Judged sports

I don’t write a lot about sports here, but the fact of the matter is, I’m a sports nut. My favorite is the most politically incorrect sport of all: football. I just love watching steroid-laden bullies smack each other’s brains out. While intellectually I understand that colleges, high schools, and to a lesser extent, pro teams exploit young men by offering them scant rewards for turning their bodies into drug-fueled destruction machines while giving them none of the tools they’ll need to have a decent life when their bodies inevitably give out, I just can’t help watching it.

But that’s not what this post is about. No, what I’m talking about here is the rants that inevitably pop up during every Olympics cycle, about the superiority of “real” sports compared to those poseurs: ice dancing, snowboard half pipe and their ilk. Any sport where a judge decides on a winner, the purists complain, isn’t a real sport at all. The only real sports are those where the winners are objectively measured.

The problem with the “purist” argument is that no sport qualifies. Let’s take a look at events of the winter Olympics. If we’re taking the purist perspective, all judged sports are out: that takes care of all the figure skating, freestyle skiing, and the snowboard halfpipe. But you also have to eliminate ski jumping, since jumpers are rated not just on distance but also form. You also lose nordic combined, since ski jumping is a component.

That leaves alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsled, cross-country skiing, curling, ice hockey, luge, short track, skeleton, the snowboard racing events, and speed skating.

Hockey and curling are games, and you have to have judges to make sure the rules of the games are followed. Was that check legal? Was the skater in the crease? Was the stick too high? All those are judgement calls. I don’t know as much about curling, but I imagine officials must make similar judgements about whether the big heavy thing was pushed the right way, or the broom-sweeping was proper. So purists would have to remove hockey and curling.

Now let’s talk about human-powered racing events: cross-country skiing, biathlon, short track, and speed skating. Besides the obvious issues of drug use and doping — clear judgement calls, you also have rules in cross country about which style of skiing is legal, what the proper equipment is, whether a racer has cut the corners of the course, whether a racer interfered with another racer, all judgement calls. In short track, sometimes it’s okay to contact the other skaters, and other times it’s not. In speed skating, just a few days ago I saw a racer eliminated for a “false start” that seemed to me more like starter error.

Then there are the events where you slide down some sort of hill on some kind of apparatus: Bobsled, skeleton, luge, alpine skiing, snowboard cross, and snowboard giant slalom. All of these feature one huge variable: the course. Sometimes the bobsled track is snowy, sometimes icy, sometimes soft, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shade. Every time a racer heads down the track, it’s a little different. Is it fair for racers to be timed on what effectively is a different course for each competitor? The same holds true for all these events except snowboard cross, where the racers compete directly against each other. Not only that, but there are rules about equipment. Bobsleds have regulations for runners, weight, and types of controls. Change the rules, and you may change the winner. In skiing, races are sometimes cancelled because of weather conditions. If one racer is better skiing on windy days, should she be punished because others believe it’s “too dangerous”?

Finally, we come to the doozies: figure skating, snowboard half-pipe, and freestyle skiing. These are the events that are most commonly criticized, because judging directly determines the winner. Now admittedly, there have been many, many controversies, especially in figure skating judging. But haven’t many athletes been banned or stripped of their medals because of “doping”? You can’t argue that figure skating is a unique source of controversy, you have to look at the judging system. What other sport has so many officials evaluating the very same competitor? Even football, with 7 officials, has one head official who can overrule the others.

Now, with the rules requiring 10 judges, plus a technical expert determining the difficulty of each move, it’s difficult to argue that the judging system is a fatal flaw of figure skating. Just last night, I watched the ice dancing competition, when pair after pair crashed in an effort to maximize their scores under the rigorous new scoring system. Clearly the system was encouraging these skaters to compete at the absolute edge of their abilities in order to demonstrate who truly was the best.

This isn’t to say that figure skating is a perfect sport, just that all sports are flawed, and football fans least of all (especially given the abysmal display of officiating ineptitude at the last Super Bowl) should be the ones pointing fingers.

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