The Big Question: at the Olympics, 26 sports compete for our attention, and some big ones are not even there. If you had to choose your favourite, which would it be? Matthew Engel establishes the ground rules...
A LONG TIME ago, a young sports reporter on my first overseas assignment—the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Canada—I was despatched to cover the wrestling. Memory suggests it was Greco-Roman wrestling; the internet says it must have been freestyle. (Both versions are always in the Olympics.) Whichever—it bore no relation to the simple grunt-and-groan wrestling my dad watched on TV. I had no idea what was going on: it was at once unpleasant and incomprehensible.
I buttonholed an apparent expert, who assured me of two things: that there would be no gold medals awarded that night and if anyone was going to win one, he would be from India. The moment my expert drifted away, a bell rang, lights flashed and an Australian was announced as champion.
I went away thinking this must be the worst sport of all, an opinion which has survived the passing decades.
The best? That’s altogether harder. How do you define “best”? Come to that, how do you define sport? A century ago, it usually meant killing wild animals, or sex, or just good fun. Now? Chambers Dictionary gets close: “A game or activity, esp. one involving physical exercise.” I would say the exercise is essential. And Chambers fails to mention competition, which is surely essential, and rules out pro-wrestling, which is infamously rigged. But searching for a definition does seem a bit futile: as with an elephant, you know sport when you see it.
I have invented a few sports myself: balloonball, reverse cricket, pavement steeplechasing. Reverse cricket is a pretty good one (full rules on application). Could it be the best of all? Maybe not. But then I reckon almost all the sports that will be played at the London Festival of Mostly Minor Pastimes, otherwise known as the Olympics, also fail that test.
What we can say is that all sports fall into four categories. There are races: on foot, on horseback, on water, in water, in cars—including races where the human element is indirect, like greyhound racing. There are fights: boxing, fencing, wrestling, etc. There are ball games. And there are competitive disciplines, which may involve objective facts (jumping, throwing, weightlifting, darts, competitive angling), or matters of subjective judgment: figure skating, diving and so on.
We do have a few anomalies and hybrids. Judo and tug-of-war straddle the fighting/competitive discipline divide. And I have never seen the point of any of the oval-ball versions of football. They don’t have much to do with feet. And is that really a ball? But balls do also have to include ice hockey pucks, badminton shuttlecocks and curling stones.
That does, however, bring us to the first criterion for excellence: accessibility is a virtue. This need not necessarily disqualify rugby, or American football, or cricket and baseball, although rugby matches in particular tend to be decided on a referee’s interpretation of something invisible to the crowd.
Still, a game can be wonderfully satisfying to watch for its initiates, even if entirely baffling to an outsider. Unfortunately, cricket, the most obvious example, has an intractable structural problem: its long-form version has largely been rejected by the mass audience. But the hit-and-giggle versions are regarded with contempt by the game’s connoisseurs and most professionals (though they like the money). And, though I adore baseball, I have noticed that spectators are usually more interested in queuing for pizza than watching, even if the bases are loaded and Albert Pujols is at the plate.
Athletics and swimming loom large at the Olympics. Yet they attract little attention for 206 weeks out of every 208. For good reason. At the pool, you can’t even see the competitors properly. The only point in watching a marathon, apart from cheering on your mad pals, iout for the pantomime horses and so on, and they don’t allow them at the Olympics. And, though I know people who have £750 tickets for the London 100-metres final and are very excited...well, I hope they don’t sneeze at the wrong moment.
A sport also has to be satisfying to play. After he won his fourth Olympic gold in 1996, the rower Steve Redgrave famously told people to shoot him if he was seen in a boat again, before relenting and winning No. 5 four years later. But in such a demanding sport, the important thing is not the taking part, it’s the winning. And the Henley Regatta is the only major sporting occasion I know where no one watches.
Anyone for tennis? Spencer Gore, the first Wimbledon champion in 1877, said that the game would never appeal for long to a decent cricketer: “the monotony of the game would choke him off before he had time to excel in it”. That’s still true. Even the Williams sisters get bored.
We can also rule out anything where the aim is to hurt your opponent (bye bye, boxing) or where overwhelming excellence is confined to freakish specimens (bye bye, basketball).
There is to me one overriding consideration. The best sport would have to combine outward simplicity with inner profundity, enough to obsess intelligent humans for a lifetime without them ever entirely mastering its strategies and truths.
There is horse racing, for sure: no one has ever fathomed what a horse is thinking. But the world’s best trainer and jockey can’t turn a nag into a champ. And the interest is largely dependent on the stimulus of a bet. So that leaves two possibles. One is the world’s most popular sport. Football is accessible, exciting and profound enough to keep engaging Sir Alex Ferguson past his 70th birthday while still leaving him regularly flummoxed. Unfortunately, it fails the same test as boxing: it damages the brain. Observe Fergie himself on a bad day. Above all, look at the supporters—and the inane delight of the Manchester City and Chelsea fans at their recent triumphs, bought for them by their plutocratic owners.
We have one last contender. Simple in outline; beguiling, indeed addictive to play; thrilling, at crucial moments, to watch; about beating oneself as much as one’s opponent. Ask Tiger Woods: no man can ever say he has got golf licked.
However, look at the golf writers, whose idea of a day off is to go out and play the game themselves. Look at the old pros so befuddled that they can no longer trust themselves to propel the ball into the hole with a normal putter. Far more assuredly than boxing, this sport causes brain damage.
Maybe in the end there is no best sport. If underwater hockey or reverse cricket or Greco-Roman wrestling rocks your boat...that’s all for the best.
What do you think is the best sport? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Patrick Barclay on football, Tanya Aldred on athletics, Samantha Weinberg on equestrianism, Sambit Bal on cricket and Dan Rosenheck on baseball