Sport is Not Just About Athleticism: Beauty Matters Too

  • 2016-06-28
  • Aeon

Lionel Messi’s fleeting footwork as he weaved through four Athletic Bilbao defenders before curling the ball into the net from 18 yards is one of the most beautiful of his many goals; so too was Yelena Shushunova’s performance for a perfect score in the 1988 Olympic gymnastic finals. But if Messi had just scrambled the ball past the goalkeeper from a corner, that would have counted just the same in the final score: as long as the football crosses the line, within the rules of the game, it doesn’t matter how it is scored. In contrast, the perfection of Shushunova’s gymnastic performance was what allowed her to score full marks.

These two examples highlight the distinction that the sports philosopher David Best made in Philosophy and Human Movement (1978) between purposive sports and aesthetic sports. In purposive sports, there are objective measures for winning, such as scoring a goal or crossing the line. With aesthetic sports, such as gymnastics, figure-skating or high-board diving, the outcome is determined by the subjective judgment of experts. Some people even wonder if aesthetic sports are sports at all because of the judging involved.

Such skepticism might be undeserved. Gymnastics, figure-skating, snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing and high-board diving still require adherence to objective criteria. Marks are not awarded on aesthetic qualities such as grace, beauty or emotional affect, but rather for carrying out a series of movements in accordance with specified rules.