Could art be an Olympic sport?

Sport or art, or both?
Sport or art, or both?
Image: REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
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When you think of Olympic sports, dancing doesn’t necessarily come to mind. Yet breakdancing will debut as an Olympic sport at the Paris Games in 2024, joining the small but growing number of events—including figure skating, rhythmic gymnastics, artistic swimming, and (briefly) ski dancing—that blur the distinction between performance art and sports. It raises age-old questions of where is the line drawn between art and sports, and why an activity like ballet remain in the wings?

Let’s start off with what makes a sport. Sports have rules that must be followed to score points, score a basket, or slide a puck in the net—and art does not. You can’t just put a ladder next to the basket, and climb it to put the ball in the hoop, explains Angela J. Schneider, a silver medal-winning Olympic rower and University of Western Ontario professor who teaches sports ethics. While ballet has its own standards—legs must be straight, feet must be pointed just so—there’s no referee policing them during a performance. And unlike most performances, sporting events end with a final score.

Another way to look at the distinction between art and sport is that, with a sport like hockey, the player does not get any more points for a beautiful shot. “So aesthetics and beauty are not part of the evaluation of the sport unless it is particularly written into the rules,” Schneider says.

Then there are Olympic sports that have both artistic and technical elements, such as gymnastics and figure skating—but the artistic components of the sports are restricted, and in turn, so are what the athletes are allowed to do. Olympic organizers use a point system meant to make those judging more objective and to mitigate controversy, says Schneider. For example, to make scoring less subjective, the International Gymnastics Federation replaced the perfect “10” with two scores—one to score the difficulty of the routine, one to score the performance—to better differentiate one gymnast’s routine from another in 2005 after a controversy over a tenth of a point at the 2004 Athens games.

Breakdancing will be a test to see whether dance could work in the Olympics

In theory, ballet, or any performance art could be an Olympic event so long as it can be judged and scored. After all, ballroom dancing competitions have been around since the 1920s, and popular TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance showcase dancers who perform different styles of dance and compete with another. But does the Olympic adaptation of such performance—where the activity is changed to fit the rules—change the very nature of it?

“People go and watch a performance that follows a script that’s on the stage at an artistic event, and they step back and they say, “that was great” and “it was wonderful” and “they did this,”’ says Schneider, but they are not usually focused on being a critic about whether the foot was pointed or sickled, or whether a jeté reached a certain height.

Olympic breakdancing is set to be judged on personality, technique, variety, creativity, performance, and musicality. But breakdancing purists think including breakdancing in the Olympics would mean prioritizing technical skills over intangible qualities like passion and originality. It’s reasonable to wonder what gets lost when an activity that is not rule-oriented becomes micro-evaluated.

But if successful, breakdancing could help expand the boundaries of what makes an Olympic sport—as well as the image of a sport—and could encourage broader participation. One reason breakdancing was included in the Olympics was due to its popularity with the younger generation. Breakdancing will be a true test, and potentially a huge step forward, on whether we could see more dance forms, such as ballet, ballroom, hip-hop, or tap, in future games.