Sunday, December 2, 2007

A hierarchy of sports


I see that voting has started for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year; it's one of those years when there's no obvious candidate. Not that it would make much difference, because such is the perversity of the British public that anyone driving a car is almost certain to win. I'm certain Damon Hill won it the same year that Linford Christie took gold in the Olympics - what were people thinking?

To my mind, if it's got an engine it's not a proper sport - a gross exaggeration of course, but broadly I'll stand by the basic idea. To me, sport at it's best is about running the fastest or throwing the furthest; it's about athletic endeavour and individual skill; it's not about piloting some super-tech engine designed by a team of boffins to give no one else a look in. This, of course, is my own prejudice, but it did get me to thinking about a hierarchy of sports...

Top of the pile are the pure athletic sports. This is the 'running the fastest' stuff I was talking about before. At their purest these sports have a simple objective measurement and involve minimal or limited equipment. It's the athlete that wins not the technology. As well as athletics I'd include sports like swimming, rowing and cycling.

Next comes competitive games: football, tennis, rugby, basketball, badminton - you know the sort of thing. Athletic ability is important but it isn't enough as these sports combine physical fitness with skill and coordination - always they involve a contrived set of rules with the aim of beating an opponent by scoring points - luck can play a big part as can the judgement of referees. Often, but not always, they are team games.


An odd category next: subjectively measured sports. These sports can be just as physically demanding as pure athletic sports, but they differ by including a subjective judgement of 'style' as key part of the competition. There are not so many of these around these days, as increasingly the governing bodies favour more objective judging. Ice dance springs to mind as a good example, as does the floor routine in women's gymnastics (remember Olga Corbet and those marks for 'artistic interpretation') - and I've never understood why ski jumpers get marks for 'style'. What does it matter if my jump is plain ugly, so long as I can travel further than the next guy? Beats me.

Of lower status to my mind (showing my prejudices again) is the category of skill and accuracy. Not much need for athletic ability here; it might help a bit, but it's not the main ingredient. Sports in this category include golf, snooker, shooting, perhaps darts (though I'm not sure if the Sports Council even recognises darts). I once had a row with someone who told me you had to be very fit to play golf at the highest level and gave the example that most top golfers runs every day; get real, I say.

And last, piloting sports. The idea of these is to steer your 'craft' round a course to victory. Your craft might be a car, motorbike, boat or even a horse. The problem to my mind, is that in many cases, the object being piloted is more important than the pilot: even the best drivers won't win many races in the third best car; the same principle applies to jockeys. At their worst, these sports are all about the machine and hardly a jot about the person - think Americas Cup.

You can have some fun with this list, working out where your favourite sport might fit. For example, I think of boxing as a competitive game, but you could make a case that it's somewhat subjectively measured (though not, I'd argue, on the basis of style); cricket is another sport on the cusp - competitive game (probably) or skill and accuracy? Mike Gatting wasn't exactly super fit was he?

And finally, on the basis that all sports featured on Grandstand should be capable of finding a home, we need to add an extra category:sports involving no humans at all. This will allow for greyhound racing, and I reckon are a few greyhounds who'd be just as worthy winners of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

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