The proposal of an Olympic chess event is utterly ill-conceived

September 13, 2021 — by Andrew Lin
Photo by Andrew Lin

Imagine a swimmer cutting through water with his arms, straining forward, taking deep breaths between each submersion. Imagine the ringing echo of the starting pistol, runners’ shoes striking the dusty track. Imagine a gymnast gracefully turning in midair, somersaulting to finish a flawless routine. 

Now imagine two old men wearing suits and ties, taking turns quietly sliding small plastic statues across a checkerboard. What do all of these have in common? According to the International Olympic Committee, they are all sports.

Since 2019, there has been talk of including chess as a demonstration sport (a sport played at an event to promote it) in the 2024 Paris Olympics, and this discussion has been renewed in light of the recent Tokyo Games. However, the International Olympic Committee’s verdict in considering chess a sport is fundamentally flawed: Chess is not a sport, and should not be featured in the Olympics.

According to Oxford Languages, a sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” 

In Olympic sports, there should be a direct relationship between the physical ability of athletes and the competitive aspect in whether they win a gold medal, but this correlation isn’t present in the game of chess. 

Some who argue in chess’s favor assert that the mental strain of playing chess manifests physically in the form of sweating or strain. This interpretation of the definition would also consider academic competitions and videogames full-fledged sports as well. 

The Olympic Committee also does not consider other board games — such as the ancient Chinese game of Go (or weiqi) — as sports. Go is at least 500 years older than chess, and by all accounts harder and more intricate: It wasn’t until 2016 that Google’s AI AlphaGo was able to beat one of the best Go players, Lee Sedol. 

In comparison, the then-reigning chess world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by the AI Deep Blue in 1997. It doesn’t make sense that chess has the distinction of being the sole board game recognized as a sport. 

Chess would stick out like a sore thumb in the list of Olympic events. The traditional events are awe-inspiring displays of athletic skill, while chess is just two people sitting down moving pieces on a small board — and exercising their brains only. 

Historically speaking, chess, or any games similar to chess, has never been featured in the Olympics. Looking at a list of Olympic demonstration sports starting in 1908, you see that most of them are regional variations of wrestling, handball or football. The deviations from the norm are still exclusively physical activities: Canoeing, kayaking, gliding an unpowered aircraft and dueling with wax bullets are all visually impressive.

Additionally, chess draws in a drastically different audience from sports. While anyone can appreciate sports, chess requires extensive prior knowledge to be fully understood. Most impressive moves or game-ending blunders would simply go over spectators’ heads. The overlap between chess fans and sports fans is simply too small for featuring chess to be worth it, and many people would be annoyed by the event taking the place of an actual sport.

The Olympics is a gathering of the very best international athletes where political and cultural borders are ignored. It is a sacred celebration of both competition and cooperation. But Chess already has its own version of the Olympics, the Chess Olympiad. 

The differences between intellectual competitions and physical sports are far too fundamental. By basing their verdict on a misinterpretation of a dictionary definition and not considering other board games like Go as sports, the International Olympic Committee weakens their credibility in declaring chess a sport. Going as far as to feature chess as a demonstration sport in the Olympics is out of the question.

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