RSG: Art and Sport?

On the 16th of January, under the heading of "Love of sport takes a high dive", by David Watts, a column appeared on page 3 of the Today section of "The West Australian", the major newspaper in Western Australia. The relevant section is reproduced verbatim below.

Can anyone tell me how it is possible to have solo synchronised swimming? Who does the solo synchronised swimmer synchronise with? Is it Rocky the cartoon western rock lobster and official mascot of these eighth World Swimming Championships? Or is it the little green men who have so obviously inspired swimming officials to make synchronised swimming a sport? The same little green men have worked their evil way with rhythmic gymnastics, ballroom dancing and figure skating -- all wonderful pastime, but sport... I don't think so.

On the 24th of January, the Letters to the Editor on page 15 of "The West Australian" included an objection to the original column, under the banner of "I Disagree". This letter is also reproduced verbatim.

My name is Marie and I am writing to you from Norway. Why would a Norwegian girl write to you down in Australia? I will tell you. It is because of my reaction to the report Love of sport takes a high dive by David Watts (16/1). The report says: "The same little green men have worked their evil way with rhythmic gymnastics, ballroom dancing and figure skating -- all wonderful pastimes, but sport... don't think so." Well, I think so. If any of you have ever trained nearly as much and as hard as any of these sportsmen and women do, you would know. The person who wrote this can't have any idea at all what training is. And I don't mean weightlifting and running, but also (for rhythmic gymnastics, which I happen to practise at the senior lever) coordination, flexibility training, building muscles, apparatus training, ballet, lounge training and so on.

I am not sure you know what I mean. And it's not only because of my bad English. Mr Watts, you just don't have a clue what RSG, figure skating and ballroom dancing is. David Watts, go to a gym, a dancing rink, learn something and come back and write your report once more. We'll see.

And, on the 30th of January, 1998, a member of Souplesse wrote the following essay in response.

Art and Sport

It is doubtless that many agree with the objection, and the arguements raised to support this point of view. However, in the cold light of day, it is also a fact that many people not associated with the named activities agree with Mr Watts and what he has to say. Who is right?

As a preliminary, it is useless to ask the opinions of the practitioners themselves. They will believe what they wish to believe. A madman knows that it is he who is sane. Our ancestors in the middle ages knew that the sun revolved around the Earth. It was the president of a chess club: 'of course we're a sport. They tried to suggest that we're a game, like backgammon. We're not a gambling game. We're definitly a sport.' He wished to believe, and did believe, that chess was a sport, while most of us would be of the opinion that chess definitly is not. Likewise, ballroom dancers renamed their activity as "dancesprt", and thus have tried to claim it as a sport. The claim is extremely dubious, yet it would not be inaccurate to suggest that these people believe differently. Therefore, there can be little use in asking rhythmic gymnasts themselves whether RSG is a sport. It would be very surprising indeed if any said no.

Likewise, in the names of these activities. The "Dancesport" fraternity most likely believes that iwth the word "sport" contained in the title, some opposition may be eliminated, and that the name itself sanctifies their beliefs. Likewise, "Rhythmic Sportive Gymnastics" might be better known simply as "Rhythmic Gymnastics", "RG" instead of "RSG", but for the connotations of sport that are created. As Shakespeare so correctly wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." An activity is not rendered a sport simply because the word appears in the name of the activity. Proponents of these activities may do well to remember this.

What is a sport? It is doubtful that a lexical definition is possible. There are activities, such as soccer, motor racing, running the 100 metres, that everybody agrees on. Others, like RSG, synchronised swimming, "Dancesport", figure skating, are not agreed on, at least not unanimously. Wherein lies the difference?

The most obvious, initial way of classifying some sports is by the criteria in the Olympic Motto, citius, altius, fortius, or "faster higher stronger,". The origins of this motto are uncertain, though a rumour exists that it was inscribed above the doorway of a colledge. Baron Pierre de Coubertin is no longer around to tell us, but nevertheless it was adopted for the Olympic motto. It fits many of the activities, certainly track and field if "longer" is added to the others.

Likewise, soccer, tennis, baseball, all of which are Olympic events, are undoubtably sport. They do not fit "faster, higher, stronger", or "longer" inasmuchas these elements being the primary basis of the activity. One can continue to define and redefine, adding provisos and clauses to create an ever-more succesful definition for sport. One also reaches the conclusion that not matter how succesful the definition, there will be gaps. So instead, look at the reasons for and against these activities, and RSG particularly, being classified as sport.

There are two obvious and much repeated reasons for denying RSG, figure skating and synchronised swimming status as sports. They are namely, that scoring relies on discretion of judges, and that these activities are set to music.

There is an easy and effective counter-arguement to these objections. Nobody in their right mind could deny Artistic Gymnastics a sporting status, and the women's floor event is set to music. This event is set to music, and is scored by judges. Does this counter the arguement?

The answer is both yes and no. The idea of objecting to an activity on the basis of scoring being performed by judges is unworkable. Amateur boxing -- as opposed to the professional brutality promoted by Don King -- is also scored by judges, and so too is diving. Both are fairly unchallenged in their statusas sport.

But the music? The mere presence of it, as the Artistic Gymnastics example shows, does not infringe on sporting worth. There is, however, a question as to how much the sport depends on the music. Watching a women's artistic gymnastic floor performance without sound does not detract much from the performance. The same cannot be said of RSG, synchronised swimming, or "Dancesprt". With the first of these three, at least, there is a very noticeable differnace. Coincidentally, or not, two of these activities are in the Olympics, and have many who doubt their status. The last is not even in the Olympics, and is even more doubted. A coincidence?

A further coincidence is noticeable with the conjunction of those activities which are at least partly set to music, and those in which women compete, sometimes as the only participants. There is a movement for men's RSG, but it is weak and practically insignificant compared with women's RSG. Women's RSG is set to music. Synchronised Swimming is women only. It is set to music. Figure skating ia set to music, and for both men and women, and is the exception. And "Dancesport", involving a male/female couple, is set to music.

Conclusion? Whether sport or not, these activities have music as an integral part, as is the choreography. There is a competitive element, of that there is not the slightest doubt. But for the spectator, the attraction lies not in goals scored, or ideas of faster, higher, stronger, longer. No indeed. There is one facet that these activities share, by way of music and choreography. The look good to watch -- they have aesthetic appeal. That letter to the editor mentioned that critics should go and watch some training. Should anybody at all go and watch RSG, "Dancesport", figure skating, or synchronised swimming, they will be realistically unable to deny the fact that aesthetics play a major role in theses activities. The relationship between aesthetics and the gender-bias is these activities is one for individuals to decide on. But the aesthetic element is undeniably there.

And so, after criticisms of RSG and other activities, to the defence of them. The defence of saying it is a sport, by rhythmic gymnasts, we have already dismissed. This leaves us with the arguement based of the physical side of the activity. The letter presented near the beginning encapsulates all the points nicely. No one, least of all I, doubts for a moment the assertion in paragraph 3 of the RSG pictures on the CHP photo library, which you can read here. "To reach the elite levels of RSG competition requires physical conditioning that very few athletes can comprehend. Rhythmic gymnasts require a complete mastery of body control. They must have the strength to jump high, and contract any muscles necessary to redirect their motion. They must be flexible enough to move effortlessly through positions that would be impossible for most people. They must also have the grace, musicality, balance, and expressiveness of a ballet dancer, combined with the hand-eye coordination of a juggler. Rhythmic gymnasts are without question among the most highly trained athletes, and deserve every bit of the respect and admiration that we pay them at the CHP."

It is clear to us all that rhythmic gymnasts train in strength, flexibility and other elements much harder than the rest of us comprehend, or would be capable of doing ourselves. This is not in doubt even for a second. However, no amount of physical training, no levels of strength, stamina and suppleness achieved in pursuit of the elite levels on an activity, can mean that that activity is a sport.

The arguement for this is as simple as it is convincing. The average ballerina (or in fact any ballet dancer) also trains is strength, flexibility and other elements much harder than the rest of us could comprehend, or would be capable of doing ourselves. A dancer is strong, is supple, has stamina, and in reaching the elite level in her activity (ballet), is without question among the most highly trained athletes, and deserves every bit of the respect and admiration that we give her. In physical qualities, she is very similar to our practitioner of RSG. But nobody would call Ballet a sport. And the dancer, indeed, are not sportspersons. The committment required by the dancer to reach the top of her field is a commitment of life, at least as dedicated as the Rhythmic Gymnast.

A state of physical fitness, then, cannot be an arguement for regarding RSG as a sport. The same applies for other activities, of synchronised swimming, figure skating, and "dancesport". The first of these, synchronised swimming, is like RSG in the enormous dedication need for success. Synchronised swimmers also need strength, flexibility and stamina. Few other activities require such efforts as remaining submerged for two minutes, exercising vigourously the entire time. Both activities need similar dedication, yet some who say that RSG is a sport, refuse to let synchronised swimming wear the same crown. It is hard to see how one can be classified as a sport, when the other is not.

The link between ballet and RSG is well known, and with the important aesthetic and musical qualities of RSG, it draws a lot from ballet, and is thus at least partly art, as ballet is. RSG, therefore, hangs uneasily along the border of both media. It is closely related to ballet, and thus art, and shares some characteristics with it, but at the same time the scoring and competitiveness are unartlike, and draw away from this connection. RSG is related to sport, and shares some characteristics with it; but at the same time the aesthetics and the musicality is unsportlike, and draw away from this connection. So which is it? Is RSG sport or art?

To answer this question, we draw an analogy from nature. There exists a curious little organism known as the Slime Mould. It is most curious because at one stage of its life cycle it resembles an amoeba, a single celled animal. Yet at another stage, it releases spores, like fungi. There are in fact four or five different kingdoms for the classification of organisms, but to the layman, they can be divided up into two, either plant or animal. The slime mould, however, defies this classification. It has some characteristics of an animal, but at the same time the release of spores is un-animallike., and so draws away from this conclusion. The slime mould has some characteristics of a plant, but at the same time the idea of it creeping along is un-plantlike, and so draws away from this conclusion. The slime-mould, then, is neither plant nor animal, more of a hybrid that has elements of both. It belongs in a third, middle-ground kingdon.

RSG is like the slime mould. It is both art and sport, but not quite either. The balance may not be even -- Zaripova, in an interview with International Gymnast magazine, expresses the view that RSG is about 70% sport and 30% art. But there is a balance there, and RSG is not wholly the sport that some would like to believe it to be, nor is it completely the art that the performances of Vitrichenko tend to make it. It is a hybrid, a living medium between the two. And there is no rational reason why synchronised swimming shouldn't be considered in the same way.

RSG then, is not a sport, in the strictest sense. But moving onto the last criticism. Should RSG, or other similar activities for that matter, be allowed in the Olympic Games? Those who claim that is it a sport say yes, those who insist that it isn't, say no. So should it?

The answer is yes. Of couse RSG, whether sport or not, should be in the Games. There are three very good reasons why.

(1) The Olympics has never been a purely sporting event. In Ancient Greece, while it is true that the sports were probably the most important part of the Olympics, arts were also associated. "Winners became national heroes; musicians sand their praises, and sculptors immortalised their strength and beauty in marble. Their feats of skill and courage were recorded by the poets and writers of the time (Encyclopaedia Britannica)". In more modern times, cities hosting the Olympics have times other cultural festivals to coincide. The like between the Olympics, sport and the arts is strong, and it is fair that RSG be included in the Olympics, as it encompasses all three.

(2) Rsg has existed longer than it has been an Olympic Event. It might be fair to say, however, that the popularity of RSG is related to its inclusion in the Olympics. Should it lose Olympic status, RSG would almost certainly lose populariey. The existence of rhythmic gymnastics has helped create a situation where many youngsters are being trained in flexibility, and attaining good health and healthy lifestyles generally. The flexibility training techniques used are also safely expanding upon the principles of contortion, dance and acrobatics(RSG at photolib, 4th paragraph). Thus the existence of RSG in the Olympics is directly related to this training, and thus iit is important that RSG remains in the Olympics. Few people, even stern critics of RSG, could argue this point.

(3) Some question the relevance of RSG to Olympic competition. It would arguably, however, have more justification for its inclusion than tennis, soccer, or equestrian events. The first two of these have more significant arenas of competition than the Olympics, in Wimbledon and the World Cup respectively. Equestrian events are still more dubious. The Olympic Games are presumably a test of the sporting prowess of people, yet these events require another animal, the horse. Next to these three examples, RSG has a strong claim for Olympic status.

And there we have it. An initial answer that satisfies noone, because the classification of RSG itself cannot satisfy everyone. There questions aside, however, the thinking person who approaches this debate would be strongly amiss, if she concluded that RSG is not worthy of Olympic inclusion. It should always be remembered that sport isn't, has never been, and never shall be the be-all and end-all of the Olympics.

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