Chess an Olympic Sport?

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The Asian Games span two weeks and embrace the full gamut of events. Basketball, swimming, track, cycling. But there's a centuries-old game included in Qatar that we don't normally associate with a sporting event. In the same hall where weightlifting and bodybuilding are competing, grand masters are also competing for medals in chess. That's right. The hall seats 1,000 people and ticket-holders in Qatar are evidently quite enthusiastic about watching the sedentary board game of chess.

I'm not here to malign chess. Au contraire. This is a game revered all around the world for its intellectual challenge. As it was originated in India hundreds of years ago, perhaps it is quite logical to be included in the Asian Games. The jumbotron images of the board allow spectators to clearly see the progress of the game. And they now play a version called Swiss Speed Chess, which moves along briskly. We've long had a fascination with the Russian child prodigies of the game... and the eccentrics, such as Bobby Fisher, whose minds could grasp a complex series of moves and counter-moves in advance.

So who am I to say that chess shouldn't be one of the sports of the Asian Games? The thing is that the world governing body of chess has instituted drug testing in Qatar. Yes, in that same hall where weightlifters and bodybuilders will give up urine for steroid testing, the chess players will also be subject to chemical scrutiny. What drugs are they testing for, exactly? I'd like to know because if there's a drug that makes you think more clearly, helps organize your mind, then no doubt many scientists and academics, maybe a few journalists, would like a prescription. The reason chess players are being drug tested at the Asian Games is that the sport is attempting to satisfy all International standards, with an eye on eventual inclusion in the Olympics. Is this a game you want to see on the Olympic calendar, chess? What about backgammon and bridge? How about poker? Maybe gold medals should be doled out for No Limit Texas Hold'em. And there's Monopoly. One could argue the long-standing living-room tradition of Monopoly. And I suppose if chess is going to be played at the Olympics, it would be entirely unjust to leave out its less challenging but world-renowned cousin, checkers.

The Greeks established a catch-all phrase for the Olympic roster: Swifter, Higher, Stronger. Chess doesn't come close to embodying any one of the Greek standards. It's a board game, a fine game. But it's not a sport. Chess players are not athletes.

And at the same moment that chess is mentioned as a possible future Olympic sport, women's ski jumping has been denied inclusion in the next Winter Games. At all the venues in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Chile, and Europe where men practice and compete in ski jumping--that swoosh down the long ramp, the spring at the instant of lift-off, that elegant glide through the crisp winter air, the body almost horizontal in an aerodynamic streamline, and finally the soft landing hundreds of feet below--where men are ski jumping, women are ski jumping as well. But the International Olympic Committee has just now officially rejected women's ski jumping for the next Winter Games in Vancouver, 2010, even after viewing footage of women from all over the world, showing their prowess in the sport.

Ballroom dancing was included as an exhibition sport in Sydney 2000, under consideration as a full-medal sport. Rhythmic gymnastics, which as far as I can tell is skill-less winding of ribbons in the air, is now an Olympic sport. Women won't be allowed to compete for Olympic medals in ski jumping. But chess will be a possible future addition.

Is it any wonder the Olympic brand is suffering a popularity crisis?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad