When is a sport a sport? Only when the Olympics say so

Australia doesn’t do recession.
Australia doesn’t do recession.
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One of the joys of the Olympics is getting to watch esoteric sports you’ve possibly never heard of. A couple of days in, and you’ll find yourself dictating the finer points of rhythmic gymnastics to bemused onlookers, or explaining the workings of the modern pentathlon in great detail to your cat. The question of why certain wonderfully obscure sports make it into the Olympics while others don’t, however, is more vexing than the scoring metrics for the parallel bars.

Until recently, the number of sports at the summer Olympics has been capped at 28, which has meant that for a sport to get itself into the Olympics, another had to be the victim of the vaudeville hook. These days there’s no strict limit, which means that, in theory, we may begin to see more weird and wonderful sports in 2020 and beyond. In reality though, getting into the Olympics is still as hard as ever.

So how does a sport get the nod? As Quartz noted last week, a sport getting into the Olympics is “a feat that is expensive, convoluted, and a political minefield.” Once a sport is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it’s eligible for inclusion in an Olympiad, so long as it satisfies certain criteria.

But those criteria are nebulous to say the least. The guidelines for 2020 and beyond (they’re here, if you want to read them in full) focus primarily on appealing to young audiences and maximizing the games’ general popularity. These criteria presumably account for the presence of events such as beach volleyball, of which the objective merits remain debatable.

Meanwhile, several sports that you might expect to be in the Olympics are not. The sport most cited as being wrongly left out in the cold is squash, an immensely popular sport whose governing body has been lobbying for decades for inclusion in an Olympic program to no avail. There’s also a strong argument to be made for cricket: Its popularity on the Indian subcontinent alone means that it has a ready-made audience of some 1.75 billion people. If baseball is returning for 2020, then why not softball? If basketball, why not netball?

The ongoing presence of certain sports is equally baffling. If popularity and youth appeal are key criteria, how on earth do we justify the unquestioned status of equestrian events? The much-maligned sport of synchronized swimming remains likewise untouchable, though its even stranger cousin, solo synchronized swimming, was rightfully consigned to history. As a whole, the picture that emerges is arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and not necessarily reflective of public consensus.

Will this change going forward? Notably, the 2020 guidelines also decree that new sports must satisfy several recommendations of the Olympic Agenda 2020 report. The most eyebrow raising of these endorsements is that the Olympics is “[moving] from a sport-based to an event-based programme.”

Neither “sport” nor “event” are defined in this context, which raises an interesting question: What is a sport, anyway? As with many apparently simple questions, this one turns out to be a lot harder to answer than you might expect. Even within the relatively limited confines of the 28-sport Olympic program, it’s hard to find any unifying factor: What do, say, synchronized swimming and basketball share, beyond being competitive? You might argue that they require physical exertion, but if that’s the case, then how do those two correlate to shooting and archery? Sure, you need to be fit to draw a bow or hold a rifle steady, but these sports are ultimately a question of finesse, not fitness. And if we deem these two activities as sports, then you could argue that other hugely popular pastimes such as darts or snooker merit inclusion.

Based on these new metrics, chess has applied for inclusion in 2020. Many people’s instinctive reactions to the idea of an Olympic chess tournament is, “That’s ridiculous: Chess is a game, not a sport!” But where does a sport begin and a game end? Google the difference between the two, and you’ll find a lot of people tying themselves up in logical knots. (Perhaps the best answer is here, where a Guardian reader suggests, “You can smoke while playing a game but not while playing a sport.”)

The answer, it seems, is that there are no definitive answers to any of these questions, and the decision of what ends up in the Olympics—and what is considered a sport—is ultimately an arbitrary one. This isn’t an entirely satisfying conclusion, but then again, perhaps embracing diversity is the best way forward for the Olympics in the 21st century.