Friday, 27 July 2012

The arbitrary games

If you were to describe the Olympics in one word, what would it be?

Corrupt? Wasteful? Overblown? Corporatist? Jingoistic?

The Olympics is all of these things, but for me the word that always comes to mind is 'arbitrary'.

Consider triple-jump, a contrived sport if ever there was one. Would it be any less ridiculous to have a 100m hopping race. Too far? 42m would be just right, I'm sure.

Racewalking, on the other hand, is clearly a 50km affair. It would be one thing to choose an arbitrary long distance and leave the style of motion to the atheletes, but this bizarre sport specifies that "the athlete's back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched" and that "the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes directly over it". Perhaps one day David Beckham can hope to captain the British Olympic walking football team.

Or take boxing. As early as 1904 the competitors have been divided into several weight categories. The range is staggering:
  • Light-Flyweight -48 kg
  • Flyweight 48-51 kg
  • Bantamweight 51-54 kg
  • Featherweight 54-57 kg
  • Lightweight 57-60 kg
  • Light-Welterweight 60-64 kg
  • Welterweight 64-69 kg
  • Middleweight 69-75 kg
  • Light-Heavyweight 75-81 kg
  • Heavyweight 81-91 kg
  • Super-Heavyweight +91 kg
How can these divisions possibly be justified? Why does the best 90kg boxer get a gold medal while a superior fighter who weighs 2kg more goes home empty-handed? We may as well replace the names with numbers, and have categories for each kilogram increment from 1 to 634. Or maybe that's not granular enough. Perhaps we should expand the number of medal winners further by using 100g increments.

If it's reasonable to divide boxers by weight, should we divide high-jumpers by height and swimmers by lung capacity?

This year we'll be treated to women's boxing.  Which sports deserve separate categories for women, and why? If women don't need protected status in the equestrian events, why do they need it for shooting and trampoline? According to the BBC, "London 2012 will be the first Summer Olympics with no sports exclusively for men", but "there are two disciplines which are still women only - rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming".  Then there's the case of transsexuals - read those rules and weep.

If women deserve separate categories, why not old people. There's a problem of how many categories to have, and where to draw the boundaries, but this is no worse than the boxing situation.

And what of the terrible injustice in the 'main event', the 100m meter sprint? According to Wikipedia:

Nearly all the sprinters who have beaten the 10-second barrier are of West African descent. Namibian (formerly South-West Africa) Frankie Fredericks became the first man of non-West African heritage to achieve the feat in 1991 and in 2003 Australia's Patrick Johnson (who has Irish and Indigenous Australian heritage) became the first sub-10-second runner without an African background. Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre became the first white European under ten seconds in 2010 (although Poland's Marian Woronin had unofficially surpassed the barrier with a time of 9.992 seconds in 1984). In 2011, Zimbabwean Ngonidzashe Makusha became the 76th man to break the barrier, yet only the fourth man not of West African descent. No sprinter of predominantly Asian or East African descent has officially achieved this feat.

Surely we need a separate category, or several, to give the non-West-Africans a chance!

Amateurism is another great source of arbitrariness. It was supposedly introduced to stop gentlemen from being upstaged by the plebs. According to Wikipedia, "the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics", though "his medals were posthumously restored by the IOC in 1983 on compassionate grounds".

Different sports relaxed their prohibitions at different times. In basketball, professionals were notably allowed for the first time in 1992, when the American 'Dream Team' dominated.

In football, "only three professional players over the age of 23 are eligible to participate per team in the Olympic tournament". And of course boxing remains an officially amateur Olympic sport, though this may change after 2012.

There are plenty of other examples of arbitrariness, from the choice of sports to the rules on drugs.

I'm sure I'll watch some of the events - it'll be hard to avoid over the next 16 days - but I can't say I'm excited about any of them (except the beach volleyball, of course).

Enjoy the arbitrary games if you can. I'm switching over to ESPN 8 to catch some dodgeball.

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