Litmus Test

You Call That An Olympic Sport?

Golf and rugby sevens will be included as Olympic events in 2016, and sports like karate and squash are trying to get in. John Barrow, author of Mathletics, tells us why some of those sports deserve to be included over soccer, basketball, and tennis.

The International Olympic Committee has a lengthy list of criteria that it takes into consideration when deciding which sports qualify to be considered for inclusion in (or removal from) the hallowed roster of Olympic sports or the waiting room that holds the “demonstration” sports, which aspire to attract the most IOC members’ votes for inclusion. At present, there are 26 sports in the Summer Games, but this will increase to 28, the maximum allowed by the IOC rules, when golf and rugby sevens are included in 2016 and 2020.

The process of considering which sports could be added involves a questionnaire to IOC members that focuses on seven aspects of a sport: history, universality, popularity, image, athletes’ health, development of the international federation, and costs.

All of these are relevant considerations, but they don’t help much in winnowing down the bloated package of Olympic sports currently on the roster. There is one absent consideration that seems to me to be important—and while meeting it is not a sufficient condition for inclusion in the Games, it should be a necessary one. It is to ask whether winning the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of sporting achievement in that discipline. This is manifestly the case in track and field, swimming, track cycling, hockey, volleyball, table tennis, and almost all the other sports on the roster. It would also be the case in sports like karate and squash, which are seeking to become Olympic sports. However, there are glaring examples where it is not the case. Tennis, golf, soccer, basketball, and the former Olympic sport of baseball all fail this litmus test. Olympic soccer is particularly odd in that it actually limits teams to only three professional players older than twenty-three years of age; no other sport has this artificial restriction on a team’s strength. Moreover, top competitors in Olympic tennis, golf, soccer, and basketball have other primary career goals, and many choose not to participate. Would you rather win Wimbledon or the Olympics? The Olympic soccer tournament or the World Cup? The answers are obvious and should be a key factor in determining whether these sports are suitable for inclusion in future Games.

Excerpted from Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things about the World of Sports by John D. Barrow. Copyright © 2012 by John D. Barrow. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.