Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Which activities should be considered sports? Why?

I've been trying to come up with a definition of sports ever since my racecar driving ex-roommate argued for car racing as a sport.

After watching just five seconds of rhythmic gymnastics, I find the question screaming in my head again. I may not be able to define what a sport is, but I know this sh*t sure ain't it.

Defining "sport"

Rule 1: Competition
First of all there has to be a competitive aspect--compete head-to-head (volleyball), against the clock (swimming), or against a standard (gymnastics).

Rule 2: Physical activity
Obviously there has to be motion, physical exertion. Chess will never be a sport (unless it's battle chess! Arrrghhh!!). Car racers claim (accurately) that car racing takes lots of exertion. But exertion alone is not the only criteria.

Rule 3: Human-powered
A big rule for me--and this is where my ex-roommate and I differ--is that the primary kinetic energy of the activity has to be supplied by the athlete. That rules out anything with an engine: cars, motorcycles, planes. Also rules out things like sailing, horse racing, and firing guns.

One exception: gravity can be an activity's primary kinetic force and it would still count as a sport. Downhill skiing is definitely a sport. I'll even accept boxcar racing and tobogganing. Surfers talk endlessly about waves, but waves are really just free potential energy which surfers convert into kinetic energy by harnessing gravity.

Rule 4: Augmenting human power is okay
I have no problems with human-generated energy being augmented by mechanical aids--a pole vaulter's stick, a diver's springboard, bicycle gears, etc. Archery is a borderline case but I'll accept it.

Is that it?
There must be one last part of my definition missing because we haven't managed to rule out synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics yet.

I think a sport has to include some sense that the skills on display are deemed useful or desirable in an almost Darwinian sense. The strong and fast survive. Gymnasts display super agility and explosive power. The winners of head-to-head confrontations are the very embodiment of natural selection. These all reflect primal qualities that nature values.

So my last rule is this:

Rule 5: It must be an athletic fight for survival
Obviously this is meant in a slightly abstract sense. And I realize that at first blush this last rule seems almost a little random or arbitrary. Rule 5 is my way of saying that there is a visceral quality to the activities that most of us would consider sports. Even if chess didn't fail previous rules, it would fail Rule 5. There just isn't a visceral thrill to watching people play chess. Yes, it can be thrilling and engaging, but only at a mental level, not at a physical life-or-death level.

Now am I saying that every sport must be about testosterone-fueled deathmatches? No, not exactly. Let me explain with an example:

Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are not sports because they are NOT about any sort of athletic fight; the raison d'ĂȘtre of these activities is elegance and artistry. They are exhibitions of beauty first and foremost; the athletic showdown aspect is a distant second. Therefore, by my definition, they are not sports.

This explanation leads us to a clearer understanding of Rule 5. In fact, now we can amend it with a corollary:

Rule 5.i.: The athletic fight for survival must be the primary purpose of the activity
If any other value--e.g. artistry or elegance--overshadows the fight for survival, the activity cannot be considered a sport.

Putting the definition to the test
Happily, this definition also knocks out figure skating as a sport. Yes, they are judged on the technical merits of their athletic feats, but the primary emphasis is on artistry. Not a sport.

Now "Dancing with the Stars" is athletic and competitive. But I'd argue that it's not a sport because it also values artistry over athleticism.

What about balance beam? Isn't that about beauty and artistry? No. Gymnasts are judged by the difficulty of the athletic feats that they perform while on the beam. Yes, it's supposed to look pretty, but that is a secondary value that does not outweigh the athletic feats.

Weightlifting is a sport (demonstrate strength). Bodybuilding is not a sport (show off body).

Synchronized diving? Not a sport. Even though it is based on athletic feats, the synchronization is the part that is more valued. Artistry trumps athleticism, therefore not a sport.

Now earlier I ruled out horse racing as a sport. But what about polo? If horse racing is out, polo should be out for the same reason (primary kinetic force is the horse, not the athlete). But why do I feel like polo should be considered a sport? I think it's just the weight of history calling it a sport. If people drove in golf carts and batted a ball around, we wouldn't consider that a sport (though it sounds like hella fun). So swapping a horse for a golf cart shouldn't make a difference.

Hell, Pluto isn't a planet anymore. So I guess polo is no longer a sport.

Got any other sport candidates that might challenge this definition? Bring 'em on.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chinese gymnast He Kexin's age: What's the evidence anyway?

If you're interested in learning more about what documents have been uncovered concerning the now-controversial age of Chinese gymnast He Kexin, see:

Stryde Hax: Hack the Olympics!

I don't know if the above sleuthing is the primary reason for the IOC finally pushing the FIG (the international gymnastics oversight body) to investigate the Chinese gymnasts' ages, but it's pretty interesting stuff.

Before reading this I wouldn't have thought that Internet sleuthing could lead to anything terribly incriminating or prove to be defensible but Stryde's post is making me reconsider. The distributed independent confirmation model of online sleuthing is a fascinating paradigm shift.

If He Kexin's age does prove to be 14 instead of 16, the US women's team would likely be awarded the gold team medal and Nastia Liukin would also be upgraded to gold in the Uneven Bars invidividual event medals.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A very believable birthday

There's a mini-controversy about the age of members of China's gold medal-winning women's gymnastic team. The fishiest age is that of gymnast He Kexin, whose age varies between 13 and 16, depending on the source.

see: Earlier state media report listed gymnast He's age as 13

My cynical side immediately leapt to her reported birthday: January 1st, 1992.

January 1st? If the Chinese government manufactured this birthday, couldn't they pick something a little more random, like, say January 4th?

If they wanted to make the date a bit more credible, they would have biased it towards the end of the year; it should be Dec 31st, 1992 so that her extremely young appearance might be accounted for by the fact that she hadn't yet had her sixteenth birthday.

I wonder though if that's what they thought they were doing with January 1st--my first reaction was that they chose the earliest date possible in the minimum year (1992) required for eligibility to make her look as young as possible but still be eligible. It was only after thinking about it for a moment that I realized that the opposite was true, that Dec 31st, 1992 would have been the more desirable fake birthday for someone that looks really young.

Maybe it's just because I'm a programmer, but the first day of a new year is, in my programmer's mind, a special case. It's the reset date, the rollover date. Of course people are born on that day every year, but in this case it just reeks of fishiness. It's almost as if the passport forger just entered Jan 1 as a temporary birthday until s/he could look up He Kexin's real birthday.

Either way, let this be a lesson to all you passport forgers (government sponsored ones and otherwise): Don't use January 1st as a birthday. It raises a red flag.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Standing up to bullies

My favorite audiophile cable company, bluejeanscable.com, has been accused of patent infringement by consumer grade audio conglomerate Monster Cable.

But first, who is bluejeanscable.com? I'm not sure how I first heard of them, but I quickly came to really like and appreciate bluejeanscable.com for their honesty and pragmatism. With the exception of my custom-made high-end power cables, my entire stereo rig is fitted with cables and interconnects from bluejeanscable.com.

Here's a perfect example of why they're cool: they clearly state that they prefer to use unterminated speaker wire as a preface to their speaker wire termination section. They're not trying to get you to buy everything they can possibly sell you; they offer the products but they give you honest, useful info so that you can make your own informed decision. I respect that.

Their products are high quality, audiophile-grade stuff without any of the smoke and mirrors or snake oil sales pitches. They generally offer mid-range options as well as very high-end options but are completely honest about how much or how little difference you might expect to see.

And so here comes Monster Cable rearing its ugly litigious head.

The bluejeanscable.com folks took a look at Monster's claims and rebutted them with a brilliant, professional, and impeccable analysis.

See the whole story here: