

  3. And the equestrian....?


  4. Gymnastics is well in for me, because it's just about all the basic elements of the Olympics contained in one mind.

    I'll reluctantly accept swimming because it's a basic, but I would restrict it severely in scope.. far too many events.

    Team sports like the horses and soccer I'd ditch, along with tennis and basketball. I just don't see them as part of the Olympic ideals.

    For me, too many events are like too much salad around the steak.


  5. Check your premises Cresswell, you're all over the place.

    There are many reasons why BMX should be included.

    1) Sarah Walker is a real cutie.

    2) BMX is basically about riding fast, like cycling, but with more jumps. If adding jumps is good enough for the 200 meters it should be good enough for cycling. It is perfectly abstract within the original Olympic credo of "citius altius fortius". Unlike oh so many sports, you don't need judges the winner is demonstrably right there.

    3) Sarah Walker is a real cutie.

    4) There are many sports far more niche, and far siller, like "walking"

    5) Sarah Walker is a real cutie.


  6. Oh yeah, walking's out (next people will be calling *golf* a sport).

    And I assumed the 'cutie' exception was obvious?

  7. "next people will be calling *golf* a sport"

    You tread on dangerous territory Peter...

  8. I know one sport that has plenty of positive aesthetics.

    WOMAN'S INDOOR VOLLEYBALL. Watching hot amazons rolling around the floor and giving each other comforting pats on the "lower back", who could want anything more when "Celebrating Humanity"?

  9. Gymnastics is extraordinary .. their athleticism never fails to take my breath away, although the "women's" tag always amuses me, their being mostly young teenagers. And that gorgeous little Chinese girl - the one whose age her govt 'officially' altered by two years - barely looked 12.

    Oh, and Justin, events like diving and skating (in the winter games) are 'judged' as opposed to refereed, so nothing exceptional about that.

    But to use Carol's basis for inclusion, (with which I would agree, by the way), then synchronised swimming would indeed qualify.

    While not exactly my cup of tea, I can objectively (!) appreciate the skills involved. Incredibly difficult.

    An Australian doco once featured Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and (I think) Michael Klim with the Aust synchronised swimming squad. The swimmers were astonished at what was required .. openly said that it was "insanely difficult" and "just bloody impossible", etc - and, most tellingly, that they had "no idea as to what went into it".

    I *love* the summer Olympics. Watching human beings achieve what they do is just glorious and never fails to move me.

  10. I've been musing on similar things over the course of the Olympics - for instance, why does there need to be four different styles of swimming? Surely we should be simply timing people on how fast they get from one end of the pool to the other, in the truest Olympic spirit?

  11. No, no, no. The only sports that should be in the Olympics are sports that men can do naked. That ruled out BMX in ancient times because of the slivers and other injuries they would have gotten from wooden saddles.

    But seriously, I really don't see a need to be so restrictive. To me it's simply a competition among the best participants from many nations, a sort of worldwide Super Bowl or World Cup. It's a competition for the title of best in the world.

    That said, I do find some things a bit silly, but I would regardless of whether they were in the Olympics.

    (I'm not going to specify which sports, so as not to discourage any young future BMX riders, synchronized swimmers, biathletes, racewalkers, or rhythmic gymnasts)


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