Why Chess has not made the Olympics (yet)


 I was in a fierce argument with my godfather this past weekend. The bone of contention was chess as a sport and its permanent absentee status at the Olympics. For him, the fact that is is always omitted in the world’s biggest sporting events including the Commonwealth as well as the Regional All Africa Games solidified his view. Chess, to him, must swim in shallow games ponds alongside monopoly, snakes-and-ladders, as well as checkers.

His argument revolved around chess not giving the body enough beating to even get it sweat. “How does one claim to be playing a good sport without breaking even a single sport? Chess is rest not sport,” he postulated. Obviously, I did not take the punches sitting down but threw a few of my own too. I made an example of one Lesotho National Individual Championship match which happened in the last decade. It was a second and third place battle between two renowned players with the coveted price of a silver medal and the prize money being at stake; because of resource then, the prize was timed in its end game phase.

The pressure as well as the two minutes allocated time guaranteed sweating for both players, arm muscle cramps as well as aspirin for both after the game. Is chess really a sport though? If so, why is it not part of the of the Olympics. The generally accepted definition of a sport as given in the Oxford Dictionary is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team competes against another or others for entertainment”.

Let us discuss the bit of the definition, physical exertion: though the degree of the exertion is minimal and hardly seen by an untrained eye, its existence is confirmed by the fact that in major tournaments it has become mandatory for health practitioners to be available, to treat any unplanned injuries that may arise during the games.

The second part of the definition talks to the skill; chess is to skill what oxygen is to the human body. You cannot play chess without any skill. Chess also ticks the last box of the definition, competition, and entertainment, and it provides both. The International Olympic Committee (IOL) acknowledges the world chess governing body and regards and takes it as one of its “affiliates”.

Why then has it not featured in the Olympics? The Olympic Charter indicates that to be accepted, a sport must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents and by women in no fewer than 40 countries and on three continents. The sport must also increase the ‘‘value and appeal’’ of the Olympic Games and retains and reflects its modern traditions. There are numerous other rules, including bans on purely ‘‘mind sports’’ and sports dependent on mechanical propulsion.

These rules have kept chess, automobile racing, and other recognised sports out of the Olympic Games. Several attempts, which gained momentum after the recognition by IOL in 1999 have been made to include chess in the Olympics by its governing body FIDE. The strides have been so noticeable that it was exhibited in the Sydney installment of the Olympics in 2000. The most recent attempt was made in February 2019 to have the game included in the Paris 2024 installment of the Olympic games after a failed bid for inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics which added the following five new sports, surfing, karate, skateboarding, baseball and climbing.

In what will be a long and complicated process which includes a lengthy questionnaire from the IOC’s Programme Commission, chess will have to fulfil many more criteria, besides an appeal to millennials.

Areas that will be looked at include the sport’s history and tradition, gender equity, its overall fan base as measured by, for example, TV audiences and social media, transparency and fairness.



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