Commenter claire weighs in on yesterday’s attempt to ascertain the true quality of Olympic accomplishment, writing that
I have to say I’m surprised by some of your rankings – why do you consider Equestrian a “Tier 2” sport, in the same tier as swimming? Frankly, I found the equestrian events entertaining only because I loved seeing the beautiful animals, not what they had been trained to do by the sack-of-potatoes on their backs. The swimming events were pretty exciting, but that could be because I used to swim a lot and can watch the way some of these swimmers execute the strokes and be VERY impressed.
Firstly, regarding equestrian, I had a very…lively…conversation about this particular topic just two days back, with a complete stranger in a hot tub at a hotel. I promise that it’s not as dirty as it sounds. Anyhow, we were discussing the Olympics, and the relative merit of various events, and I brought up the fact that I consider equestrian to be ridiculous for just the reasons claire lists above – namely, it ought to be the horse who gets the medal, since its the horse who does the running and jumping. My source, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, responded in several ways, most of which I found quite unconvincing, such as the amount of training that it takes, the amount of athleticism required to jump horses, and the like. One, however, I found quite convincing, which was an appeal to historical precedent.
It is a fact that many Olympic events have their precursors in military training and practice. Some of these are still around today, such as the javelin throw (like spear throwing) and the steeplechase (like running through a muddy field). Some, such as tug-of-war (pulling down a wall with grapples), were once Olympic events, but no more. Indeed, there is an event, known as the ‘modern pentathlon‘, which was created specifically to reflect the skills of the ideal soldier, in the mind of its founder. The participants compete in fencing, pistol shooting, swimming, horse riding, and a cross-country run. I was stunned to learn about this – I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of this, and I find it all fabulous. I now have a goal of competing in a modern pentathlon at some point in my life – it sounds wonderful, especially if you can start combining events, like two competitors fencing from the back of two swimming horses (clearly, stabbing the other guy’s horse would be considered bad form.)
Anyhow, in this light, equestrian is a bit of a throwback event, but with legitimate Olympic heritage, so I’m willing to let it slide.
As for the fact that riding ponies and swimming show up in the same tier, please note that the tiers are not defined purely in terms of athletic prowess, nor in terms of entertainment value. Entertainment is far too subjective, and you will never find me arguing that gymnasts are not athletes of the highest caliber. I can barely hang on the rings for a few seconds, let alone do inverted crosses from a handstand on them, and don’t even get me started about doing backflips on a 4″ wide beam.
No, instead, the ranking is an attempt to measure the purity of athletic competition. To my mind, a competition is more pure if there is defense, and the ability to affect your competitor’s performance directly. And, lacking defense, a contest is certainly more pure if the outcome is not in doubt once the event ends, a feature lacking in each and every judged event. I’m sorry, but gymnastics is really just an athletic beauty contest. They should try and drop all the ‘mandatory deduction’ bullshit and just go back to the time when the Russian and French judges, hungover from drinking vodka late into the previous evening, snored their way through the event and then just made up some score or other, probably based on applause level, knowing it would get thrown out if it was too high or too low.
And so, while I personally enjoy swimming quite a bit, and equestrian not at all, in terms of purity of athletic competition, they rank in the same tier, at least until Michael Phelps is allowed to reach across the lane line and drown his competitor, especially that French dude, Bernard. He deserved a good drowning, or at least a good mid-swim cockpunching.
Combination mixed martial arts-swimming? Now that’s an event I could get excited about.