Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 11:23 UK

What makes a good Olympic sport?

Clockwise: golf, synchronised swimming, tug of war, baseball

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Golf and rugby sevens have moved a step closer to becoming competitive Summer Olympics sports. With synchronised swimming already there, and lifesaving recognised as a sport by the Games, what does it require to join the party?

For a fortnight every four years, in living rooms across the UK, the same complaint rings out.

"THAT shouldn't be an Olympic sport!"

The sight of water gymnasts with nose-clips, make-up and fixed grins, millionaire tennis players competing for Olympic gold or someone twirling a ribbon is enough to send sofa-bound sports purists into a fury.

Expect further heated debate on Thursday as the International Olympic Committee's executive recommended that rugby sevens and golf be included in the 2016 Games. A final decision rests with IOC members in October, when the host city will also be announced.

Tug of war

There were seven in the running - golf, squash, baseball, softball, roller sports and karate. The last sport to be added was triathlon for the 2000 Sydney Games, bringing to an end three decades of continuous Olympics expansion.

So what are the criteria involved in assessing what's in or out?

"The key factors in determining a sport's suitability for the Olympic programme include youth appeal, universality, popularity, good governance, respect for athletes and respect for the Olympic values," says a spokeswoman for the IOC.

A detailed document, entitled Evaluation Criteria for Sports and Disciplines, lists 33 requirements under eight headings including history and tradition, universality, popularity, image - environment, athletes' health, development of the international federation and costs.

Ancient Greece: Chariot racing, full-contact fighting
1900: Cricket, golf, croquet, tug of war
1908: Powerboat racing

But in practice, the decision is less about governance and more about the emotional connection the sport provides, says Ed Hula, editor of Around The Rings, a US-based publication that specialises in Olympics news. And how out-of-breath participants get is irrelevant.

"As far as the swifter, stronger, higher type of thing goes," he says, alluding to the Olympics motto, "the drama of the sport and the amount of energy it takes to excel, that doesn't matter so much. It's how does a sport relate to the people."

The potential to develop is also important, so it's questionable how much rugby, golf and baseball need Olympic exposure, he says.

"But squash, karate and roller sports are sports that don't have that kind of spotlight. They would have more to gain but whether people would take to them remains to be seen."

'US sports'

Some have questioned why sports that directly appeal to young people, like skateboarding, are not in there, says Mr Hula, speaking from Berlin, where the IOC will make its announcement on Thursday.

"They can't go to 2016 with an expanded Games and trying to create interest among young people, making it new and exciting, without adding something that would have that youth appeal."

And the way baseball and softball are back on the agenda four years after being dropped makes the process appear confused, he adds.

In 2005, at the same summit in Singapore where London was awarded the Games, baseball and softball became the first to be cut from the Olympics since polo in 1936.

Shooting is incomprehensible to the naked eye and involves lying down. I would think these prevent it from qualifying as a sport
Columnist Jim White

Some observers thought they paid the price for being too closely associated with the US, and baseball's adverse publicity about drug-taking did not help either.

The decision reversed the addition of women's softball in 1996, which had been hailed as a great step forward for women's sport in general.

Paul Gibbons, chairman of Leaderboard, which runs a number of golf courses, believes golf's inclusion could encourage the sport to be less elitist and increase access for underprivileged youngsters in the UK and abroad.

"Golf etiquette teaches standards and that's important when you look at kids boozing and misbehaving in the streets. They learn standards very quickly."

His company is considering offering support and training to young people with an interest in golf, from a number of nations that have never previously received an Olympic medal, like Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh and El Salvador.

Responding to the suggestion that golf was hardly a very taxing form of exercise, Mr Gibbons says players need to be fit to walk around a course for five hours.


As well as sports moving in and out of favour, disciplines within sports are also subject to change.

So London 2012 may be getting women's boxing for the first time. And in Los Angeles in 1984, synchronised swimming made its controversial debut as a discipline within the category of aquatic sport.

Amateur boxer Rebecca Gibson
Women's boxing could be on show at London 2012

Jim White, sports columnist at the Daily Telegraph, says that seeing sports live can challenge pre-conceived notions.

"For most of these events, you go along thinking these are absurdities, but find yourself impressed by the excellence on show. I went to the synchronised diving, thinking it was an absurdity but I couldn't get over the athleticism and bravery of the competitors."

There are three requirements for an Olympic sport, says White. It must be physically demanding, enough to get out of breath.

And an Olympic gold medal should be the pinnacle of achievement, making golf, tennis and football inadmissible.

Thirdly, it must have spectator appeal. Some Olympic sports are too self-indulgent and require television to make them watchable, he says.

"Shooting is incomprehensible to the naked eye and involves lying down. I would think these prevent it from qualifying as a sport and if archery qualifies then darts does, although I'm not decrying the skill involved."

Rugby sevens has a good case to make because it's great to watch and very competitive. But in general, we should be taking sports out of the Olympics, not putting them in, says White, with shooting top of the list and football and tennis not far behind.

Synchronised swimming also has to go, not least because it's so repetitive.

"It's like Groundhog Day. They all do the same routine and there's no variance in their approach, so when you've seen five of them, you've lost the will to live."


DARTS: Its governing body is not recognised by the IOC.
Pros: Highly skilled; has big spectator appeal; suitable for television; recognised by UK Sports Council; archery is in, so why not darts?

Cons: Unhealthy image (people drink beer and smoke while playing it); lack of physical exertion.

LIFESAVING: Recognised by the IOC but very unlikely to get in the Games.
Pros: Events can be very strenuous; it's growing in popularity.
Cons: Reminds UK viewers of It's a Knockout; Baywatch probably didn't help it be taken seriously.

Motor racing
MOTOR RACING: Not recognised by the IOC as a sport.
Pros: Highly skilled; physically demanding; hugely popular; had motorised sports.

Cons: Hardly a level playing field, given the varying performance levels of cars.

Tug of war
TUG OF WAR: Recognised by the IOC.
Pros: A test of strength and teamwork; been in the Olympics before.
Cons: Echoes of embarrassing fathers at summer fetes.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Most of these sports bear no relation to the original ethos of the Olympics - a test of athletic prowess between young warriors of neighbouring territories. There's no question that most of the alternative sports mentioned require great skill and technique if you are going to excel, but so do computer games, poetry competitions, and tightrope walking. The tests should be whether or not a sport is physically challenging, has its roots in practical application, and where the key differentiator is the person taking part. Under these criteria, lifesaving and tug of war would qualify, but darts, motor racing and golf wouldn't.
Jamie, Wendover, UK

I think anything that requires music or judging should not be in the Olympics. For example, ice dancing may be great to watch but is it really much different from ballet...apart from the shoes and the ice? And synchronised swimming - take away the music and what do you have besides heads and legs bobbing in time in the water? Both these events are strenuous and take a lot of training - no denying that - but are they sports? If you're having to compare such things as grace, poise and technique, and are given points for such things by a judge, then surely it is more of an art than a sport? Isn't a sport more about who crosses the line first, or throws something further than someone else? So maybe we should relegate some of these activities to being for spectators to enjoy, but not being part of the medal events.
Allie, New Zealand

I'm aware that there are considerable efforts being made to make Muay Thai Boxing an Olympic sport - in terms of it's spectacle, fitness and skill, it's almost a no, brainer so it's a shame it rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in articles such as this one.
Michael Howarth, Bury

I am a member of the GB Premier Women's Dragon Boat Team, who, at the end of August will be competing in the World Championships in Prague. Dragon boating is one of the most popular participation sports in the world; it is suitable of all ages and levels of fitness as well as being a team sport that has a fantastic level of camaraderie and commitment within each team at what ever level you are involved. People are always surprised that it is not an Olympic sport as it covers all the ticks that the IOC require as well as the level of training that I (and the rest of my team mates) require just to get into the team let alone compete on a world stage even though we get no external support but work just as hard as any Olympic athlete.
Lauren, Exeter

They should remove tennis and football before they do anything else. In neither sport is the Olympics anywhere near the biggest event, meaning competitors will pull out for very minor injuries and other excuses to save themselves for other events, this should also bar all other major sports. How can football be in anyway, when it is never the strongest teams that compete as it's reserved for under 23s?
Fred, Wigan, UK

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