04 August 2020

The debate over sports

The team representing Sri Lanka at the World Schools Debating Championship.
L-R: Janul De Silva, Rahul De Silva, Shalem Sumanthiran (Captain), Chanidu Ratnayake and
Jasmine Markandu.

On Sunday the 2nd of August Sri Lanka’s schools debating team reached the final of the World Schools Debating Championship (held online for the first time) and lost to Canada.

There were 68 countries competing, with six preliminary rounds in two divisions, Maya and Aztec. Sri Lanka, drawn in the Maya Division, along with debating heavyweights such as Singapore, China and India, won the first two rounds against South Korea (a 2-1 split decision) and Rwanda (3-0). Sri Lanka lost to the 2018 Champions, China, in a 2-1 split decision and by a similar margin to Bangladesh in the third and fourth rounds respectively. The fifth was a clear 3-0 win against Sudan as was the sixth against Namibia.

Having qualified for the ‘partial double “octos,” (Round of 24) for the first time ever, Sri Lanka beat Scotland on a 4-1 decision.’ They beat England on a unanimous 5-0 decision in the Round of 16. Sri Lanka beat Hong Kong in a 5-2 decision in the quarter finals. Hong Kong, which came first in the Maya Division had been unbeaten up to this point. Sri Lanka won a unanimous 7-0 decision against Ireland in the semi-final. Canada beat Sri Lanka on a 8-1 split decision in the final.

Sri Lanka was the highest placed ESL team (countries where English is a secondary language) while team captain, Shalem Sumanthiran (Royal College) was ranked 7th among ESL speakers in the Maya Division and overall. Chanidu Ratnayake (Ananda College), Janul De Silva (Royal College), Jasmin Markandu and Rahil De Silva(CIS) were the other members of the team with Reiha Wilamasekara (Ladies’ College) being the reserve. The team was coached by Kithmina Hewage with Sajit Dias as the Technical Coach.

Now this is no ‘one-off’ thing. Sri Lankan teams (representing schools as well as the country) have performed remarkably well in international tournaments over the years, regularly making it beyond the preliminary rounds. There have been teams that have made it to the semis semis and beyond. On occasion, Sri Lankan teams have even won such tournaments. 

Now one might wonder why I’m writing about debating in a ‘sports column.’ It's simple. Debating is not considered a sport. No colors are given. There is a national body that organizes tournaments, selects teams to represent the country. There are programs to popularize debating in all parts of the country and to help students develop skills. It's not a sport though, as mentioned above. Indeed, many would not consider it a 'game' either.

Those who are passionate about chess, scrabble, bridge, carrom and other games that involve very little physical activity are used to being ridiculed by those who are convinced that only those activities that make one sweat profusely where risk of injury is very real qualify to be called ‘a sport.’  

Of course regardless of whether or not one has to run, jump, throw one’s arms around, roll on the grass and bruise one’s shins and elbows, there are very few activities that do not require one to be in good physical condition. That, for the purists, is not enough. I would agree.

However, if it’s about competing, strategizing, meticulous preparation, studying the opponent(s), ascertaining strengths and weaknesses, innovating on the go, responding adequately to surprises and all those other things associated with sweaty sports, if you will, then it would be hard to draw the relevant lines.

Chess is not an olympic sport since there are criteria such as length of a match, well established training and refereeing apparatuses etc that need to be met for the International Olympic Committee to give approval. Perhaps in the near future the boxes will be ticked. Neither is cricket an olympic sport, just for the record. In Sri Lanka, chess is a sport as far as the Sports Ministry and the Sports Act are concerned. Carrom too. There is a bridge federation as well. I am not sure about scrabble. Debating is not considered a sport.

One of the arguments raised by the objectors is that in debating, for instance, winners are not objectively decided. It’s the subjective views of the judges that count, they argue. This is true. On the other hand, sports such as diving, gymnastics, synchronized swimming are Olympic sports and winners are decided by points accorded by judges. No ‘finishing lines’ in these sports. There are no scores for all to see (as is the case in rugby, basketball, hockey, soccer, volleyball, netball etc).

Perhaps it is time to revisit the 'sweat-is-a-must' argument about what is and is not 'a sport'. Let's debate.

This article was published in 'The Morning' [August 04, 2020]

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

Do you have a plan? Strengths and weaknesses It's all about partnerships