Depending on your outlook on sports, you might think that some Olympic events are a little underwhelming. Curling, for example, tends to stand out as a confusing sport for fans of highly athletic leagues like the Premier League or the NHL. Though the game involves plenty of skill, it can look like mindless ice sweeping to the uninitiated.
But curling is an official part of the Olympic Games, claiming a status that dozens of sports and competitive activities will never receive. The most recent Olympics in Tokyo highlighted public interest in new sports, including surfing and skateboarding. The public glommed on to both, stunned by the athletic feats of the world’s top skaters and surfers.
But when it comes to humanity’s longest-running competitions, most titles are considered mind games or sports. These emphasise mental dexterity and fitness, like chess and backgammon do, and they’ve been around for a lot longer than karate or skateboarding. So, why won’t these be added to an Olympic roster anytime soon? Is it because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only deals with physical sports—and, if so, what then qualifies as a sport?
A longstanding history
As mentioned above, mind games have been around for just as long as other competitions, including horseback riding and wrestling. Consider casino games, for example. Starting with Ancient Egypt’s senet, which dates back five thousand years, humans have been fixated on games that incorporate both skill and chance ever since then.
These early interests survive today in games like roulette, which can be played online or in-person. Though not considered a mind game because of its spinning wheel, the game involves plenty of probability and stats-based thinking. It’s also played by thousands of players worldwide, putting it on par with other classic mind games like chess and backgammon.
Though roulette won’t be a likely candidate for the IOC given its relationship with chance, fans of mind games will be happy to hear that the committee has finally caved and agreed to acknowledge one of the world’s premier mind games: chess.
FIDE not giving up the fight
Chess is often held up as the paragon of mental prowess. Much of the game’s popularity and coverage in mainstream sporting media comes from chess’s international regulatory body, the Fédéation Internationale des Échecs, formed in Paris back in 1924. FIDE has helped promote chess around the world, creating huge faceoffs like the Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky game at the 1972 World Chess Championship.
FIDE has campaigned for decades to see chess admitted as an official Olympic sport—and they came close to succeeding in 2019 under FIDE president Arkady Dvorkorvich. One of the group’s primary battle cries related to the IOC’s admission of skateboarding and climbing into the Olympics, neither of which are traditional sports.
So, how does FIDE hope to prove chess’s worth to the IOC? First and foremost, FIDE is appealing to the interest of younger generations, highlighting the game’s appeal to millennials. Though not as popular as eSports, for example, millions of youths still play chess around the world—and two-thirds of FIDE members in France are under 20.
FIDE must also prove the sport’s long history (which won’t be difficult), how FIDE fosters gender equality, how the sport guarantees transparency and fairness, and even how it plans to build revenue. Despite a campaign for the 2024 Paris Olympics, however, it seems chess hasn’t yet won over the IOC.
Here’s the thing about the IOC’s reticence to let mind games join: they’ve already proved hugely popular. In fact, for decades, sports networks like ESPN and Fox have broadcasted competitions that focus on mind games. ESPN, for example, just signed over the rights to stream the World Series of Poker to CBS Sports.
However, the emphasis here is on sports entertainment—not what qualifies as a sport in the first place. In other words, audiences want to see intriguing competitions whether or not they involve high speeds and impressive athletics. eSports, mentioned above, highlights this. Though there’s no physicality involved, eSports competitions like The International have over one hundred million followers.
At some point, the IOC must acknowledge that, like mind games, digital games are also a legitimate type of competition that audiences want to see added to the Olympic Games—permanently.