Is it Sport?

I hope I’m not the only one who read the online article published by the Richmark Sentinel on Thursday by writer Nigel Owen regarding what is and is not classified as “sport”. This article was covered by Row2k, as Owen makes a pointed argument that sports such as my own are not actually sports. This is not the first article of its kind, nor is it the first time that someone has attempted to de-classify rowing from the realm of “sport”. This argument, along with the “sport vs. game” argument can be battled ad infinitum, as generally it seems that the range of definitions that exist for these terms from different critics are fairly subjective and based largely on the critic’s own interests and preferences for entertainment (or maybe their own athletic prowess, who knows). It’s not often that I feel compelled to respond to editorials–but something about this particular article really stirred some emotions and pride within me, and I have not been able to stop thinking about the injustices inflicted upon myself and my fellow rowers by this ridiculous accusation of rowing being a non-sport.
First of all, why do I even care if rowing is classified as a sport? Can’t I be perfectly happy to participate in an “activity” or a “pastime”? Unfortunately, no. “Sport”, regardless of which activities it includes, is something more noble; more elite; a purer and more essential element of human nature that is a symphonic coalescence of beauty, competition, human power and determination. Personally, I define Sport as: an undertaking which competitively tests a combination of one’s physical and mental capacities against those of an opponent. To compete and triumph in this way earns competitors glory–the intangible x-factor that separates Sport from everything else. Activities, hobbies, pastimes and recreation while worthwhile and entertaining in their own right, carry with them no expectations of greatness or abstract splendor of humanity through the testing of physical prowess or mental sharpness. In comparison, they are trite, trivial, and of a completely separate ideology than Sport. It is the reason that professional sports leagues are a multi-billion dollar industry; it is the reason that the Olympics is one of the most highly-anticipated and celebrated global events in the history of our species; it is the reason that athletes are role models for young children. Sport is a powerful element of our humanity, so some guy going around ripping the labels of grandeur off my career is a problem for me that I seek to rectify through this argument.

The debate arises as Owen initiates his own personal definition of Sport coming from two factors:

i) The result must be easy to measure/see by spectators – most goals, highest score, longest throw, fastest run, etc
ii) The ability for a ‘champagne moment’ – that act by a competitor that is performed in a split second and leaves spectators momentarily breathless at its brilliance/arrogance. Something that is innate and can’t be learned or acquired purely through practice.

On point one, there are no conflicts; rowing clearly has a measurable progress, just as with any other racing Sport. It is on the second point that Owen declares all endurance sports, including rowing, fail to be classified as sports due to their inability to produce split-second, heartbreakingly beautiful acts of brilliance laced with talent and madness that can overwhelm and inspire any potential spectators.
I get it. I get what Owen is describing, and I have myself experienced it as a spectator and as an athlete. But there is something to be said about the very nature of his terminology that, in essence, defies the idea of a “champagne moment” in his named sports (football, cricket, baseball et al). Champagne is for celebrating. And the generally accepted champagne and celebration ideology is that moments deserving of champagne are rare–and anything but “everyday” or “ordinary”. In which case, it should follow that that the truest and the best of Owen’s “champagne moments” are the ones that come at great intervals, and which overwhelmingly surprise and overjoy those who are lucky to have waited long enough to catch them. Though Owen does not give any direct examples of his interpretation of these “moments” beyond putting in golf, I suspect he fancies them to be along the lines of MLB home runs (as of this writing there have been 21 MLB “champagne moments” today), or maybe a nice NBA slam dunk (though truly impressive, no longer a rare occurrence by any stretch of the imagination). I can appreciate that such moments are meant to be rare in any sport, but accordingly I think it should be acknowledged that these moments are exceptionally rare in endurance sports–and thus the most deserving of “champagne” (whatever that means). To say, as Owen does, that these moments do not or cannot exist in endurance sports is not only inaccurate but flat-out ignorant. You don’t believe me? I dare you to watch the M2- Final from the 2000 Olympics without experiencing Owen’s “champagne moment”. Go ahead, try:

These endurance sports moments are indeed, incredibly rare. Rare, and legendary. To those who are only thrilled by the immediate gratification of repeatable, sensationalistic showmanship, poncing and parading, the anticipatory patience that goes into experiencing and appreciating endurance sports’ “champagne moments” may prove difficult. In which case, my condolences go out to Nigel’s girlfriend (if she exists).
Moving on, it becomes clear that Owen’s understanding of “sport” and athleticism in general leaves a bit to be desired in respect to not just what constitutes Sport but also what constitutes an Athlete. Owen claims: “If you have the requisite body shape/size anyone, if they train hard enough, can become a top level cyclist, rower, distance runner or swimmer… once you have learned the technique of rowing, it is then just a question of developing and maintaining the strength and stamina”. Well then! I expect that the author will come running to accept my offer to go out for a spin in the single just to prove how easy it is to learn the technique of rowing and how simple my sport really is. Assuming that he is of the right shape and size (the only pre-requisites to being a good rower), it should therefore be quite easy indeed for him to demonstrate to me how it takes no patience, coordination, intelligence or athleticism to be a successful rower–only body mass and determination. Undoubtedly after a few rows (if he trains hard enough) he will be on world record pace and should be set to take Alan Campbell’s place in the single in Poznan this summer. Also, I would like for him to have a chat with my coaches, to let them know that now that I have learned the technique of rowing, I will no longer need any technical instruction.
Arguing this way is simply absurd. While having the proper size and shape can at times have bearing on your success in a given sport, it is almost never the end-all in or out. I myself am considered small for a female rower, yet have genetic gifts that give me an advantage over women who are considerably larger than myself. Likewise, I know plenty of guys who are 5’9″ and weigh 165 pounds, but not a single one of them has won the Tour de France seven (eight?) times. While I think it is a fair statement to say that size matters, it is neither fair nor appropriate to say that only size matters (and that goes for a lot of things, Nigel). Claiming that any sport is within mastery of any body based on the physical attributes of height and/or weight alone is reckless logic, and said logic does a very nice job of hollowing out the intrinsic nobility of the underdog, or the Cinderella Story, that makes Sport unique. Were it feasible that Sport was achievable by any body simply based on size, wouldn’t everyone do it? It is for this reason that we undergo ergometer testing, lactate testing, and Vo2 max testing–to demonstrate that potential comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (much to the chagrin of our coaching staff, at times). In accordance with my argument, however, these forms of testing while useful for predicting performance capacity, can never fully anticipate the results achievable by a given athlete in a Sport performance setting. We leave that up to the champagne moments, and the other intangibles.
That having been said, the continued arrogance of what comes next is nearly unfathomable: “Rowing, apparently is the easiest Olympic event to win a medal at in terms of a ratio of medals to global participants”. Mister Owen must have seriously misunderstood the scope and scale of the Olympic Games if he would dare even consider whimpering any form of the word “easy” in the same sentence as “Olympic” and “medal”. I cannot bring myself to justify this absolutely inane remark with any sort of response that does not involve the “f” word and a second person pronoun, except to say that I believe that this only further illustrates Owen’s lack of credibility on the subject of sport and athletics if he is willing to discount athletes who have competed successfully at the world’s highest level, writing off their accomplishments as “easy”! It might have interested Owen to know that rowing events at the Olympic medal are capped to a certain number of entries, for which crews must qualify in the preceding year or at a qualification regatta in the Olympic year. This process is meant to keep the field as closely competitive as possible, instead of including more crews who are less likely to keep pace with the leaders (which thereby makes it more difficult to medal if the field is already closely cut, does it not?). At any rate, if winning an Olympic medal in rowing is so easy, I would love for a former Olympic medalist to come forward and admit how easy it was for him/her to become an Olympic champion. Please, anyone feel free. If not, then maybe Nigel will be the first!
I doubt very much there is a single athlete in any Olympic sport who would not take offense to that remark, Nigel. Shame. On. You.
And lastly (as if this has anything to do with it) Owen goes for the jugular: he attacks the hand-eye coordination of rowers as indication of their lack of versatility and therefore, inability to be counted as Sport athletes:

…during my time at Oxford[, m]ost guys who represented the university at sport, were also useful at at least one other sport – rugby players who played cricket, cricketers who played football, footballers who played tennis – with the exception of rowers, who on the whole could row, run and cycle, but ask them to do anything requiring hand eye co-ordination and they were struggling.

So what you’re saying is… it’s much more admirable to be able to play three sports than to commit to one (again, sorry to Nigel’s girlfriend)? Doesn’t this argument just reinforce that on average it is easier to learn and play these other “sports” than it is to become a proficient (read: even remotely competitive) endurance athlete? And if so, what’s so great about that? You can do three easy things instead of one more difficult thing. Hmm. I think I am sensing a pattern here.
And don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends who row for Oxford. But who do you think you are, classifying all rowers as one-trick ponies just because you witnessed some awkward football/cricket moments among the rowing athletes at Oxford? Maybe those men are not the most gifted multi-sport athletes. But they are a small sample of a much larger, population, are they not? Not that he would take the time to consider it, but if Mister Owen were to survey the vast numbers of rowers training and competing in the United States, he may be interested to learn that many of us were talented and accomplished athletes from other “real sports” prior to our time as rowers. It is standard practice for women’s collegiate novice programs to recruit top swimmers, soccer players, track stars and basketballers to join up with rowing because of their previous successes in these other “sports”. Fancy that! Athletic talent begets athletic talent.

After all of that–champagne moments, the noble grandeur of competition, versatility vs. singular focus–I find it awfully difficult to concede that rowing is any less of a Sport than any other demanding physical activity. The training, discipline, coaching, teamwork, skill and competitive elements that make up our amazing community deserve respect, and to have that so snidely denied by Owen is very frustrating. Not everyone can be a rower. Just as not everyone can be an elite level table tennis player, figure skater, golfer, cricketer, cyclist or water polo player. Sport is endlessly various in its qualities and skill sets that are required to create truly exceptional Athletes and acts of athleticism and I think that these variations should be celebrated and included in the community of competition, not driven apart by lazy definitions of Sport. I conclude my argument with the realization that this debate will likely rage on forever as the competitive element that fuels our fascination with Sport is the very same which drives us to argue about which portions of it are better and more deserving of our laurels than others. But today, and always, rowing is a Sport. If nothing else it is one of the truest Sports, existing simply as a measure of greatness between opponents with very basic rules and strategy. It is why my Sport is one of just five to have been included in every single modern Olympics; it is why my Sport is the oldest collegiate sport in the US; it is why my Sport is one of the fastest growing Sporting communities in the world. It is undeniably pure, and to be successful at it is glory at its very best.

Thanks for getting the thoughts spinning, Nigel. Cheers.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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2 responses to “Is it Sport?

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