As the Olympics have flooded our screens this week, the usual armchair critics are out in force, arguing that some sports simply don’t merit inclusion in the Games.
In the past few days, I’ve seen people saying equestrian sports surely aren’t a measure of human athleticism; that skateboarding is a hobby, not a sport; and that sailing is more about the equipment than the skill of the athlete.
Putting aside the fact that, unless you’ve actually attempted it, you have absolutely no genuine idea of how ‘athletic’ any of these pursuits are in comparison to others, the idea at the crux of these arguments is inherently flawed. The notion that the Olympics are there to reward the pinnacle of human talent and athleticism is defined and demonstrated in some sports more purely than others.
This thinking seems predicated on the idea that everyone starts from the same base level of potential and that our achievement in any of these pursuits is therefore based on our grit, determination, training and dedication. Therefore, if a sport requires an animal (equestrian), or a fancy piece of equipment (sailing), or just doesn’t fit in with the specific vision of training and athleticism that we have thus far favoured (skateboarding), it’s not Olympics-worthy.
But the reality is, all sports are based on inequality and subjectivity, and that’s the case whether they’ve been included in the Olympics lineup since Ancient Greece or if they’ve made the cut more recently. There are objective factors that feed into our abilities to excel in any sport – our physical build, access to nutrition, and opportunity to participate are the obvious ones.
If you don’t have access to a pool to train in, can you ever become an elite swimmer? If you’re not tall or light enough, can you ever be a truly competitive track athlete? If you don’t live near a large body of water, can you ever learn to sail with the technical proficiency needed for the Olympic level?
But more importantly, does it actually matter whether or not armchair critics consider a sport to be ‘hard enough’ for the Olympics? The reality is, those who play the sport in question know better than any what the challenges and opportunities in the discipline are. For many, they are embedded in the training required and invisible when it comes to the final competition.
For example, I was watching the fencing the other day, and all I could see were two people bopping up and down on their legs and waggling the foils (fancy fencing word for sword). But I have no doubt that a lot was going on in each minute movement that was relevant and specific to the sport, and that took years of dedication to really learn how to do at the elite level.
Similarly, while it seems like every person and their dog has an opinion now on the dressage, equestrians like myself can confirm the immense amount of physical strength, fitness and skill required to sit on a moving 700 kg animal and look like you’re doing nothing while actually delivering a Grand Prix test. Is the horse as much of an athlete as the rider? Yes, of course, even more so! But that doesn’t mean that any person could get on a talented horse and produce even close to the same results.
It’s fair to say that what we view at the Games results from hours and years of practice, learning and commitment, and not a clear representation of the level of effort that each and every athlete has had to demonstrate to qualify for the very height of competition.
While people seem determined to ruin the small measure of enjoyment to be gleaned from the Olympics during this otherwise tumultuous global period of uncertainty, I would like to propose that we stop pretending that there is some absolute definition of what makes a sport worthy of the Olympics, and accept that there is a layer of subjectivity that applies to all disciplines that can’t be compared meaningfully to any other sport.
In reality, there is so much to celebrate about the Games, regardless of whether you deem a discipline to be difficult or daring enough to meet your expectations.
For me, just watching the immensity of human resilience, determination and capability, and the astounding abilities that our bodies have to command and excel across such a massive range of sports is enough to keep me glued to the screen for the next few weeks.