When is a sport not a sport?
If we accept chess and e-sports, let’s at least be good sports about it
Bobby Fischer was and remains a sportswriter’s dream, a paranoid genius who was as likely to miss a flight because he thought he was being lured into a kidnapping as he was because he decided en route to the airport he would rather go shop for a television set.
In 1972 he missed his flight, willfully, for five consecutive nights as increasingly frazzled organisers tried to get him to Reykjavik to challenge Boris Spassky for the world championship.
Fischer eventually went, saw and conquered. Only to forfeit his title three years later in a squabble with the suits.
He emerged from years of obscurity in 1992 to beat Spassky again in Yugoslavia, which at the time was subject to a United Nations embargo and US sanctions.
That earned Fischer an arrest warrant from the US government, and in 2004 he spent months in jail in Japan for using a revoked passport.Fischer, who won the US championship at 14, dropped out of school at 16, was dead at 64 after he refused medical treatment for a blocked urinary tract.
A fight over inheritance promptly erupted between his Japanese supposed wife and the Filipino mother of his children, leading to the exhumation of his body for DNA sampling.
As we speak — and until March 14 — the Bobby Fischer Memorial tournament is being played in Reykjavik.
If you can’t see the rich seam of stories to be mined from all that, best you don’t take up writing: on sport or anything else.
Clearly, the kid could play. But he played chess.
Is chess a sport? Yes, says the International Olympic Committee. No, says the UK government, which doesn’t fund the game — which it would do if it did consider chess a sport.
Chess is a sport in that it is intensely competitive and requires high levels of talent and skill of its serious players.
But if chess is a sport what about draughts? Snakes and ladders? Monopoly? Pictionary? They’re all board games, but a roll of the dice is key to two of them. But something like talent and skill are required to play draughts and Pictionary.
What of bridge, snooker and darts, which tick all the boxes to be a sport except that they do not require physical fitness, strength, or much in the way of hand-eye co-ordination? Anyone for archery?And if we decide that these are not sports we’ll have to ask ourselves whether some sports are more sport than other sports.
Cricket, for instance, is more physically taxing than bowls or golf but less than rugby, which is a picnic compared to boxing or marathon running. So is boxing more of a sport than golf? Hell yes, if you ask this sportswriter.
Thing is, while we’re asking ourselves these worthy questions the space for sport in the public consciousness as we know it — or want to debate it — is being eaten alive by the rising giant of e-sports.
Whether we regard sitting motionless, but for our typing fingers, at a computer for hours on end as a sport or not doesn’t matter. Everybody from J-Lo to Gillette is interested in getting a piece of the action in an activity that could make its Olympic debut in Paris in 2024. Science fiction? Not if you consider that e-sports is already on board for the 2022 Asian Games.
“We have to look at it because we can’t say: ‘It’s not us. It’s not about Olympics’,” Tony Estanguet, the co-president of the 2024 Paris bid committee, told the Associated Press last year.
“The youth, yes they are interested in e-sport and this kind of thing. Let’s look at it. Let’s meet them. Let’s try if we can find some bridges.
“I don’t want to say ‘no’ from the beginning. I think it’s interesting to interact with the IOC, with them, the e-sports family, to better understand what the process is and why it is such a success.”
The e-sports industry grows by more than a third a year. It was valued at $660-million last year and is expected to reach $.5-billion by 2020.
It is followed by 385 million people worldwide. One online platform, Twitch, attracts 400 million views a month.The current, unofficial, e-sports Olympics is a tournament in Katowice in Poland that draws more than 100,000 spectators over three days.
All those nerdy geeks tear themselves away from their screens to go somewhere built of bricks and mortar to watch this stuff up close and personal.
None of them care whether their heroes can hit a six, score a goal, throw a mean left hook, or tie their shoelaces.
Feel it, e-sports is here. That you don’t want to believe that matters bugger nothing.
There are indeed bulletproof reasons why e-sports is as much a sport as anything involving balls, sweat and injuries. But they’re not the kind of reasons wanted by any sport, game, pastime, whatever.
Doping, for instance, is rife, which is hardly surprising considering e-sports competitors need to have the reactions of fighter pilots if they are going to make it out of little league.And there’s a misogyny problem. On March 9, International Women’s Day, Soe Gschwind-Penski, a leading e-sports commentator — yes, there are people talking excitedly on air to a vast audience of people about all those other people pushing buttons — tweeted “a special shoutout to all the men in our lives who have supported us, gave us a voice when we had none, fought for our cause and treated us the way we all ought to treat each other ... like a fellow human being – no race, no gender”.
You would think men, however undeserving, would be touched by Gschwind-Penski’s generosity of spirit. Or at least be civilised enough not to respond. But no …
“I’ve gotten death threats and hundreds of hate messages the past 20 minutes because I thanked men for treating me as their equal, on a day which is all about women’s struggle for equality. Hate, because I am grateful for the men in our lives who fight alongside us for our rights.”
You might say that’s just not cricket. Or, after what we saw at St George’s Park on the first day of the second Test between South Africa and Australia, you might say it is.Men turned up wearing Sonny Bill Williams face masks to try and get a rise out of David Warner because Warner’s wife, the former Candice Falzon, had a fling with Williams eight years before their marriage.
To those stupid men, Warner’s wife wasn’t a person; just a possession to do with as he and therefore they wished.
If e-sports can stamp out that kind awfulness, it might earn more attention from this sportswriter.