Preposterous Universe

Thursday, August 26, 2004
Subjective, intersubjective, objective Olympiad

Dan Drezner approvingly quotes Sport's Illustrated's Josh Elliott:

No athletic event that is judged belongs in the Olympics. And no exceptions: No gymnastics. No ice skating or boxing. No synchronized swimming or diving. If it can't be won on the track, in the lane lines or with one more goal than the other folks, it has no place in the world's premier festival of sport, one that purports to give us the world's greatest champions. For if a win can't be unquestionably achieved, what's it worth, really? Without an objective, inarguable method for determining victory and defeat, the very meaning of the competition is lost.

A judged win can be worth just as much as an objective win. It all depends on how much we respect the opinions of the judges. Furthermore, human judges can assess nuances of performance that a one-criterion objective competition can't capture. It's easy to see why people compete for other judged honors, e.g. the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, or the John Bates Clark Medal. So, it should be clear why Olympic gold is meaningful to divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts.

Expert decisions are always vulnerable charges of arbitrariness, bias, and favoritism, especially if the contest includes an aesthetic component. Yet we keep watching if we trust the judges and the institutions that appoint them. We can also use objective methods to audit many kinds of judging. Olympic judges are supposed to be judging according to objective criteria and established aesthetic norms. There's an irreducibly subjective component to some judged contests, but, as Matt Yglesias observes, the judge's primary role is to apply the public rules and standards of the sport. We are entitled to expect a fair bit of intersubjectivity in judged verdicts. If we have doubts, we can use objective methods to test the standardization. At the very least, judges are constrained by the prevailing standards of their field. Their status as honest experts is contingent upon a fair amount of agreement between their verdicts, those of their peers, the objective evidence, and educated opinion.

Maybe some Olympic sports are too tarnished for credible judged competitions. If so, that's indictment of the Olympics, not a reason to dismiss all judged competition.

Perhaps anticipating objections like mine, Drezner adds:

This doesn't mean that judged competitions aren't exciting. Gymnastics, diving, ice skating can be entertaining, and they demand physical excellence -- but they're not sports.

Drezner is arguing that objective judging is integral to the nature of sport. When Belle Waring complains about idle essentialism kind of essentialism, Drezner replies that her Wittgensteinian worries are misplaced because his only proposing objectivity as one necessary condition for being a sport and rather than proposing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for being a sport.

Even so, Drezner hasn't defended his necessary condition against charges of arbitrariness and/or disregard for ordinary language. We could stipulate that the term "sport" applies only to athletic competitions decided objectively. But why should we? To do so would disregard ordinary English without clarifying anything. Everyone agrees that Olympic divers and gymnasts are competitive athletes. So, if diving and gymnastics aren't sports, what are they? They're not exactly games and they're more than pass times. So far, we don't have an English paraphrase that captures the idea of "competitive physical pursuits adjudicated by judges." Drezner might argue that we ought to coin a term for these judged events, but he hasn't explained why such a revision would be desirable, let alone necessary.

Maybe Drezner is using the term "sport" honorifically. That is, maybe he is arguing that objectively adjudicated events are more valuable than their judged counterparts. If so, he owes us a more detailed argument for that claim.

The potential weaknesses of expert judging are well known, and there is something reassuring about an objective, transparent standard of excellence that anyone with a stopwatch and a camera can verify. However, some might argue that the value of objective Olympic competitions is being undermined by rampant abuse of banned substances. Yes, the standard of victory is clear, but the standard of fair play is becoming increasingly murky.

By contrast, judged competitions may remain interesting in an age of chemically enhanced sport. I'm sure there are gymnasts who abuse banned substances, but a great gymnastics performance makes aesthetic and intellectual demands on the whole person. It's boring to watch the 100 meter dash when you suspect that some of the athletes are dirty. All that matters is who crosses that line first. A chemically enhanced gymnastics routine is still cheating, but at least there's some point in watching it on its own terms. As far as I know, there aren't no good-taste- and innovation-enhancing substances.

We seem to be rapidly approaching the limits of human performance in many objective events. Many judged events will continue to evolve technically and aesthetically long after 100 meter times have leveled off. By choosing his events and his routine, a clean gymnast might be able to compete against a drug user by dint of innovation, aesthetics, and natural athleticism. In judged events, individual athletes can accentuate their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses in order to deliver their best possible performance. These the kinds of physical and mental virtues that athletic competition ought to celebrate.

Frankly, I have a hard time caring about the Olympics at all. But, if we're going to reject the Olympics, it should for institutional corruption, hypocrisy, greed, and cultural irrelevance. Let's not take it out on the gymnasts.

[x-posted with Majikthise]

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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