Wednesday, August 25, 2004
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Josh Elliott beats me to the rant
Josh Elliott posts a fine rant in Sports Illustrated's blog about the Olympics that echoes my own thoughts on the matter:
One could argue that there is some degree of subjective judgment in any sport -- umpires calling balls and strikes, officials determining if a runner jumped the gun, etc. However, it is exceedingly rare for the subjective elements in these sports to overwhelm the objective components. In gymnastics or ice skating, the entire competition is based on subjective judgments.
This doesn't mean that judged competitions aren't exciting. Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence -- but they're not sports.
I fully recognize that this will never happen, but that doesn't change the fact that Elliott is right.
UPDATE: Hmmm.... I'm not sure Laura McKenna would approve.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias and Belle Waring weigh in with some counterarguments. Belle is misinterpreting my post in think that I was laying out a necessary and suifficient condition for an activity to be labeled a sport -- I was just articulating a necessary condition.
Matt raises an interesting point:
I'll confess one source of bias that went unmentioned in my original post: it could also be that the Olympic sports I consider to be dubious require musical accompaniment.posted by Dan on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM
Agree 100% This has bugged me for years.
I have always wondered how athletes in such pursuits can spend so much time and effort to subject themselves to competitions in which the outcome is determined by how someone else THINKS you did.posted by: bk on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Absolutely right and why I don't watch them (unless my wife makes me).
I've said the same thing for years to the (mostly) women in my life. In return I receive looks that alternate between condescending sympathy and disgust.posted by: steve on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Word.posted by: brett on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Did the original Olympics have subjective sports (like gymnastics and ice-skating)?
I can see the distinction between "sport" as comparative effort between persons or teams, and "sport" as a solo display of [some kind of] athletic ability, and I'm not convinced that we should abandon the second.
Perhaps the only reasonable solution is to film the event (gymnastics, for example) in high-resolution, high frame rate, multiple viewpoint cameras, then have the judges (all past medal winners) go through the file frame by frame, and at each point discuss the merits of the move.
This could easily take 2 or 3 weeks - they'd have to go through it all at least twice - to see how competitor #6 compared to #1, and now let's see how all 8 people did at movement #5.
Luckily, there are 4 years between Olympics, so we'd have a good chance of finding out how this one turned out before the next one starts.
The Olympics are this year?posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Boxing stays as long as it goes to a "last man standing wins" format.posted by: Ed on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I'm by no means a computer whiz, but it seems possible to program a computer to score any of these subjective events. Sure the programming would be subjective, but if the same program is used for everybody (and every competition) it would be decidedly more objective than some wacky judges.posted by: Jeff on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
"Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence -- but they're not sports."
Oh, they're sports.
They're just qualitative sports, not quantitative sports, where the winner is determined by a time, or a height, or a distance.
I actually watched some of the men's gymnastic competition, in particular the Rings. For the life of me I could not figure out who was the best, or even what the difference was from one routine to the next. There are experts who assuredly can make judgements on this exercise, but it just seems so totally subjective.posted by: paul on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
posted by: Jon H on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I've yet to see an inter-rater reliability score for the judges of gymnastics and skating, but I bet it's much higher than you think. Please point me to any such analysis if you know of one. What really bugs me is that the judges are not blinded to the nationality of the athlete being rated; I know it would be impossible to do completely, but it would do nothing but improve reliability.
Moreover, I think lots of sports would gain a bit from the introduction of subjectivity where a hard-earned goal/run/touchdown being worth more points than a lucky or easy goal/run/touchdown. I've watched many a game of "objective" sport (baseball in particular) where the obviously better team lost by a nose.posted by: brent on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
paul writes: "There are experts who assuredly can make judgements on this exercise, but it just seems so totally subjective."
If it were highly objective, I'd think there'd be more variation among the scores than there seems to be. If all of the judges are giving similar scores, then they're probably noting the same flaws in performance, and just weighting them somewhat differently.
Trampolining is a fine, fine sport that belongs in the Olympics.posted by: praktike on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I wish (wishI -?) there was more of a distinction between sports and athletics (not limited to track & field). For me, the sheer physical effort of running, jumping, swimming - places these activities in a level above auto racing, target shooting, equestrian events, etc.
I acknowledge the skill required for either group, but prize the physical demands of individual athleticism.posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
The problem with gymnastics is largely one of corruption. There have always been deals of the "I'll give your country's athlete a good score if you'll do the same for mine."
Figure skating has finally addressed these problems by having different judges grade different parts of the routine and by using a random selection that prevents judges from knowing whether or not their score will count for a particular athlete. Gymnastics needs to do something similar to fix their judging atrocities.
There will always be judging controversies in any subjectively judged sport, but honest judging would remove most of the problems.posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
If you couple that with another call made recently (that I applaud) to drop any sport for which Olympic gold isn't the pinnacle of success (think basketball and tennis, for instance), it'll sure make holding the Games much more affordable!
2008 Olympics - 5 days in Ottumwa, Iowa!posted by: Tony Plutonium on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
People who aren't familiar with a subject typically fail to appreciate its finer points.
How many people have told me "classical music all sounds the same to me"???
Whereas country music does "sound all the same" to me. Ditto rap.
I'm sure that people in Drezner's field can evaluate whether his latest paper is good or not, whereas the guy on the street (or me, for that matter) would be clueless.
So let's not just assume that people who *know* gymnastics can't readily distinguish a 9.8 performance from a 9.9.posted by: Anderson on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
A thought wanders in as I read these comments:
The calling of balls and strikes in baseball is subjective.
Discuss.posted by: steve on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Boxing, TaeKwanDo, Greco-Roman wrestling, phooey. Since we're in Athens and all into authenticity, we should go back to the ancient, honorably discipline of Pankration - tr. "All-Fighting."
Yeah, I'm saying replace the existing events with a single Olympic Ultimate Fighting competition. Do it for History.posted by: Jim Henley on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
This doesn't mean that judged competitions aren't exciting. Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence -- but they're not sports.
Jon H is correct in his critique of this statement. They are sports, they are just not sports that are judged in a sufficiently objective manner. Accordingly, I agree with the conclusion that they should not be Olympic sports.
I think that any athletic competition that can be determined by the physical ability of the competitor can properly be called a "sport". The only issue is what events are worthy of being deemed Olympic events. And sports that cannot be judged in a sufficiently objective manner should simply not be so deemed to be Olympic sports.
Heh. I was talking with my wife just last night about some of the strange events they have at the Olympics, and I told her about "trampoline". She refused to believe that there would be such an event. I finally had to show her the TiVo of Saturday morning's Olympics, with the trampoline prelims (I taped it for the basketball, OK?). It was really quite hilarious.posted by: Al on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I blogged on this aspect a while ago, linking to Dan's "Ultimate" article, and made the distinction between "hard" and "soft" sports and that the market demands the softer sports and we'll be seeing more of them, especially DanceSport, which to the Summer Olympics will be what Figure Skating is to the Winter Olympics.
Here's your choice:
Hard sports will be ideologically pure and stink in the ratings game. Who watches archery these days?
Soft sports will make true sports fans spit in disgust but huge demographic segments will be drawn to the broadcasts and the Olympics will be a financial "entertainment" success. It's not about "sports" anymore.
PS. Photos included, bikini clad beach volleyball too :)
Let me add one thing, though. It is true that we've had major Olympic controversies lately in the "judged" sports: Paul Hamm's medal and the figure skating controversy 2 years ago between the 2 Canadians and the 2 Russian.
HOWEVER, limiting the Olympics to events that are determined by times or by goals would CERTAINLY NOT preclude the type of controversies we've seen with Hamm and with the skaters. All you have to do is think about Apollo Ohno's controversial short-track speed skating medal in Salt Lake, or the 1972 basketball finals with the USSR.
So would we be limiting the amount of controversy involved with the Olympics by eliminating the judged sports? I'm not convinced. Nonetheless, it seems to me fairer to only have sports judged in a relatively objective manner.posted by: Al on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
The practical problem the Olympics face is that they are now so large that no city can afford to host them if it is not prepared to mortgage its future.
Atlanta could do that, as could Sydney last time, because they were both rapidly growing cities with booming economies. Athens could do it this year because Greek national pride overwhelmed common sense, and Beijing can do it next time because it is run by a dictatorship with lots of money. After that, the Olympics really need to shed sports for their own good.
Gymnastics to me are like air shows -- they involve a lot of waiting around in hopes of seeing a few seconds of something spectacular. Diving is like that as well. Rhythmic gymnastics is like an air show with all the planes grounded. Plus there is all the emotion, and the passion and weeping and general carrying on that is so important to get women who are only casual sports fans to join the American television audience. Myself, I like to see athletes display a little more dignity, but since a lot of gymnasts and divers are years from completing high school that's asking a lot.
So popular sports are not likely to get cut, especially if they are sports the Chinese are good at. I like baseball, but short series in baseball are traditionally held to test teams that have proven their worthiness over the course of a long season. Olympic baseball can't do that, so it's out. Softball, out. Anything requiring a velodrome that will instantly turn to mothballs as soon as the Games end, out. Women's wrestling? Please. And how many different boxing weight classes and different types of sailing vessels do there really need to be, anyway?
Now, my pet idea is to move the Olympic marathon from the Summer to the Winter Games. I've run distances in 90 degree heat and 20 degree cold, and I can tell you the latter is a lot more fun. But enough about that. I want to end this post with a complaint about the television coverage here in the States.
It's great that NBC is showing many sports on its cable channels, including some live. But it hogs all of prime time for itself, and devotes most of it to the chick sports. Also the commercials, every three minutes or so. Couldn't NBC show some of the less popular but much more entertaining sports in prime time on cable? How much revenue could this possibly cost, compared to what it loses now with all the people who don't like gymnastics watching the Braves on Turner South?posted by: Zathras on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I posted about this too back on the 17th when Dan first brought up ultimate frisbee.
Take the politics and the voting and the judges out. Racing go-karts probably takes less than half the athletic talent that most gymnastics require, but I'd rather see a competition where there's an actual winner as opposed to one that requires a vote to decide who's the "best".posted by: Peter on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Jim: the Hellenic games included three codes of wrestling (standing wrestling, ground grappling and the pankration) which roughly correspond to judo, Graeco-Roman wrestling and UFC (holds below the hips were never allowed in Greek wrestling IIRC).posted by: dsquared on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I started moving toward the "if it can't be measured with a stopwatch or a tape measure, it doesn't belong in the Olympics" view back in the 1970s, when I saw an American couple get bad grades in an ice-skating pairs competition based on the Russian judge not liking their choice of music.
Subjective sports are like the subjective dog breeds approved by the AKC so that more society matrons would have the opportunity to win at dog shows, such as the black, parti-colored, and ASCOB (Any Solid Color Other than Black) varieties of cocker spaniel.posted by: wheels on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
When you're done cleaning up the Olympics can you do something about all the Poker on ESPN? What's with that and why is it on ESPN?
As for what's sports and what's not sports? I think the previous posts hit it on the nose. Some sports are qualitative and others are quantitative.
I for one can certainly appreciate the level of talent and training required to reach Olympic calibre in gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. Those activities are certainly interesting and exciting enough to watch and they have big followings. If not the Olympics where should those events occur? Surely the Olympics are the place for athletic achievement at the highest level.
Some sports I really don't think merit Olympic status are ones such as shooting, archery, and curling. If eye-hand coordination makes something a sport why not have shuffleboard and Nintendo in the Olympics too? I also don't think the equestrian events have a place in the Olympics as they're more about the horse than the athlete. If we're going to have riding in the Olympics at least make it about the riding rather than the horse. Put in some rodeo events. Bull riding is a lot more athletic than dressage.
Finally, I don't think the Olympics should bother to include any sport that isn't willing to make the Olympics the premier showcase for that sport. Cut Basketball, Baseball, Tennis, Soccer, Hockey, and Boxing for starters. If those sports aren't going to take the Olympics seriously, why waste the time and money making them Olympic events? Think how much money Greece would have saved by eliminating those sports.posted by: Kent on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Well, if we also exclude everything with referees and compliance judges, we're pretty much left with zip.
That's a funny thing about extremism.posted by: Bryan Price on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
The judged competitions are certainly athletic events - the argument about whether they should be called "sports" or not seems to be a waste of time (because they aren't going anywhere).
What should be done, though, is "judging reform" - increasing the panel of judges & randomly select the scores which will be included in determining an athlete's marks would go a long way toward reducing the incentive to cheat. And perhaps judges should be dropped from the panel for competitors from their own nation.
If you had, say, 30 judges, randomly (by computer) selected the marks of 10 of them as "official" & then tossed the high and the low & averaged the rest, you'd make it far more difficult to cheat.posted by: BradDad on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
The pankration would be amazing! For those who don't know, it was basically a big wrestling free-for-all (I'm afraid I don't know the details on what, if any, holds were barred). I heard a story from a Classics professor once about a particular pankration that had gotten down to the last two contestants; one guy started choking the other, but the one being choked pulled the choker's big toe out of its socket and started twisting it around. The intense pain finally caused the choker to yield, but as he let go, he realized that he'd choked the other guy to death. Since he'd already said he yielded, though, the dead guy was the official winner. For the next few years, everyone in Greece thought that dead guy was the most awesome athlete ever.posted by: crane on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Will these "judging" computers and stopwatches be made by Diebold?
I think controversy will likely crop up in any games format.posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
"For the next few years, everyone in Greece thought that dead guy was the most awesome athlete ever."
I have to admit, that is a pretty impressive feat. To keep on going for the win even while the life is literally being choked out of you. If that happened today I'd watch the Olympics a lot more.posted by: sam on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I just blame Bush for allowing us to go so far ahead in the medal count. We have more medals of each kind than any other country, how is that multilateral? Do you realize what the Parisians are thinking right now? Doesnt the world hate us enough? John Kerry has probably won some olympic medals, he's the best to lead us at this difficult time. Take a dive, Johnny.posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
(Maaaarrky B...? Well, OK - just this once..)
I think Kerry tossed his Olympic medals over the fencing venue - or maybe just the ribbons. Or, maybe he lied about that, too. Totally unfit for IOC chairmanship.
You can see how U.S. dominance in the medals race is good for Bush's WoT.
(Dan - MB started it)posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Ummm, any "sport" that doesn't include tall women and bathing suits hugging each other after a victory is no sport indeed in my book.posted by: slim on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I think people are missing the point of what the Olympics are supposed to be about. It's not supposed to be about just winning, it's about competing. I know that's naive today, but to say a sport (and I get tired of the endless arguments over what is and is not a sport) doesn't belong in the Olympics because it requires subjective judgment just seems to reduce the Olympics to another event that should be on ESPN. I realize the athletes work hard and a medal is their expected return, but maybe if people placed less emphasis on winning and more on watching the events, these problems with the judges wouldn't seem so important. I'm not knocking competition and I certainly root for my favorite teams to win, but the Olympics should be something more than just another venue to argue about which country is better. I say keep the judgment sports and can the whining.
And, btw, I agree with slim. In fact, I think beach volleyball should be the model for all sports TV (and I expect a proliferation of female beach volleyball on TV similar to what we saw with NASCAR). I mean, who wants to watch a bunch of guys sitting around playing poker when you can watch female beach volleyball.posted by: MWS on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Let bloggers judge.
I volunteer to judge the women volleyballers' beach wrestling.posted by: lex on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Take a dive, Johnny.
"Charlie, if I may call you Charlie, it's fair to say that, had I been inclined to authorize it at that time, and that said, I mean only for the express purposes authorized, I would have allowed you to characterize me as a contender--which would not have precluded the possibility of my not contending in any event at my discretion...."
Absolute BS. First, the bottom line is precisely that extraordinarily talented gymnasts, divers, etc. will be denied their place at the pinnacle of recognition.
Thanks to Yglesias:
Near the summit differences are small. But oftentimes they are readily apparent as well. Even opposing coaches stand in awe. Drezner would snatch all those moments away, and say it wasn't there on the mat or at the rings, it was ALL in the judges' heads. Nonsense. It was there to be seen, it was splendid, it was the stuff of human accomplishment. Why should be very person who does the very best, who makes the difference that matters most, be denied their place in the sun? They most of all deserve recognition. I would have thought Drezner was not the guy who would deny the just deserts of the most accomplished of all.posted by: Objectivist on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Well put, Objectivist. Quine would be proud of you (see the introduction to Word and Object), and I couldn't agree more.
I'm by no means a computer whiz, but it seems possible to program a computer to score any of these subjective events. Sure the programming would be subjective, but if the same program is used for everybody (and every competition) it would be decidedly more objective than some wacky judges.
I program computers for a living, and I'd sell my house to bet against that. You have no idea what would be involved in such a program.
Gymnastics to me are like air shows -- they involve a lot of waiting around in hopes of seeing a few seconds of something spectacular. Diving is like that as well.
How do you feel about baseball?posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I used to be a diver, and I have no trouble predicting with at least 95% accuracy what the scores will be on a particular dive. Most of the time when I overscore the announcer then points out a flaw I missed. That suggests to me a fairly high level of objectivity in the scoring. The scores are then multiplied by the difficulty factor (which is assigned to each dive by the governing body). That is mechanical. I also swam, and it seems to me the objectivity of a good diving scorer is no worse than the 'rolling false start' call in swimming which you identify as one of the most objective sports. See also disqualification on stroke technique and kick technique.posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
there is a greater level of subjectivity - and very possibly a greater opportunity for corruption [although that doesn't seem to be your complaint]. BUT, you, as a casual observer can verify that a runner 'jumped the gun'. because ANYONE can judge that. a gymnastics judge, who knows what to look for, can compare multiple performances and rank them. it's lost on you [and me], but gymnasts' can watch each other and tell you what is right and wrong. maybe you are being a little quick to condemn a sport you don't really understand. don't you have tivo - or a remote?posted by: ken on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Most of the time, you can tell who's the best (in gymnastics or whatever), and most of the time that person wins.
If a guy wins the 800 meters by 10 centimeters -- and its often that close -- what does that mean? It means nothing. First of all, its silly to contend that he's "faster" than the silver medalist in any meaningful way; he's 0.000125% faster. That's beyond insignificance. Second of all, the nominal winner might well have been behind 50 meters from the end, and might well fall behind again if the race was 50 meters longer. He happens to be ahead at the point where we arbitrarily decided the race would end. (OK, strategy and pacing, but still.)
Now, often enough a guy will win the 800 meters by 20 meters. But in gymnatics, often enough a person will similarly be the obvious best.
When there isn't a clear winner in gymnastics, enh, they pick someone. When a race is basically a tie, they still pick a winner. In neither case does it really mean anything.
So yeah, keep the scored sports in.posted by: Herostratus on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
I have less of a problem with the subjective judgement involved in some Olympic events than I do with other 'sports'.
Example? Racewalking. Do NOT get me started on bloody racewalking. Once described as akin to a competition to see who can whisper the loudest, this non-sport really steams my pudding. The rules are impossible to enforce uniformly. Every single competitor 'cheats' at some point. And why the hell don't they also run a hopping race?
Beach volleyball? An inferior replica of a perfectly satisfactory sport, dumbed down and fleshed up for perverts (yes, I count myself amongst their number). Why not sand-badminton? In bikinis?
Rant complete.posted by: fidens on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Clearly the first step needed in the DreznerReform of the Olympic Games is the establishment of objective criteria for what is and isn't allowed in. These criteria must be totally devoid of human judgment, to be self-consistent. So far, the only candidate seems to be....
"it [must be] exceedingly rare for the subjective elements in these sports [that are to be allowed in] to overwhelm the objective components. "
... exceedingly rare.
... subjective elements [not] to overwhelm the objective componenets.
Oh, yes, I see how clearly we can decided whether a particular game passes this criterion.
Not!posted by: John Casey on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Some sports that seem quite 'objective' now are 'objective' because of current technology used to time them, or otherwise gauge performance.
50 or 75 or 100 years ago, events that now are evaluated with digital precision were probably timed by hand and eye, introducing subjectivity and the potential for error.
Or consider fencing before the advent of electrical touch sensors.
Perhaps technological advancements will allow evaluation of judged routines to be done, to a greater degree, by computer.
Some kind of 3D laser scanner, for instance, could provide precise measurement of flaws in a gymnastics routine.
Musical accompaniment? Dan, you've just exposed your ignorance with that cheap shot. There is no musical accompaniment in men's gymnastics (which is what started this discussion) or in diving.posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
Musical accompaniment? Dan, you've just exposed your ignorance with that cheap shot.
I've long thought this is the perfect place to start. Get rid of synchronized swimming and ribbon gymnastics and change the women's gymnastics floor ex to be a music free tumbling and strength exercise just like the mens. Massive immediate improvement in the summer games.posted by: flory on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
The problem isn't judging, the problem is sample size. The number of judges used in the Olympics is so small that we have very little confidence in the mean score of those judges. If you could get 1500 people to judge each event, I don't think there would be a lot of controversy as to who should get the gold. You could event use the standard deviation to break ties!posted by: David Pinto on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
If the problem is subjectivity because the atheletes are too close in ability (i.e. they can complete a routine without any major mistakes) just make them repeat it again and again until a major fault happens. "Sudden Death Gymnastics" -- can I patent that?
Billposted by: Bill B on 08.25.04 at 03:43 PM [permalink]
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