Can the IOC Distinguish Major and Alternate Sports?

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 04: A general view of the Olympic rings during training ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on February 4, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 04: A general view of the Olympic rings during training ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on February 4, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In the United States, we only consider a few sports to be major and all others to be an alternate sport. But these sports we consider alternate can be a popular sport in many other countries and sports we consider major can be alternate sports in those countries. So what internationally decides whether an activity should be considered a major sport? Well the International Olympic Committee goes through a process every Olympic Game to decide whether a sport to be highlighted in the upcoming games. So would the IOC be able to differentiate between a major and alternate sport internationally? Well, not exactly.


f8bc126e4b4e17645d9907According to the rubric the IOC has released for their decision process, an activity must fit into 8 themes to be featured in the next Olympic games. The 8 themes are General, Governance, History and Tradition, Universality, Popularity, Athletes, Development of the IF / Sport, and Finance. Within these 8 themes, there are 39 criteria and 74 items to be looked at. While some of these items are reviewed based off the sources IOC provides, most of these items must come from a source provided by the International Sport Federation for that particular sport. Meaning if an IF, an international non-governmental organization, does not recognize a sport it cannot be considered for a spot in the upcoming Olympic games. This basically means that if an activity does not fall under an IF, it has yet to be internationally recognized by the IOC.


The first theme “General” includes one item, which oversees the value of the sport. Would the Olympic Games benefit by adding the sport to the games and would the sport benefit from being added to the Olympics? The second theme “Governance” is more about the regulation of the sport and how it is governed. The items include whether the sport has an existent Code of Ethics, multi-year strategic plan, gender equity in the executive board, and rules against competition fixing and irregular betting. The third theme “History and Tradition” looks into the frequency and amount of times a World championship game was held for the sport as well as the amount of times the sport has been included in a multi-sports games outside the Olympics such as World Games, Universiade, Asian Games, Pan-American Games, etc. “Universality” theme looks into the number of National Federations that has participated in the National, Continental, and World Championships.


But out of the 8 themes, the most important themes that effect the decision are the 3 genres “Popularity”, “Development of the IF/Sport”, and “Finance”


1393144039000-USP-Olympics-Opening-Ceremony-001The biggest theme, “Popularity”, has a total of 19 items within 10 criteria. This theme is also the only theme out of all 8 that reach out to a third party source for information regarding these items. For example, the IOC requests an external company to conduct a survey around Game time to see whether the sport appeals to the general public and the young audience. They also run a study through an external company for quantitative and qualitative data for written press coverage and TV coverage during the Olympic Games. The IOC also checks the number of fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter during the year as for popularity among social media. Other items include the number of tickets sold at championship games, media accreditations granted, and visitors to the dedicated section on the IOC website and Youtube channel. Not to forget, the list of major sponsors and the kind of benefits the sports receives.


Theme “Development of IF/Sport” looks at the process and environment in which the activity is played in. Items include whether the sport has a technical evolution regarding its equipment and sporting venues, Gender equity between the female and male National Federations, Transparency and fairness on the field by officials, and policies and guidelines for the environment. Also as mentioned in the beginning of this essay, another criteria in this theme are whether the sport is within the IF and its financial distribution system. So for an activity to be considered a sport, it must at least have representation by both sexes and an objective fair judge to regulate the game.


The last theme of the three, “finance”, looks at the amount of money the sport moves across multiple industries and platforms. Criteria include income and expenditure created by the sport, venue costs at the Olympic Games, cost of technology to play the sport, and the cost of television production to broadcast the sport.


After looking at the IOC’s rubric on whether an activity should be considered as a sport in their games, I believe this rubric is not a great way as a deciding guideline. A couple of these items in the rubric are hard to fulfill unless a sport alters its culture to fit these guidelines. It’s as if the IOC is structuring a sport into their definition of an international sport rather than distinguishing the sport and its culture itself for to consider it as an international sport. American Football has been spreading its popularity around the globe recent years. But after going through this rubric, one can understand why American Football has never been in the Olympics as it fails to fulfill many items on the list. At this point in history, the way American Football has been played is part of its culture and creates a difficulty to fit into these items listed by the IOC. Betting: Check. Scandals by Athletes: Check. Lack of representation from both sexes: Check. Code of Conduct and solid rules not enforced by officials: Check. Or at least not until the NFL figures out what a “catch” is. So a sport placed in the Olympic Games may make them the major sport internationally, but the IOC’s rubric is not a good way to determine whether a sport is major internationally based on its popularity and culture. We should be accepting the sport as is rather than changing it to fit the definition of “sport” to consider its popularity.


IOC Evaluation Document can be accessed here

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