Monday, August 13, 2012

Dilemma: Sequins In Sport

Faster. Higher. Stronger.

Without hesitation or modesty, I confess that I am one of the world's least sportiest people. Having said that, I believe I have potential as a world-class spectator; probably not a Gold Medallist in UnAthletics, but in the newest Australian tradition, I'd be a good shot at Silver or Bronze. In the Post-Modern Pent-Spectatathon, I excel at Couch, Food, Armchair Opinions (Uninformed Category), Instant Expertise and Recreational Napping.

In any case, after a solid fortnight of watching the London Olympics, I have a simple question: If it requires sequins, is it still sport?

More specifically, what is Olympic Sport? Many sports have come and gone from Olympic competition since 1896. What is the criteria? What should it be? Are we, the Olympic-viewing public of more than 200 countries that compete, happy with the selection of sports the IOC serves up?

I think most of us are satisfied most of the time, particularly as regards the core Olympic sports: Track & Field, Swimming, Artistic Gymnastics, Diving, Equestrian, Cycling, Weightlifting, Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling. The team sports are all over the place: there are some professional athletes (Basketball, Tennis, Soccer) but mostly amateurs (Volleyball badminton, table tennis, handball, water polo, beach volleyball). Don't forget the target sports: shooting and archery, the martial arts: TaeKwonDo and Judo, the regattas: rowing, sailing, canoe and kayak.

I accept that every one of these sports is a genuine sport; whether they should be included as Olympic Sports is an entirely different question, which we'll get to later.

And then there's Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics: The Sequin Sports. I'm not convinced that anything requiring sequins and theatrical makeup is a sport. I also have reservations about competitions that are judged by people rather scored by an objective measurement of faster, higher, stronger. We've seen examples in winter skating sports of how this can be open to corruption, or how judging criteria can be interpreted differently.

So why am I picking on Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics, when Artistic Gymnastics, Diving and even Trampolining are judged rather than measured? There's no doubt that the Sequin Sports involve extraordinary fitness, strength and co-ordination, comparable to that of an Olympic Athlete. I don't question the dedication of the competitors, either. So why do the Sequin Sports feel out of place, when I accept Artistic Gymnastics, Diving and even Trampolining with far more comfort?

Artistic Gymnastics was included in the first Modern Olympic Games. It's earned it's place. Trampolining is a great spectator-friendly addition, although I'm not sure it's a sport all by itself. Why not include the trampoline as another Gymnastics apparatus, alongside the floor, the beam, the horse, the rings, and the uneven bars?

Diving is similar, with over a century of Olympic inclusion, and standards that continue to stretch the sport.

Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics were both introduced as Olympic sports in 1984, and are relatively new as recognised sports, even outside the Olympic sphere. Being "new" is not reason enough to exclude them though.

A line needs to exist that separates sport from entertainment. No, I'm not invoking the slippery-slope argument; one isn't "better" than the other, and Olympism (which I hesitate to consider a word) is not sinking into populist mass entertainment. I don't know how popular Rhythmic Gymnastics is with the general public, but I do know that Synchronised Swimming is one of the most mocked activities around. Despite their magnificent athleticism, there's an image, a focus on appearance that seems false. It can be mesmerising to watch, but I'm still not convinced it's Olympic inclusion is justified.

There's a fuzzy area in the middle between pure sport and pure entertainment where these judged sports exist. My preference to draw the line at the sports side, and omit anything that requires sequins.

The IOC is like any other government, and is vulnerable to lobbying, although they require that in order for a sport to be considered, it must be played in 75 countries across 4 contiments. Being an Olympic sport is the ultimate recognition for a sporting body. Other sports have come and gone: baseball and softball are no longer Olympic sports, neither is Rugby Union, although it will be contested in Rio in 2016.

Tennis was played in 1896, then dropped when tennis players became professionals during a time when Olympic competitors had to be amateurs, but was reintroduced as a fully fledged Olympic Sport in 1992, where professional tennis stars get to compete for medals rather than millions. In 2016, Golf will be played as an Olympic sport, taking the total number of Olympic sports played in Rio to 28.

The list of Discontinued Olympic sports and Demonstration Sports is fascinating, ranging from Angling to Motorsport to Hot Air Ballooning and Kite Flying to Polo and Tug of War. Add to these a list of sports which are recognised by the IOC, but which are not Olympic sports: these include Orienteering, Dance Sport, Cricket and Chess.

None of this answers the original question though: why are Sequin Sports included in the Olympics? The answer is, believe it or not, to promote gender equality in Olympic Competition. In the 60s and 70s, the height of Womens Lib, more men were competing than women. Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics are the only two sports that are not open to male competitors, although some men do compete in both of these sports, just not at the Olympics. Sequins Sports are there to even up the numbers.

While I encourage women who aren't as wedded to their couch-life as I am to get involved, sports that are women-only don't sound like they should be in the same sentence as the word "equality", and the image those competitors portray doesn't do the cause of equality much good either.

It's time for the IOC to re-evaluate the competitor gender ratio, and consider whether Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics are the best way to promote equality.

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