Olympic Spirit Calls for Fans to Respect the "Peculiar Sports"

John HoumesSenior Analyst IAugust 12, 2008

On a vacation home from college, I had decided to attend a water polo match to see my high school Alma Mater play.

I was currently playing water polo at my university, but had played summer club polo with some of the high school guys, and came out to support them.

As I walked along the pool deck to head to the parking lot after the match, a thick high school student arose next to me from his seat in the bleachers.

With a scowl on his face he muttered to himself, "Water polo isn't a sport."

I could feel the blood bubble in my veins.

My inner monologue took over: "What?! Not a sport? Why I'd like to let that meathead set two-meters and try and score on me. I'd clobber him so hard he'd be limping all the way back to the football field."

Though I knew the only place this guy had ever been swimming was in the ball pit on the McDonald's playground, I was insulted by his assertions about my sport.

How could he have the gall to say that water polo isn't a sport?

Did he know about the hours my teammates and I had spent in the pool?

Did he know what it is like to sprint swim 20 meters, then battle for position for 20 seconds in ten feet of water, then sprint swim back 20 meters only to begin the wrestling match again?

He obviously didn't, and he had no clue what he was asserting.

But a few days ago, as I was flipping the channels between Olympic events, I found myself scowling inquisitively at the screen.

There was a woman, looking like she was dressed for a foxhunt, complete with an Abe Lincoln top hat, and riding a horse.

My inner monologue took over again: "Horses? That's not a sport. The horse does all the work. Does he get a medal too?"

Now, the last time I went riding several years ago, the horse did have to do most of the work to lug around my 200+ pound frame.

But how quickly I forgot that riding that horse took endurance, poise, and strength that I did not possess.

There I was, showing the same ignorant disrespect that I had received years prior.

Often, we scowl at other sports, because the equipment looks unfamiliar.

One sport uses a horse that jumps over fences; another uses a shotgun on an outdoor range, while still another uses 10-meter diving boards and a diving well.

Besides unusual equipment and playing surfaces, here are a few others things that lead us to claim that a certain event is not a sport: unfamiliar rules, the appearance of a low need for physical exertion, the simplicity of the strategy, the weird lingo used, and probably most influential, the exposure of the sport or similar sports in our own cultures.

A country's culture only has so much room for a variety of sports.

There is a limited amount of "sport space," as Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman call it in their book Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism.

When two or so sports take up the majority of a culture's sport space, it is hard for other sports to gain enough momentum to move beyond mere participation and into being part of the dominant culture.

Our claims that something is not a sport has more to do with what is accepted as sport in our own culture than it does with accurate research and participation of a particular sport.

While many in the world would not hesitate to put Beach Soccer on the list of Olympic events because it is a derivative of Soccer, which occupies their sport space, many Americans would scowl.

But how does the world feel about Softball?

Aren’t that what people play on weekends while they stuff hot dogs and guzzle beer in between innings?

This assertion would be obviously inaccurate.

American women, as well as men, see Softball as a completely respectable and competitive derivative of America's pastime.

The Olympics call for more from us than snap judgments about sports, as well as other people, that is unfamiliar.

The Olympic spirit is certainly about national pride and attempting dominance in our sport, but it is also about crossing barriers into strange territory and having a spirit that is willing to learn.

As you watch athletes dive in unison from 10-meters in the air, run up and down a blue playing surface, paddle through surging whitewater, and grimace as they grapple their opponents, watch with curiosity— and respect.