The recent news that breakdancing will be in the Olympics in Paris in 2024 got sharply diverging reactions. Many were delighted that such a high energy and acrobatic event has been included, especially one with roots in traditionally marginalised communities, like African-American and Puerto Rican street kids.
The success of similar kids from India doing breakdance style performances in televised dance shows in the US shows how its combination of low entry barriers and high premium on exuberant, unrestrained performances can bring in participants who might have had little chance in other sports. It makes the Olympics more inclusive and fun – and might get some medals for those Indian kids currently doing dance shows.
And then there was the incredulous reaction that something more like an artistic performance made it to the Olympics when traditional sports like squash and karate did not. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) has been accused of being obsessed with trendy, television friendly events and trying to attract a younger audience, at the expense of competitors engaged in more traditional sports.
This squeeze on traditional sports is all the more because of the IOC’s aim of reducing events to prevent the Games sprawling out of control. So, inclusion of ‘breaking’, as it will be called, along with other new events like surfing and sport climbing, has meant reducing events in long-standing categories like boxing and weight-lifting (both strong sports for India, so all the more need for those desi kids dancing on shows abroad to compensate).
Olympic sports were once about quantifiable targets – running faster, jumping higher, lifting more – or about prevailing over an opponent or opposing team. This is spelled out in the Olympic motto with Latin words that mean “Faster – Higher – Stronger”. But with new events like rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming and ice dancing success can’t be quantified as neatly. Instead, they are typically scored by combining points for routines assigned different levels of difficulty with marks assigned by judges for how well they were performed.
This leads to a score flashing up on the display that gives the appearance of being objective, but it can’t be. The judges’ decisions are assumed to be based on knowledge and experience, yet are essentially subjective. “The officials do, in a meaningful way, create the reality described by their judgment,” writes Chad Oldfield, a law professor who specialises in sports, in an essay on the problems of judging aesthetic sports. Because there is no clear way to quantify an ideal performance, judges have to use criteria like, in the case of figure skating, “flow and effortless guide”, “cleanness and sureness” and “style and individuality/personality.”
Scholars of sports have analysed scoring patterns of judges in aesthetic sports and found repeated evidence of bias. Sometimes this is blatant – every Winter Olympics has a scandal where some skating judges are alleged to favour certain countries. But it can also be subtler, as with a study Oldfield cites where judges routinely gave competitors from their home skating clubs higher scores, but less so when the events were televised.
This suggests judges instinctively held themselves to a higher standard due to public scrutiny. Aesthetic scoring may never quite be able to rid itself of bias, but can mitigate it by measures like public scrutiny, or large panels of judges where the bias of a few gets averaged out by the decisions of many.
A more serious problem with aesthetic sports is that they appear to put unfair emphasis on the appearance of competitors. Leading performers in such sports are routinely idolised for their good looks, and competitors now know the value of building fan followings in social media even before they compete.
But where does this leave a competitor who can do the routines well, but doesn’t look as good or, more to the point, fit prevailing notions of what looks good? And it is hardly a coincidence that performers in these sports have been found to be at risk from having eating disorders or psychological issues related to body image.
All this might seem to support the disdain that supporters of traditional sports have for these new aesthetic ones. Why is the IOC supporting such inherently unfair disciplines? But this is to miss the larger point that fairness in sports has always been something of a mirage. Sports that need expensive facilities (like squash) automatically favour richer competitors who can access them, or countries like China which pour money into sports as a form of competitive nationalism.
Even something as basic as the bodies of athletes are influenced by better nutrition in early years or the living conditions they grow up in, which heavily favour competitors from the developed world. Yet, when a quirk of human physiology seems to favour certain other athletes, like runners from high altitude East African countries or, the very complicated case of Caster Semenya, suddenly this issue of fairness is selectively raised again. The whole emphasis on the purity and fairness of traditional sports can appear to be a way to guard a global status quo in sports.
In that context then, the IOC’s decision to advance aesthetic sports, especially ones like breakdancing which have low entry barriers to competition, is a refreshing answer to this argument for the ‘fairness’ of traditional sports. It acknowledges that true fairness doesn’t exist, but what matters is acknowledging and allowing for this issue, and admitting as wide a range of people to the Olympics as possible – including, perhaps, breaking talent from the slums and small towns of India.