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Offside, 28 February

Curling, figure skating, ski jumping...where's the sport in the Winter Olympics?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

This week I thought I’d write about the Worthington Cup. Is it a meaningful football tournament? The short answer is no. The Worthington Cup is a joke. End of story.

So, having cleared that up, how about the Winter Olympics? I was one of the 5.6million UK TV viewers who stayed up to watch the British women’s curling team clinch the gold medal at Salt Lake City. Not that I understood what on Earth was going on: women screaming ‘hard!’ and ‘hurry!’ – and before you ask, I hadn’t tuned into a porn channel by mistake – and all that furious sweeping.

Curling looks more like a cross between bowling and housework than an Olympic event. Congratulations to the broom-wielding Scottish housewives and all that, but let’s face it: it’s not a sport, is it? Over the past week, legions of journalists have descended on Scotland’s 30 curling rinks to celebrate this obscure sixteenth-century pastime (for pastime it is). So desperate are we British to win anything that we’ll settle for curling glory, even though we know, in our heart of hearts, that it’s not a real sport.

Mind you, it seems anything goes at the Winter Olympics these days. For a start, how can figure skating be considered a sport? It’s a form of light entertainment. Indeed, any event where panels of judges award points for style or artistic merit cannot possibly be classed a sporting event. And that goes for ski jumping, freestyle skiing, and half-pipe snowboarding, too: they are skilful and competitive, but they are more akin to ballroom dancing contests than sports.

Indeed, why not make ballroom dancing an Olympic event? You think I’m joking, but the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) list of ‘recognised sports’ includes chess, bridge, surfing, lifesaving, climbing and – I kid you not – ballroom dancing. Although these ‘recognised sports’ are not yet Olympic events, it is probably just a matter of time before they are, given that the Summer Olympics is littered with pseudo-sports such as gymnastics, dressage, diving, and synchronised swimming.

The traditional Olympic track and field events originated in Greek martial contests. If we follow the logic of the IOC’s promiscuous approach to recognising sports, shouldn’t contemporary army activities like clearing minefields or dropping food parcels also be granted Olympic status?

But how, you ask, should we define a sport? Well, it must be both competitive and athletic. Athleticism distinguishes a sport from a mere game. This definition consequently rules out activities like darts, snooker and golf. You only have to recall the rotund physique of the legendary Jocky Wilson (‘Jocky’s on the ockey, looking stocky, feeling cocky’) to know that darts cannot be classified as anything other than a glorified pub game. Consider too the fact that the current world darts champion, the Australian Tony David, receives a disability pension. I rest my case.

Sometimes you can tell a bogus sport simply by the clothes competitors wear. Take snooker, for example. ‘Snooker loopy, mad are we’, sang Chas and Dave as the game graduated from seedy clubs to pseudo-sporting status. But bow ties and waistcoats? How can that be sports attire? And who can forget ‘Big’ Bill Werbeniuk, the Canadian snooker player who, it is said, used to sink 10 pints of beer before each match? The man was the polar opposite of an athlete.

Golf may well be an IOC-recognised sport, but its distinctly un-athletic apparel – turtle-neck jumpers, v-neck pullovers, checked trousers – gives the game away. Golf is basically a competitive form of rambling.

It is no accident that golf is the favoured leisure pursuit of professional footballers: their clubs wouldn’t allow them to do anything remotely athletic in case they injured themselves. Ah yes, you say, but golfers get injured, too. True, but then Leeds footballer Rio Ferdinand injured himself watching TV, and Leicester player Dennis Wise knocked himself out puking into a toilet bowl, but neither of these activities is a sport. (Well, not yet at any rate, but you never know with the IOC.)

No doubt curling will enjoy a brief surge in popularity in Britain, as tennis does every year after Wimbledon. But it won’t be long before curling’s johnny-come-latelys get bored and drift away, leaving the curling rinks to their traditional constituents: people too old or unfit to play proper sports.

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Topics Politics

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