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:

1. Get used to the snow. MacAloon says the organizers of the Summer Games, like those of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are committed to reducing the length of the show (with the same level of success). That's why the category of "demonstration sports" -- televised competitions whose winners don't receive medals -- has been nixed altogether.

Winter Olympics officials, on the other hand, are more or less desperate for new acts. This explains the admission of curling as a medal sport and why the World Bridge Federation is petitioning to get into the games alongside such comparable activities as the giant slalom, luge and ice hockey.

2. Let the girls play. The IOC now frowns on games that only boys play. A sport must be played in 75 countries to be admitted as a men's sport into the games. For women, it's only forty countries. That's why much of the Summer Games' recent expansion consists of adding women's divisions to existing sports.

3. Let everyone else in the world play, too. Most of the contests in the modern Olympic games are either European or North American sports or up-to-date derivatives of them. The IOC is looking for a little diversity. Indeed, the next event reportedly in line to be admitted to the games is sepak takraw, a Thai game that looks like volleyball played with your feet -- and that most Americans probably haven't seen unless they've happened to channel-surf past ESPN2 at 3 a.m.

This past spring, the Takraw Association of Thailand staged a contest for IOC president Samaranch. The demonstration (first a match between the country's top men's teams, then -- see No. 2 above -- a women's match) was preceded by a display of 500 children waving Olympic flags. Samaranch, whose words and actions are dissected like those of a politburo member, appeared "interested" in the game, according to the Thai newspaper The Nation. It is "a wonderful sport," he was heard to say.

4. Be modern, or learn to get that way. Nothing in the Olympic Games is as antiquated as the modern pentathlon, an event originally conceived by the military. Although each of the events singly is a fine way to pass some time -- riding, shooting, fencing, cross-country running and swimming -- together they're a mishmash of events that, according to the sport's official Web site, "arose out of the romantic, tough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse is brought down in enemy territory."

Yet, to their credit, the powers that be in pentathloning have received the message and have adapted. This year will mark the first time women will compete (see No. 2), and the event has been shortened from four or five days down to a much more viewer-friendly one (see No. 1).

Indoor volleyball has also been forced to keep up with the times. The games in Atlanta marked the debut of beach volleyball, a far sexier sport than its sneaker-squeaky, gymnasium-bound cousin. So this year, to win viewers, the 2000 indoor volleyball matches will sport a new feature: A roving free-safety-like player called the "libero" will attempt to spice up the game.

Fencing, too, is struggling to stay relevant. One of four original Olympic sports, formal sword fighting has become arcane and -- a far worse sin -- un-telegenic. In an attempt to bring the event into the 21st century (at this point, even the 18th century would be nice), fencing bureaucrats have experimented with a clear plastic mask that at least would put a human face on the contestants.

Many fencers have resisted the changes, but they remain purists at their peril. Events such as the standing long jump and standing high jump did not keep pace with the times (although it's hard to imagine how they could have) and so were canned from the games. Can Greco-Roman wrestling be far behind?

5. Be correct (politically). No one's saying this out loud, but to qualify for the games a sport must be socially acceptable to everyone. That's why there is a quadrennial outcry against boxing. Though it is appealing because medals often go to Asians and South Americans (see No. 3), it is also violent. And, says MacAloon, women will never be permitted to earn medals because most IOC members, many of whom are well into their seventh or eighth century of life, consider female boxing barely a step above soft-corn porn.

(Synchronized swimming faces a similar complaint, but from a different angle: Men will never be allowed to do it, and feminists complain that by exposing only bare, isolated limbs as they shoot out of the water -- albeit in unison -- and not the total female, the event objectifies women.)

Trying to keep everyone satisfied is also the dilemma with the IOC's decision to admit tae kwon do as a medal sport in Sydney (it was a demonstration one in Seoul and Barcelona). Like it or not, martial-art forms are linked to their countries of origin. According to MacAloon, China is now aggressively wondering why their ancient enemy, the Japanese, have their own Olympic form (judo), and their other traditional enemy, the Koreans, have theirs (tae kwon do), while the Chinese are being left out in the cold, table tennis notwithstanding.

Finally, political correctness is one reason, though hardly the only one, that golf was frozen out of the Atlanta games. MacAloon recalls that local Olympic officials there desperately tried to include the sport in the 1996 games at the last minute. But when organizers proposed that the competition be played at the venerable home of the Masters Tournament, Olympic planners -- including Atlanta's mayor -- balked at what they considered a less-than-inclusive membership policy at the Augusta National Golf Club.

6. Don't ask for a new house. Don't expect to find favor among IOC members if you are proposing an Olympic sport that will require a crisp, new $40 million venue. As it is, host cities already go way, way out on a financial limb preparing for the games. It is for this reason (at the very least) that Formula One auto racing will never grace the Olympiad.

Conversely, one of the reasons the triathlon was approved so quickly (although undeniably popular, the event has been in existence a mere 27 years) is that running, biking and swimming already had venues and experienced organizers. In other words, while triathloning itself is new, Olympic officials looked favorably on the fact that there is nothing new about it.

Even better would be to find an underutilized venue to piggyback on. This is the only conceivable explanation for the existence of synchronized diving (except, perhaps, for the anticipated strong showing by the hometown Aussies). There it sat, the diving pool in the Sydney International Aquatic Centre, multimillion-dollar home to a mere four events. You can hear the gears turning inside the head of some underappreciated diving coach soon after the 2000 games were awarded to Sydney: "I've got it! Let's have two divers jump at the same time!"

If only they would put the diving boards at right angles and make it synchronized contact diving. That would be something worth staying up until 4 a.m. to watch.

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