Newest Olympic sport shows IOC's desperation
Clamour for the 'yoof' audience risks alienating traditional viewers and devaluing the Games.
How did you react to the news of breakdancing's addition to the 2024 Olympics in Paris? If you did not spin around three times on your head, you are not really trying.
Not everyone was so excited. For some, there was a stench of desperation leaking out of the International Olympic Committee boardroom in Lausanne. All those 60-something men turning to a dance form that reeks of the 80s. "This is what the yoof of today are into, man!"
So why not throw in a Jane Fonda workout class while you're at it? Competitive aerobics could really move the dial. Perhaps even jazzercise. The whole idea demands a reworking of the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Ridiculous.
Before we get back to bashing the suits, let us try playing devil's advocate. You can argue that breakdancing is no battier than rhythmic gymnastics – the one in which teenage girls dance around the arena twirling a ribbon behind them. Many Olympic sports look peculiar on close inspection. The 100-metre dash is logical enough. But why does the steeplechase involve a two-feet deep trough of water? And while the pole-vault presumably derives from the ancient Dutch skill of fierljeppen – in which you cross a dyke or ditch by pivoting on a large stick – it is anyone's guess who came up with the triple jump, and what they were smoking.
So it is not necessarily the weirdness of the choice that rankles. My problem is more the insecurity that lies underneath it: the idea that the Olympics needs to seek relevance with this niche activity, just because it is perceived to have urban cachet.
Such artificial youth engagement often betrays a Gerald Ratner-style crisis of confidence. The danger is you alienate your older audience while the younger one is too busy playing Call of Duty to notice. Breakdancing is not the only funky newbie on the Olympic list. In their vampiric hunger for young blood, the lords of the IOC have also pitched in surfing and skateboarding, as well as climbing, all of which are due to start in Tokyo next summer.
In all probability, IOC president Thomas Bach and company wanted to echo the Winter Olympics' recent reinvention. It's true that all those demolition-derby races, contested by six athletes jostling for space on a single track, have upped the excitement level and dragged in new viewers. But at no little cost, in terms of the battered bodies they often leave sprawled across the snow.
Shell suits and thick-soled trainers
Plus, the Winter Olympics are by definition a playground for a far more style-conscious, moneyed crowd – people who care how they come across, and are concerned that the X Games might have more cutting edge. The Summer Games are supposed to have a more Corinthian spirit. Their modern founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, said: "The most important thing at the Olympics is not winning but taking part." Now it appears to be wearing shell suits and thick-soled trainers.
If I sound like a middle-aged snob, it is probably because I am. But still, I ask you, is this sport? The answer is self-evident. However many fantastical contortions it might involve, breakdancing is still dance. And this opens the door to a huge category of activity.
Do we really want more judged events in any case? The subjective element is always an unsatisfactory way of resolving medallists, even in time-honoured disciplines such as gymnastics and ice-skating. In boxing, too, we quietly hope for a stoppage to avoid the inevitable post-fight recriminations.
During Tuesday's Today programme, the BBC's Rob Bonnet asked Britain's best medal prospect– 14-year-old Bgirl Terra (sic) – what the judges would be looking for. "Flavour and style," she replied. "They're looking for everything. Footwork, power, freezes – and you have to be clean, you can't crash." The commentators will have some explaining to do.
Even if breakdancing does tap into a huge new market, the very idea of new Olympic sports has surely had its day. This is already a bloated event. In these times of global austerity, how many cities can afford a hosting bill of more than £10 billion ($18 billion)?
Admittedly, the number of athletes in Paris will be slightly smaller than in Tokyo because of the ejection of baseball, softball and karate. But the first two have every chance of being reinstated for Los Angeles in 2028.
Rather than making a self-conscious attempt to move with the times, the IOC would be better advised to consolidate what it has; to focus on its heartlands, to bring the costs down, and to introduce more mixed events. The 2024 Olympics are finally achieving the goal of a 50-50 gender split, a mere 128 years after the inaugural Games in Athens.