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Grappling with competition
February 17, 2013 - Harry Eagar
If wrestling isn't a sport, according to the Olympic organizing committee, what is?
There has been some speculation that the decision was political, to make way for something called modern pentathlon. I am sure the reason is the same as the reason for the rearrangement of every other public event, from State of the Union addresses to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade – if it does not televise well, kill it.
Or change it till it's as good as dead, which means arranging for sponsor plugs. That is why, for example, the Macy's parade changed from a mildly amusing shared spectacle to an unwatchable infomercial.
However, with sport – unlike the Macy's parade – there is a social-philosophical question: What is sport?
Sport is competition against time, distance or weight, or against another person. Everything else is pastime.
So, golf is a sport but mountain climbing is not. Swimming races are sport but diving is not. Wrestling is sport, gymnastics is not.
More generally, if style points are awarded, it cannot be sport.
Television is also responsible for eliminating one of the other markers of a sport, the tie.
Ties, when between skilled opponents, are the most exciting outcomes in sport. The Laver-Newcombe match that led TV to kill ties in tennis was, without question, the most exciting sporting event ever televised.
I watched it, and was willing for the match to go on until the sun set, if need be; but it isn't really necessary. It makes sense to establish a time limit. If one of two opponents cannot prevail after a set time, then the verdict is that, on that day, they were equal.
If they are equal at the supreme level of effort possible, then, that is a good thing to be able to say.
College football used to understand this. Several “games of the century” between unbeaten untied teams ended in ties. What's wrong with that?
The most dramatic, heart-stopping sporting event I ever watched in person was a tie, back when I was a sportswriter, before I lost interest in sport and pastimes as practiced today.
It was a college swimming race, something of a stunt set up by the coach, who had two All-America distance men. It has been nearly 50 years and I cannot recall their names, but I recall the race vividly.
At the end of a routine intercollegiate competition, the home coach staged a race at a rarely used length – I cannot recall whether it was in yards or meters, and I forget the length. 10,000 yards, I think.
The entrant from the other school quickly faded, leaving the two home men to fight it out in front of a small audience of mostly teammates and a few friends.
One man was tall and slender, the other short and compact. But, as their coach knew, they were perfectly matched.
The race took something over 20 minutes, freestyle, and during that long time, neither man ever got more than a head in front of the other. The tension was crackling. Each man was going all-out because, as the coach had plotted, the winner was probably going to break the intercollegiate record.
They did. By minutes. In a dead heat.
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