Let the Games Begin

And the gold medal for pinochle goes to...

Olympic sports purists -- i.e., those who stay up until 4 a.m. to watch the live telecasts of synchronized swimming, rhythm gymnastics, curling and badminton every four years -- will be gratified to learn that plans are proceeding apace to include the game of contract bridge (and not contact bridge, a much more promising candidate) as a full-medal sport in some future Olympiad, perhaps as early as the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy. "We've been working on it for many years," says David Silber, chief executive officer of the American Contract Bridge Association, based in Memphis. "We know we're talking about a jump, from physical sport to a mind sport. It's different than ballroom dancing."

His cause received a huge boost in 1998, when Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, attended a bridge tournament being held at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Bridge is a sport," the octogenarian pronounced, "and, as such, its place is here, like all other sports." More recently, bridge inched closer to becoming a medal sport when the IOC formally asked the World Bridge Federation to supply proof that its doping regulations conformed to Olympic standards -- a test the WBF is expected to pass, unless Chex Party Mix is designated a performance-enhancing substance.

In fact, the only remaining administrative hurdle to admitting bridge as a medal sport in the winter games is Olympic Charter Rule 9.4, which states: "Those sports which are practiced on snow or ice are considered as winter sports." The WBF is now in the process of seeking an official modification to that rule. "So far, bridge has reached the same level as golf, rugby, squash and karate, which, though recognized as sports, are not yet admitted into the Olympic Games," the WBF concludes in a Web site update on the Olympic Bridge campaign.

And yet, as someone who has played golf, rugby, squash, karate, and bridge, I can tell you that these sports actually are not on the same level at all. Unlike rugby games I've been in, for instance, I have never played a bridge match so vigorous that I actually had trouble walking the next day. (I'm not saying it hasn't been done, only that I don't compete at that level of bridge.)

Nor have I finished a game of bridge and found myself drenched in sweat, as is typically the case after a squash match. And while golf courses and bridge tournaments both involve clubs and drink carts, beyond that the two games share little in common. On the other hand, I have never sipped single-malt Scotch all the way through a karate sparring match.

Why is the idea of Olympic bridge so annoying? Is it the lack of athleticism -- the image of the pasty Norwegian bridge team as they shamble into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies, finger muscles grotesquely pumped from years of hard dealing? Could it be the tragedy of the mighty Olympians of yore, runners and jumpers and weightlifters and wrestlers, being reduced to the same activity for which ladies gather on Wednesday evenings? Or is it simply that watching bridge -- yes, even Olympian bridge -- is possibly the most stultifying waste of time in the history of the world?

Whichever, the crusade for card-carrying Olympians raises an interesting question: How do individual sports enter and exit the most venerable of athletic competitions? If bridge goes Olympian, can, say, the game of Risk be far behind? (Naturally, that board game's goal of deploying military might to conquer the world would have to be modified to conform to the Olympic ideals of peace and mutual understanding.)

"Um, I don't think that will happen," says John MacAloon. And as a consultant to the IOC and a scholar of Olympic sports, MacAloon, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, would know. "While bridge has some vigorous support" -- specifically Swiss IOC vice president Marc Hodler, a besotted player and consumed fan of the game -- "Olympic sports have always been considered movement activities," MacAloon points out. "Even shooting depends on a physical investment in stillness. Bridge is not a physical activity, so, despite Hodler's support, it has no chance."

Besides, permitting bridge players into the Olympic Village would open far too many doors to unsavory, pear-shaped board-game types. Chess players would step up their campaign, and before you know it, Go and mah-jongg fanatics would be cluttering up IOC headquarters, with Monopoly enthusiasts waiting in the wings.

Yet despite bridge's uncertain future as a medal showdown, new sports regularly make appearances at the Olympics. The 1996 summer games in Atlanta debuted mountain biking, women's soccer, softball and beach volleyball. Two months from now, Sydney will host the first Olympic baseball game, triathlon, tae kwon do, trampoline, women's water polo and women's weightlifting contests -- not to mention, of course, the highly anticipated unveiling of synchronized diving.

So, if not bridge, how can sports enthusiasts around the globe begin campaigning for the first Olympic duels in Yahtzee, Uno, strip poker and tree-climbing? The following is a guide for getting the IOC to notice you and your sport:

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