Friday, July 16, 2004

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Math is not a sport

Jordan Ellenberg has a Slate column on whether math should be considered a sport.

Sounds preposterous? Ellenberg points out that in 1997, then-president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch declared, "Bridge is a sport, and as such your place is here, like all other sports." Chess was an exhibition sport at the Sydney games. There is such a thing as the International Mathematical Olympiad. Why not math?

This got me to thinking about George Carlin's philosophy about sports. There's the classic riff on the differences between baseball and football and the underrated follow-on about why other "sports" are not really sports in Playin' With Your Head. Which made me realize that Ellenberg is only able to engage in this debate because a lot of activities that count as sports really are not (to be fair, he comes to the same conclusion by the end of the article).

What really stood out, however, was this passage from Ellenberg's essay:

In my high school you could letter in [math].... Not that you'd mistake these kids for the campus jocks—when I competed at the Olympiad, there were plenty of skinny eccentrics, with a promiscuous hippie here and there, and not a little subclinical autism spectrum. But the math stars display the focused confidence of athletes, even, at times, adopting Deion-style swagger. Honesty compels me to confess that my high-school math team was called the "Hell's Angles"; that we wore matching black T-shirts advertising this fact; and that we entered each match in file behind our captain, who carried on his shoulder a boombox playing "Hip To Be Square."

Honesty compels me to confess that:

1) I was on the math team at my high school -- In fact, I was the captain my senior year;

2) None of us ever exhibited any kind of "Deion-like swagger."

3) If I had somehow convinced my teammates to wear black shirts saying "Hell's Angels," ten minutes later I would have found my entire team in the nurse's office after they got the crap kicked out of them. [Ellenberg's shirt said "Hell's Angles"--ed. Replace "ten minutes" with "fifteen minutes."]

To be fair to Ellenberg, he had reason for swagger -- I recall running into the Montgomery County math wizards when I qualified for the American Regions Math League contest, and they were the best of the best. [Oh, sure you remember this -- any confirming evidence?--ed. God bless the World Wide Web -- someone actually posted the results of the 1985 competition, of which I was a participant. Sure enough Montgomery County won that year -- my team (Connecticut A) finished a respectible eighth.]

UPDATE: Another blogger responds to Ellenberg: "[A]s a former mathlete, i say, 'hell no! i'm not a jock! stop calling me a jock! if you don't stop insinuating that i'm a jock, your firewall's gonna be so full of java that your ROMs will overload!'"

posted by Dan on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM


It's my contention that these activities (math, chess, etc.) are sports, yet the participants are not atheletes.

Also, at my high school, not only could you letter in math, mock trial and chess, but you could letter in academics if you were in the top 10% of your class.

posted by: bg on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

If I had somehow convinced my teammates to wear black shirts saying "Hell's Angels," ten minutes later I would have found my entire team in the nurse's office after they got the crap kicked out of them.

Probably so, but if you had instead had the T-Shirts say "Hell's Angles", as did Ellenberg's team, you probably would have only been razzed to death.

posted by: frankly0 on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Dan says he was on the "Connecticut A" math team but the link to "my high school" is to Avon High of Avon, OHIO! Is this some kind of Valerie Palme coverup? "Daniel Drezner" - if that is your real name! Can anyone vouch for the fact that DD even went to High School?

posted by: Drezner: The High School Years on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Arrggh -- fixed now.

posted by: "Daniel Drezner" on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

I'm waiting for Jay Drezner to weigh in with some dirt on Dan's high school years. Preferably with photos.

posted by: Independent George on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

I will now throw down the pedantry and remind Dan that ARML, when he and I competed in it, stood for Atlantic Region Mathematics League.

Ah, the glory of 1985... good times. I believe I still have my royal blue vinyl Montgomery County Math Team jacket with the hypercube on the back and my name stitched on the front.

posted by: J. Ellenberg on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

I wonder if getting the crap kicked out of you for being a nerd was more common then than now. In my highschool era of '67-'71 it was the era of attempted monoculture of coolness in teens. There had been jocks, hoods, and brains. With the addition of the freaks the culture began to coalesce: everyone majored in being a teenager and minored in one or two of the subcultures. Because math geeks got pummeled, math teams disappeared. (We still secretly competed in the yearly MAA exams, but they just took the top three scores and totalled them. Not really competition.)

My Gen X son and his friends identified nothing uncool about being one of the kids on math team. Kids who weren't interested just shrugged. My Gen Y sons have found actual support and compliments from non-math students. It's a different culture.

I would have loved to have swaggered, if someone had given me half a chance.

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

My town had two public highschools. One had about 1,400 kids and the other, mine, had about 750. Our cross-town rivalry in sports wasn't much of a rivalry. They would crush us in football every year and when basketball season roled around they would crush us again and the crowd would chant "football rejects" during the game. It became tradition. However, when the confrence math championships came around they finished second and we took the top spot. On the bus ride home (we shared a bus with them because math teams are small and we were from the same town) we chanted "math team rejects" most of the way. Our teacher made us write apology letters later.

posted by: Danny Noonan on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

I think it ought to be, if only because we really should encourage our culture into valuing mental ability more than physical ability. It's the smart people that oughtta be making all the important decisions.

Of course, I recall being on our school's MATHCOUNTS team, so I'm probably a little bit biased.

posted by: fling93 on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Holy cow. I just took the autism spectrum test DD linked in this post and I scored a 42. That's higher than any female in the study. No wonder I'm at work doing technical stuff and compulsively cramming info into my head on a friday night. argh.

posted by: Mary C. on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

“when I competed at the Olympiad, there were plenty of skinny eccentrics, with a promiscuous hippie here and there”

I’m a warped human being who could care less about somebody knowing that 2+2 might equal 4. The only thing that gets my attention is the sleazy sex stuff. I want to learn more about the promiscuous hippies. Please provide names and and salacious details. Was there a special Playboy edition?

posted by: David Thomson on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Today on my lunch break at work I was accosted by poker 'activists' shouting about the need to include poker in the Olympics and handing me a flyer for this site - I mean, it's not really serious, but then again, it IS on ESPN, you know, the *sports* network. Poker = BIG and AWESOME!

posted by: John Atkinson on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Actually, I spent time both on the football team (four years: frosh, JV, 2 yrs varsity) _and_ one year (junior) on the math team. (Time-space frame: Grossmont High School, east San Diego county, 1967-71.) I did letter in football my senior year, but only because our team went all the way to the San Diego CIF championship game, and Coach Roberts promised that _everyone_ would letter if that happened. I was a perennial 2nd string weak-side offensive lineman (and small for my position).

On the other hand, I did win the "Highest GPA on the football team" award my senior year. And no one beat me up for being on the math team (or in the choir, or on the speech team...)

True story: the year I was on the math team, all five members of the team were male, white, myopic, and left-handed. And you wonder where nerd stereotypes come from....

posted by: Bruce Webster on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

i'm pretty sure there were no athletes on my mathletes team... no, one girl played tennis, but i'm pretty sure she was the only one who wasn't a hardcore nerd. most of the math team was also in the science club. i chose to avoid the science club like the plague, b/c all they actually did was clean the animal cages in the biology room.

posted by: clara on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Howard Wall, an economist now at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis commented during 1988 that Track and Field should not be an event at the Seoul Olympics. His definition of a sport was that a participant had to be able to interfere with the performance of an opposing participant. So, we all joked that sprinting would be a sport if they could hit each other with sticks. By this definition math isn't a sport either, unless spitballs are allowed.

P.S. I was on the math team in high school too, and we actually tried very hard to get our principal to come to a meet, but it was a no go.

posted by: David Tufte on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

Is this love of jocks vs nerds a peculiarly Anglo-Western issue?

While smart kids are dweebier than usual everywhere in the universe, I would wager -- based on extremely limited observations abroad -- that the high school valedictorian is a lot more of a chick magnet for status seeking girls in Asia than the typical sports star. They know the jock is hunkier but they also know quite early on which one is likely to get the big stock options.

posted by: jj on 07.16.04 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

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