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You can always count on the Winter Olympics to rekindle the debate about what is and what isn’t a sport.
Before entering the fray, it’s only fair to acknowledge that the distinction means little or nothing to me. On Only A Game, we’ve told stories of belt-sander racers, skillet-tossers, guys who slid frozen turkeys along the ice to some purpose I’ve forgotten, and people who have set records for stuffing themselves with everything from hot dogs to swords.
Were they athletes? Who cares? Their strange and wonderful adventures made for entertaining tales that will long be told around campfires where shiver the children of people who listen to NPR.
So as I approach this debate over what’s a sport and what isn’t, I’m no purist.
Having dispensed with that acknowledgment, I’ll say I kind of like the distinction between sports and not-sports embraced by Dave Zirin, the author of the Peoples’ History of Sports in the United States. According to the chronicles of Zirin, if you can smoke and gain weight while doing something, it isn’t a sport.
That lets out golf, of course, and almost certainly curling, since even those characters who scurry down the ice with their little brooms, sweeping or not sweeping according to the loud and desperate imprecations of their masters, don’t slide far enough to burn up many calories.
On the other hand, by the Zirin measure, figure skating is in and so is ice dancing, since only an idiot would try to smoke while squirreling around his or her partner’s sequined and no doubt highly flammably-clad torso.
Those who object to calling figure skating and ice dancing sports maintain that whereas an activity in which an inscrutable judging process determines the winner might well be an art, and certainly does require extraordinary conditioning and training, it’s not really a sport if your smile, your music, and the positioning of your rhinestones seem to be as important as whether you fall down.
I see no need to worry about the distinction. Like millions of others fortunate enough to have televisions in their homes, I’ve been entertained by lots of people sliding down hill or around the ice in lots of different ways. Good on all of them. Of course, I’ve cheered underwater rugby, too, and wife-carrying, and once a table hockey tournament in Rhode Island during which almost everybody smoked, and a lot of the guys took no nourishment but snack cake and soda all weekend.
This program aired on February 23, 2010.
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