~ Posted by Georgia Grimond, August 16th 2012
At the Olympics, 26 sports vied for our attention. But which is the best sport of all? That was the big question we set five writers ahead of the games. Matthew Engel began by defining sport. Exercise and competition are essential, but the best also offer “outward simplicity” and “inner profundity, enough to obsess intelligent humans for a lifetime”. For him, there were only two contenders: golf and football. We held our sixth Big Question poll, and there was a clear winner. It wasn’t in the Olympics and, to some people, isn’t even a sport. But, out of more than 1,400 votes, orienteering had 33%. Either a third of our readers like nothing better than map-reading on the run, or some effective mobilizing had gone on. Something similar happened when Esperanto won our poll on the best language to learn.
That left our writers’ choices contending for silver and bronze. Equestrianism experienced a late surge to take second place with 26% of the votes. No doubt our readers were inspired by the events in Greenwich Park over the last three weeks, as well as by our assistant editor Samantha Weinberg’s enthusiasm for its “testing combination of speed and stamina”. Patrick Barclay had argued that football was the most popular sport, the most inclusive and “morally interesting” to boot, and the agreement of 14% of the voters saw it into third place.
Our other writers’ choices received less endorsement. Sambit Bal proposed cricket, and although he supported Harold Pinter’s view that it’s “the greatest thing God created…certainly greater than sex”, only 10% of voters agreed. (Our poll did prove that Pinter was right about one thing, though: sex got only one vote.) Tanya Aldred saluted the simplicity of athletics, which is all about who is “fastest, highest, strongest”. Despite the headline-grabbing achievements of David Rudisha, Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, in our poll it managed just 8%. Dan Rosenheck cheered for baseball, with its long season reflecting “the daily grind of a modern routine”, but only 3% of voters wanted reminding.
Apart from the orienteers, we had tennis players, rugby players, surfers, martial artists, gymnasts, boxers and sailors all saying why their sport was the best. There were calls for wrestling, lacrosse, hurling and even literball – a Russian drinking game – to be considered. The consensus was that a mixture of mental and physical demands is what makes a sport most appealing, and if you can play it outdoors then so much the better. At the end of the day, when the scores are on the doors, we all know that it’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part. Just try telling that to the orienteers.
Georgia Grimond is the letters editor of Intelligent Life and an editorial assistant at The Economist. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The best language surprise