Last week, the first contingent of U.S. Olympians arrived in Athens. The five men and one woman, survivors of a merciless selection process, stood ready to test themselves against the strongest competitors in the world.
Sunday, they go home.
Their competition, the International Mathematical Olympiad, is already over. The math Olympiad may not attract a worldwide broadcast audience or demand traffic-jamming last-minute infrastructure fixes like the Olympic Games per se. But it’s a contest as rigorous and rarefied as anything you’ll see on NBC this August. Could mathletes someday compete alongside track stars and basketball players under the aegis of the five rings?
The question isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. To many people, competitive math is just another sport. In my high school you could letter in it. ESPN broadcasts MATHCOUNTS, a national math contest for middle-school students. In Count Down, his gripping and definitive account of the 2001 IMO, Steve Olson writes that the American team attacks math problems “with the fervor and single-mindedness of world-class athletes.” Not that you’d mistake these kids for the campus jocks—when I competed at the Olympiad, there were plenty of skinny eccentrics, with a promiscuous hippie here and there, and not a little subclinical autism spectrum. But the math stars display the focused confidence of athletes, even, at times, adopting Deion-style swagger. Honesty compels me to confess that my high-school math team was called the “Hell’s Angles”; that we wore matching black T-shirts advertising this fact; and that we entered each match in file behind our captain, who carried on his shoulder a boombox playing “Hip To Be Square.”
That’s still a long way from an Olympic processional. But consider this: Chess and bridge were exhibition sports in Sydney and Salt Lake City respectively, and in 1997 then-president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch declared, “Bridge is a sport, and as such your place is here, like all other sports.” Current IOC President Jacques Rogge has taken a harder line; in 2002, the Olympic Programme Commission reiterated that chess and bridge were indeed sports, but that “sports where the physical elements are not necessarily performed by the player in the conduct of the competition” would be ineligible thereafter for Olympic competition.
Can math really be a sport? That depends how you define “sport,” something the IOC has carefully declined to do. It’s not easy—try it yourself. Must a sport require physical exertion? If so, does target shooting count? And if you do count it—presumably because non-exertive physical skills like accuracy are athletic, too—then aren’t you bound to include billiards, darts, and Skee-Ball? By what means do you distinguish between elemental physical trials like weightlifting and the marathon, and elemental physical trials like standing on one foot, or urinating for distance, or holding your breath as long as you can? (Bonus trivia question: Which of the latter three actually is recognized as a sport by the IOC? Scroll to the end for the answer.)
The philosopher Bernard Suits defines a sport as a game that meets the following four criteria: “(1) that the game be a game of skill; (2) that the skill be physical; (3) that the game have a wide following; and (4) that the following achieve a certain level of stability.”
The first condition excludes Russian roulette; the second eliminates math, chess, spelling, and bridge; the third and fourth conditions, alas, rule out urinating for distance. Suits’ definition is compelling, but difficulties hide not far below the surface. What, for instance, does he mean by “the skill”? All but the most primal sports demand multiple skills, some physical, some not. Maybe one should take 2) to mean “at least one of the skills relevant to the game is physical.” In that case, chess boxing, in which competitors engage in pugilism and speed chess in alternate rounds, makes the cut. But how much physicality is necessary? What about Jeopardy!, in which a slow trigger finger can doom even the most knowledgeable contestant? Or what if the math Olympiad took place at the top of a really big hill and you could start working on the problems only after you’d climbed up to your desk?
Quantifying such things, even approximately, is a bit of a mess. Boxing columnist R. Michael Onello says “boxing is 70 percent mental”—if so, then the physical component of chess boxing makes up 30 percent of half of the enterprise, or 15 percent, leaving 85 percent on the mental side. That makes chess boxing a more physical activity than, say, tennis (90 percent mental according to Jimmy Connors) or the positively cerebral art of wrestling—99 percent mental, says Olympian Melvin Douglas.
What about beer pong? It’s hard to call it a sport, though both key skills involved—getting a ball into a cup and maintaining hand-eye coordination while drinking heavily—are unquestionably physical. Yet there’s something about the latter skill that makes it hard to speak seriously of “drinking sports.” Ditto for thumb wrestling and Whack-A-Mole; in our usage of the word “sport,” there seems to be some implicit requirement that the physical skills involved be non-frivolous, whatever that means.
Suits, along with everybody else who thinks about the meaning of words, works in the shadow of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously addressed the question we’re discussing in his Philosophical Investigations:
Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.
Wittgenstein rejects the idea that there exists a finite list of criteria like Suits’ that precisely delineates games from non-games. He continues:
How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called games.” And do we know any more about it ourselves?
Wittgenstein is skeptical that the set of “games” can be exactly circumscribed at all. At best, one gives examples and draws out “family resemblances”—activity X looks a bit like checkers and a bit like whist, and there’s something in it that recalls hacky sack, so we call it a game.
That doesn’t mean there are no right answers. It is a fact that basketball is a sport, and it is a fact that sautéing zucchini isn’t. And I think it’s a fact that the math Olympiad isn’t a sport either. Sports have goals—to score touchdowns, to pin the opponent, to strike a distant target. On the surface, a math contest has the same nature—you’re supposed to solve a set of problems within a certain time span. But that doesn’t reflect my experience. Working on a math problem is a solitary, contemplative act. That’s true whether you’re in a room full of precocious teens in Athens or at home in bed before getting up for breakfast; whether the problem is the Riemann hypothesis or something you solve in nine hours at the Olympiad. You’re alone staring at the guts of the confusing, inexplicable, irritating universe, and the problem you’re working on seems like a small part of an impossible-to-finish job. If it’s like anything physical, it’s like mountain climbing—only what mountain climbing would be like if the whole world were a 45-degree upslope, with no peak and no opportunity for final triumph. That’s not a sport. It’s something better: a game you can’t ever really win.
Special thanks to Graham McFee, author of Sport, Rules, and Values, for helpful philosophical advice.