Judging Athletics

Let us consider the absurdity of judged sports now, before the inevitable scandal sure to arise sometime before the current installment of the Olympic Games have concluded, before nationalist passions and hometown prejudices cloud the discussion, and before headline writers ask “Was She Robbed?” Let cool heads prevail.

Diving, gymnastics, and figure skating are athletic exercises that involve tremendous flexibility, power, stamina, balance, courage, and grace — all qualities we associate with sports. But they’re not really sports. They’re aesthetics.

The “best” practitioners are not the ones who perform fastest, highest, longest, strongest, but the ones who satisfy a judging panel’s subjective tastes. If this were not so — if, in fact, the judgments were not subjective but merely standardized scores based on obvious norms — judges would be irrelevant. Everyone in the stands and watching on television would “know” who was best. Clearly, this is usually not the case — precisely because we all have different values influenced by factors other than the optimal position of a skate or the tuck of a knee. When athletics are subjected to voting, they cease to have the inarguable clarity of true sports.

“American Idol” is back on television now, and sure as there will be a contrived catfight among the ratings-conscious judges, the voting public will certainly put through a contestant less worthy than others. (According to me and my infallible tastes.) The alleged expert judges, whose collective idiocy nearly makes the show unwatchable, are little better than the average channel-flipper in articulating why one singer is “better” than the rest. Everyone, professional musician or not, has an opinion, and the contestant who earns the most votes wins.

This process is similar to how a judged athletic contest works, except the evaluators at the Olympics are supposed to have more acute faculties than Paula Abdul. At the end of the day, whether they do or don’t is largely irrelevant. The purity of sport, the absoluteness, is perverted by judges who, despite their best efforts to be robots, are fallible, emotional, prejudiced human beings.

Two of the artists on my little record label are currently fighting for airplay in a crowded field of talented singers. In some markets they win, in others they lose. Some radio programmers prefer “inferior” artists; some grasp the holy beauty of my more worthy performers. The jazz radio charts are very much like figure skating contests: a bunch of supposedly knowledgeable people evaluates dozens of performances and picks the ones they think are best. When they pick my artists, they’ve made the right and just choice. When they don’t, they robbed the girl who should have won.

Just as music is best enjoyed as an aesthetic experience removed from petty competition, athletic events that stress beauty are best enjoyed with the commentary muted and the judges excused. They are not sports. They’re exhibitions.

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