01 March, 2018

The curious sports classification of the IOC

I do not care much about winter sports and thus I do not follow the Winter Olympics. The only disciplines I pay any attention to are figure skating (but these last few years I do not care much even for this) and snowboard cross (which I find great). Be that as it may, I was somehow intrigued when I read that there are only 7 sports contested in this year's Winter Olympics. So I looked closer and I found that the IOC has a somewhat curious classifications of sports.

The competitions which are part of the Olympic Games are in order: sports, disciplines, events, phases and units.

Sports are those governed by international federations. Athletics is obviously a sport. Curiously swimming is not. It is just a discipline part of the sport "aquatics". Finswimming (my discipline) is not a sport either: the IOC recognises "underwater sports" of which finswimming is a discipline. There are 28 Summer Olympic international federations (and 7 more Winter ones) to which one must add 36 more which, while recognised, are not part of the Olympics program.

Disciplines refer to parts of a sport, just like swimming is part of aquatics, together with diving, water polo and artistic swimming (previously known as "synchronised"). Athletics has disciplines also. One can think of the ensemble of track events and that of field events as disciplines but I feel that a better classification of disciplines would be a distinction between stadium and road events. Or perhaps outdoor and indoor. 

Events are competitions which give rise to a medal award. Thus pole vault, decathlon or 4x100 m relay race are events. They give rise to a classification. Events can also be team ones and they do exist in athletics, for instance in cross, albeit not in the olympic program.

Phases are parts of an event. Combined events obviously consist of phases. But the various qualifying rounds, semi-finals and final are also phases of a given event.

Units are the last subdivision. The series of the heptathlon 800 m are units of the 800 m heptathlon phase. The same goes, for instance, for the quarter-finals of some event.

All this looks pretty logical, and it is. So, why am I speaking about a "curious" classification? Well, it has to do with the uppermost level. A sport is tied to an international federation. Suppose that in some remote future the IOC decides to include finswimming in the Summer Olympics program. (I am sure that this is not going to happen during my lifetime). Under the present status finswimming will be a sport. But suppose that FINA, the international swimming federation, wants to control this and gives their assent only provided finswimming comes into the Olympics governed by them. Then finswimming would not be a sport but a discipline, part of aquatics. So at the topmost level the definition of sport becomes purely political. This is what I find somewhat curious.

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