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Is Math A Sport? 496

theodp writes "The close of the International Mathematical Olympiad prompts Slate to question if math is a sport, wondering if mathletes might someday compete in the Olympics alongside track stars and basketball players."
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Is Math A Sport?

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  • Poker on ESPN (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ikea5 ( 608732 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @04:44PM (#9726558)
    Well, if World Series Of Poker can be broacasted on ESPN, then I guess math is a sport.
  • by carlos92 ( 682924 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @05:08PM (#9726729)
    Math is not a sport. Problem solving could be considered to be similar to a sport. You don't actually train on Math; you learn Math, and you train on solving problems. And you can show your progress and fitness (and speed) on solving a particular class of problems. I did, and I won the Olimpíada Matemática Argentina in 1989 and I would have gone to the International Mathematics Olympiad, if only the stupid government of Raúl Alfonsín (Argentina's president at the time) hadn't leaked all the central bank's reserves into every politician's pocket.
    Plus, these competitions are also very fun (for those who like Math).
  • by logicnazi ( 169418 ) <logicnazi AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday July 17, 2004 @05:24PM (#9726833) Homepage
    First of all I want to point out how absolutely ridiculous this question is. It is merely an invitation to petty linguistic bickering over whether the word 'sport' is broad enough to cover mathematics competitions. There is no real substance to this issue and I expect to see a bunch of pointless posts referencing differnt dictionaries. This is doubly pointless because the dictionary could say a sport is a type of lettuce and it wouldn't make any difference, the public at large is going to continue to use sport to refer primarily to athletic events and not mathematical competitions. Regardless of how you can twist dictionary definitions for all prctical purposes the word sport (by usage) will continue to not include mathematical competitions.

    There is however, a more important issue to be addressed. That is the inappropriate confusion of these math (or science) competitions with the actual subject itself. Now I realize that these competitions are run with the best intentions but in the long run they do a disservice to the communities they attempt to publisicise.

    While it *should* be entierly irrelevant who is making an argument unfortunatly it often is not. So perhaps it will clear up confusion if I point out that I am a math grad student who has competed in many of these type events (I even was in the physics olympiad camp) and I have quite positive regard for both these subjects and the competitions. The competitions are certainly a fun way for students interested in these activities to interact, meet others, and engage competitively. I'm not advocating they cease existing or anything of the kind.

    I am, however, deeply disturbed by the way these activities are presented. The math and physics olympiads (as well as numerous lesser high school competitions) are presented as representitives of actual math or science. While it might have some local benefit to get people excited about the competitive aspect of these competitions it will ultimately only hurt these communities if people confuse these rigged competitions with what mathematicians or scientists *really* do. Science and math *aren't* sports where people race to solve rigged problems and presenting them as such quite likely erodes public perception of their importance. The public might admire sports but when push comes to shove they will cut sports funding before other programs, we don't want them to consider math and science the same way. Even worse by emphasising only the competitive aspects and problem solving tricks of these disciplines many students who have slightly differnt interests are turned off. I don't have any evidence but it is quite possible that the mischarechterization of science/math as primarily competitive contributes to the underrepresentation of females in these fields.

    Unfortunatly this confusion between the competitions and the actual subject is quite real. At least in the mathematical world performing well on the putnam or IMO will get one into grad school or college respectively. There seems to be a widespread, and false, belief that these competitions bear a significant resembelance to their subjects.

    It is true that the putnam and IMO competitions do focus on proving various results and not on the brute calculations that unfortunatly comprise most of HS and undergrad mathematics education. However, solving cute little problems under time pressure is hardly an accurate description of mathematical enterprise. Many important fascets of mathematical investigation (developing new definitions/conceptual frameworks, collaboration etc..) are entierly absent and the competition favors quick studious thinkers who go through books of past competitions over deeper thinkers.

    The physics competitions (which I have more personal knowledge of having been a finalist in the physics olympiad) are even worse. Physics is the search for *new* laws and rules about the universe (not necessarily fundamental...for instance laws about liquid flow) while the competitions merely measure application o
  • by Saeger ( 456549 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {jllerraf}> on Saturday July 17, 2004 @05:52PM (#9726993) Homepage
    Sure, math could be considered a 'sport', but only up until we have the technology to augment our intelligence [kurzweilai.net] to make math, and other fuzzier modes of thought, trivial. Our brains really aren't optimized for that kind of thing, unless you happen to be autistic.

    Even if there were a "natural brain" competition class, it would be more like the Special Olympics once most everyone else was augmented. I'd be thinking, "Look at those pathetic meat-brains! They can't even do simple calculus in under 1 millisecond like the X30-implant can! Haha. Amusing luddites."

    (the steroid analogy doesn't really apply here because most people aren't on them themselves, but when athletes *DO* use stealthy enhancement drugs, and the latest in training/materials, it makes for a more interesting spectacle despite the 'cheating' hypocrisy. If most people were also physically improved cyborgs, that attitude would change, and it would the 'aided-human' class that got the spotlight.)


  • by Pyrosophy ( 259529 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @06:02PM (#9727046)
    The formalists [wwc.edu] thought it was a "game" -- which is to say a formal system interesting mainly because of the relations between various components in the system.

    Unfortunately, that was only fun for a little while until Gödel's Incompleteness Proof [chaos.org.uk] successfully proved that not all truths of arithmetic could be proved using the rules of arithmetic. The result generalizes.

    So the real question here is "Are all sports games?" If so, and it seems quite reasonable, then quite objectively the answer to "Is mathematics a sport?" is no. (Ok, so only if all games are formal systems...)

    Calvinball does not count.
  • Re:I disagree... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FryGuy1013 ( 664126 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @06:07PM (#9727064) Homepage
    How do you play "defense" in any of the track and field games, swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, etc. Certainly these are sports.
  • Re:Yes (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 17, 2004 @06:08PM (#9727069)
    Sport: Non lethal method for discerning 'best and fittest' male gene contribution toward production of offspring in a rules-based environment.

    In other words: if its got cheerleaders it's gotta be a sport.
  • The Pythian Games (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cryptochrome ( 303529 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @06:49PM (#9727278) Journal
    No, it's not some kind of python coding competition. As it turns out, besides the ancient Olympic games there were three other large competitions [www.fhw.gr]: The Pythian Games at Delphi (Apollo); The Isthmian Games (Poisedon); and the Nemean Games (Zeus).

    According to my tour guide in Delphi (I was recently there, really a very interesting site) the Pythian games [dailywriting.net] were originally and primarily artistic in nature, with musical, dramatic, and poetic competitions, with athletic competitions added somewhat later. Delphi was the most important religious site in Greece, and Apollo was the god of reason and music, thus the emphasis on these subjects.

    So in that respect, I think intellectual and creative competitions should very well be regarded as sports. Perhaps resurrecting the Pythian games (and perhaps the others as well) alongside the Olympics would be a good idea.

    On a side note, the winners of the Pythian games were not the ones who excelled in a single subject, they were the people who did well in all subjects. Balance in all things was considered a key virtue by Apollo. It would be nice if that were true today.
  • Re:Takeshi's Castle (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mikael ( 484 ) on Saturday July 17, 2004 @10:13PM (#9728261)
    I don't doubt synchronized swimming requires a lot of strength, endurance, training and practise, and deserve international competitions of their own.

    But they don't really seem to have the same goals as the other olympic sports; being first, the highest, furtherest, or the fastest (having been derived from ancient warfare from the Mediterranean).
  • Re:Sure! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Too Much Noise ( 755847 ) on Sunday July 18, 2004 @01:55AM (#9729260) Journal
    Funny you didn't get modded informative yet. I would however make the argument stronger by changing your example to something more obvious, like

    1+2+3-2 +4+5+6-3 +7+8+9-4 +...


    1 +2-2 +3-3 +...

    Moving divergent subseries around is a nicer trick than plain division by zero though, I'll give him that ^_^
  • by Eric119 ( 797949 ) <eric41293@comcast.net> on Sunday July 18, 2004 @04:59AM (#9729796) Journal
    In order for something to qualify as a sport, there need to be accepted rules in place to determine who wins and loses, or what the participants' scores are. Math itself cannot be "won".

    You can have math competitions, of course. These have rules. But the problem is that there is no accepted standard for how the competition actually works. Different mathematics competitions are very different, (oral vs. written, etc.) If you say math is a sport, there are many different kinds of event you might be considering.

    Mathematics is an area of research. There may be competitions and prizes based on it, but that doesn't make it a sport. Such competitions are just separate games that involve math (or not games at all). You could invent a game that involved throwing rocks. Though the game you invented may be a sport, that doesn't make rocks a sport. (And no, if you name the game "Rocks" it doesn't change anything.)

With all the fancy scientists in the world, why can't they just once build a nuclear balm?