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The media loves Olympic “sports”

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 31, 2012 03:16 PM

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My sister, whose young daughter is already an accomplished gymnast, is going to give me an earful when she reads this, but here goes: Is gymnastics really a sport? Or is it a “sport?”

The American Heritage Dictionary (the best dictionary in the U.S.; if you don’t have one, get one) defines sport thus: “Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively.”

A bar bet that you can put a stack of quarters on your elbow, snap your elbow forward and — whoa, look at that! — catch all the quarters fits comfortably into the AHD’s definition, so I guess it’s a sport.

My definition of a “sport” is a bit different: Scoring must be objective, not subjective.

I posted that opinion on Facebook yesterday and an old friend replied, “You just want all of life to be a 1972 CYO dance with a live band, Mark.”

Hey, Bill, this isn’t about nostalgia, this is about Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger. Nothing in there about getting more points from the South Korean judge.

Sport is simple. “Hey, you guys, see that tree over there? I bet I can beat you to that tree.” Or relaxing in a hotel pool with your wife, who was a competitive swimmer when she was a girl, and saying, “Race you to the other end,” and barely managing to swim a third of the length of the pool before she touches the other end and laughs at you.

Point your browser to Google and you’ll see today’s Google Doodle honoring Olympic artistic gymnastics. Perhaps the Google folks will do one when the Olympics gets to its rhythmic gymnastics events. Or maybe for Olympic trampoline.

I’m sure artistic gymnastics requires strength, conditioning, flexibility, concentration and grace. But so does dancing. Ballet dancers are great athletes, but no one calls ballet a sport.

Which leads me — and here I apologize in advance to my sister, her daughter, and her family — to gymnastics. I just can’t see it as a sport, and it’s because of the judges. It requires (to repeat) strength, conditioning, flexibility, concentration and grace in large quantities, and then it requires some folks to write down a number.

The same thing happens in synchronized diving. Synchronized diving in an Olympic sport. Really.

I’ve been reading a lot of bad-mouthing of badminton on Twitter, but I’m perfectly willing to accept badminton as a sport. It’s got umpires, sure (or whatever the call them in badminton), but not judges. The players do the scoring.

Same with beach volleyball, although for the life of me I can't figure out why Olympic beach volleyball isn’t played at, you know, the beach. I am told England has some lovely beaches.

Don’t expect to see much coverage of field hockey or team handball — sports! — on NBC in prime time or in the papers or on American news websites. Expect to see hours of artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and however much synchronized diving (oh, and synchronized swimming) is left in these Olympics.

The judged sports are individual sports, and there is nothing the media likes more than enchanting stories about an individual’s perseverance and loving parents. The coverage can get pretty sappy — you can check sappiness level by consulting the rigorously scientific London Olympics Sap-O-Meter at Slate.com

One last thing: Yes, NBC’s tape delay of Olympic events is irritating, but what did you expect? Televised sports is entertainment, not journalism. NBC-Universal’s only goal is to make as much money as it can, and its executives believes that requires tape-delayed prime-time broadcasts. In this case, the judges are the accountants.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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