Olympics: Board games or real sports?

The variety of sports on show is what make an Olympics special, but John Roycroft questions the sporting validation of some of the newly introduced sports to the Games
Olympics: Board games or real sports?

Philippines' Margielyn Didal falls during the Women's Street Final at the Ariake Urban Sports Park on the third day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

WHILE the thrilling events along the rowing course understandably gathered the majority of our attention, some of the less recognised or acknowledged sports of the Olympics quietly went about their business.

Despite being the melting pot of eclectic international sports, the Olympics really strives on the success of core sports. This is loosely acknowledged by the IOC at 25 sports but more realistically is dominated by the swimming on week one and track and field in the subsequent weeks. Indeed, some would argue the Olympics doesn't really start at all until events on the track kick on.

Nevertheless, one of the attractions of an Olympics is experiencing and viewing sports that you will unlikely watch again for another four years. As part of this, new sports are added and dropped as with the popularity and recognition of a sport ebbs and flows.

Also, Olympics often like to include demonstration sports to run alongside the main Games. These give unheralded sports the type of profile they could normally only dream about.

These demonstration sports have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and have included ballooning, pigeon-racing, and cannon-shooting in 1900 (hopefully not at the same venue). Gaelic football and hurling in 1904. "Children's games" in 1924, and Finnish baseball in 1952.

And best of all, duelling, (yes with guns) in the 1908 London Olympics, and gliding (in a plane) at the Berlin 1936 Olympics. I don't know how you'd referee that either.

Karate competitors in action ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games where it makes its Olympic debut this year. Picture: Ian Walton/PA Wire.
Karate competitors in action ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games where it makes its Olympic debut this year. Picture: Ian Walton/PA Wire.

I mention these demonstration sports, as they are to me, no more obscure or irrational than many of the six new official core sports added to the full Olympic programme this year. The six new sports are baseball, softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate, and sport climbing.

Baseball and softball are returning Olympic sports after a 12-year absence, and are clear and well-developed team sport played in a fair few countries.

Karate was a demonstration sport back in the first Tokyo games of 1964 and it seems strange that a sport with such a proliferation around the world has not made the full Olympic roster till now.

Sports climbing will be on next week with three forms of the sport been competed in at Tokyo.

Speed climbing, Lead climbing, and Bouldering, which essentially mean getting to the top as fast as possible with or without ropes depending on the variant of the climb. And while climbing is rather obscure, it at least has the advantage of being a sport with a clear and obvious winner.

After watching the surfing and skateboarding competitions this week I have to say, while visually stimulating, there is no way I as a sports fan and casual viewer of these sports could determine the winner in either.

Now I don't want to take away anything from these competitive athletes. The skills and fitness involved is clear and beyond anything I can dream of.

The surfing venue was an astounding backdrop but there was no way I could determine who was a winner and who came second. Now, this is down to the ignorance in my knowledge of the sport but it's fair to say a big part of the scoring is down to subjective decisions made by judges that are sometimes hard to differentiate for the casual observer and even to experts if you listen to pundits in the sport.

This disparity in knowledge is greater in skateboarding it seems. So often I would see a competitor perform what seems like the exact same trick of sliding down a rail and one gets a 9.3 while the other gets a 6.3. As with surfing, apart from falling off entirely, there seems little by way of differentiating a good run from a great run, apart from the views of the judge.

Brazil's Gabriel Medina crashes on a wave during the bronze medal heat of the men's surfing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Tsurigasaki beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. Picture: AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Brazil's Gabriel Medina crashes on a wave during the bronze medal heat of the men's surfing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Tsurigasaki beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. Picture: AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Judging

This is a problem I have with a wide range of sports, figure skating synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, snow-boarding, and trampolining are all visually striking and skilful sports but for the life of me, I cannot clearly tell who is the winner. The same with diving. Stunning to watch but with a totally incomprehensible scoring system that apart from making an overly 'splashy' entry to water seems the exact same for each competitor.

As I said, this is down to my own ignorance of these sports but if it is not obvious to anyone who the winner is, then I question its sporting attributes.

Skateboarding doesn't help in that many of the participants competed with AirPods in their ears and phones in their pockets, all the while dressed in a baggy tee and jeans. I'm conservative in this respect, I like to think a sport requires a change of clothes from what you walked in off the street. Ok, you can wear your golf gear outside of the course, but you shouldn't.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not important, best of luck to skateboarding and surfing in the Olympics but it does make my desire to see duelling return all the more pressing.

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