Go at the Olympics

    Keywords: Question

From reading rec.games.go and some emails from American Go Association discussion lists, and some back issues of Ranka, it seems that some players would like Go to be an event at the Olympic Games every four years.

At first this is surprising, because (for me at least) the Olympics conjures images of sprinters, discus throwers, pole vaulters, ski jumps, bobsleds... activities which rely mainly on physical execution, though there is naturally a mental component in a good performance. In go, the physical aspect of the game is completely second to the mental component. This is well demonstrated by the proliferation of play over the Internet. The preliminary rounds of the North American Masters Tournament are conducted on the Internet, but can you imagine the qualifying rounds for selection to the Olympic gymnastics team being on the Internet? Clearly it is impossible.

So, go bears little relation to the traditional sports of the Olympics. On the other hand, the "fundamental Olympic principles" seem broad enough to include go:

2. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
3. The goal of Olympism is to place everywhere sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity...
([ext] Olympic Charter in PDF linked from [ext] Olympic.org in UK)

The problem for me is that Americans don't usually consider boardgames to be "sports," because physical prowess is not needed. But on consulting the dictionary, it seems that "physical activity" is often associated with "sport", but it is not necessarily a defining characteristic of "sport". (Synonyms listed for sport include "game," "fun," "play," "frolic," "amusement," "competition" -- all of which apply to go in spades.) Also, I've read that in Asian countries, it is common for go, shogi, chess, etc. to be overseen by a country's Ministry of Sport. So, maybe "mind sports" such as go and chess are "real" sports worthy of a place at the Olympic Games. ([ext] Wikipedia entry on "Sport")

Indeed, other "mind sports" such as bridge (a card game) and chess have recently gotten "demonstration sport" status at the Olympics. Olympic demonstration sports are "held as part of the games but not as official events eligible for medals. Some of the events have later become official sports... Originally, demonstration sports ... were included ... to showcase sports ... unique to the country hosting the Games. They have since evolved into a much more important aspect of the Olympic Games." (from [ext] Australian Sports Web) Usually, a new Olympic sport has "demonstration" status for two or more Olympiads before it becomes an official sport with medals for the winners.

There has been some effort from the [ext] International Go Federation to get "demonstration sport" status for Go. I do not know what the problems have been; I assume that the already-overcrowded Olympic events schedule is a primary obstacle. Another problem might be lack of consensus on which RulesOfGo to use. But my impression is that Go is in such a preliminary stage of the Olympic approval process that rulesets is not a real problem yet. (Hopefully, it can be quickly resolved when the approval process requires it.)

Why go to the Olympics?

There are several things that make it reasonable to ask, Why bother with the decades-long effort of getting Go into the Olympics:

  • recent financial scandals about the Olympics
  • the uncertainty over whether a mostly mental (and mostly non-physical) activity qualifies as a "sport"
  • the anti-doping hysteria surrounding the Olympics -- if I understand correctly, no caffeine is allowed to the competitors, and there are active efforts to expand the scope of drugs testing
  • the issues around allowing professionals to compete, and the distinction between amateur and professional (though this issue seems to have been reduced in recent years)

The only reasons I can think of are the enormous prestige of being associated with the Olympics, and the reflected benefits of that prestige: wider recognition and more publicity for our game; easier access to funding; easier access to schools (and the new go players contained therein).

I think the trade-off would probably benefit Go. What do you think -- is it worth it?

  • More information about the Olympics can be found by digging through [ext] www.olympic.org and [ext] www.olympic-usa.org; but these sites are heavily framed and make extensive use of "Flash", so it is hard to link directly to the relevent sections.
  • See the [ext] WADA FAQ and other sections for more about steps to prevent doping
  • [ext] Bridge and the Olympic Movement is informative about the steps the World Bridge Federation went through to achieve Olympic "demonstration sport" status.
  • [ext] FIDE is the International Federation the Olympics recognizes for Chess

HolIgor: Personally, I don't like the idea. But I would like the idea of a proper world championship, world team championship and so on. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to organize. There is a very difficult issue of rules. Only when a common set of rules is adopted by all interested nations a question about establishing the world governing body of the game can be discussed. And that will not be so simple too, as even in Japan there are two competing organizations.

At the same time I think that some sports do very well without Olympics and have no need for it. Rugby, cricket, American, Australain or Canadian footballs, come as examples. I believe that a game of football should be excluded from the Olympics rather then limit the age of participants. Anyway, it Olimpic football tournament is not interesting at all in those two or three weeks with so many other events that people do not usually watch. I would include lawn or ten pin bawling, though.

TakeNGive: I disagree that common rules must be agreed before a world governing body could be established. If interested go organizations agree that they want a world body, then which rules to use (and when) can become a topic for discussion by that world body. In America, it is a little bit common for sports to have rules that are slightly different. College basketball and football use rules that are slightly different from the professional versions. Professional baseball is divided into two leagues whose rules vary slightly (something about when pinch hitters are allowed, and whether the pitcher has to bat; i'm not sure). Yet the "World Series" (a misnomer) happens every year. (I think they alternate which rules are used.)

So, if the sponsors, the team owners, and the players who use different rules want a joint event to happen, they can negotiate a compromise. This seems to also apply to Go, as shown by many international tournaments using different rules.

I agree that many sports do fine without the Olympics. However, until Hikaru no Go showed up, go was reportedly in decline in Japan; and though it has been spreading to other countries, a persistent question for go players has been "why does our game spread so slowly". This does not sound like doing fine. Though it is true that most Olympic events do not get television coverage (because there are just too many of them), I think it might still be good for Go to join the Olympics. But I'm not sure; it might turn out to be more trouble than it's worth.


As a Go player and president of my country's federation, I of course welcome any initiative that is capable of spreading the game. As a sports afficionado however, I'm not at all sympathetic to the idea of mind sports being included in the Olympic games. Soon every cultural phenomenon that embeds competition will want to obtain Olympic status, because of the prestige.

If Go is entitled to become an OS, then gates are open for any mind game you can think of: Whist, Risk, Master Mind, Blackjack and why not even Minesweeper or - God forbid - Chess.

Our fellow countryman Jacques Rogge, chairman of the IOC, has pledged to downsize the Olympic Games, both in terms of the number of accredited attendants who are not participants and the number of events (and thus participants). He will certainly not favour the idea of Go becoming an Olympic sport, and neither do I.

TakeNGive: Hi Dieter. I wish the AGA president participated here as you do. :-) As I'm sure you know, the FIDE is trying to have Chess recognized as an Olympic sport. I don't mind that so much, but I dread the day when that classic game, Minesweeper, is degraded to an Olympic sport. More seriously though, do we need to draw a sharp distinction between physical sports and mind games? Even as physical a "sport" as weight-lifting is said to have a large mental component. I can't believe that weight-lifting has strategy and tactics, but wrestling certainly does.

I am pleasantly surprised that the Olympics may soon be shrinking. With so much attention on "celebrate humanity" and finding ways to include disabled athletes, and with so many non-traditional and discontinued sports gaining new Olympic recognition (trampoline, skeleton sliding, sport dance, curling), I had believed that the Olympics were ever-expanding. I'm not in favor of adding every possible competitive activity to the Olympics. But if the Olympics were being redefined to include things such as Bridge and Chess, then I would find it proper to include Go as well. Not to do so would seem to mean Go is not a "serious" game.

This does mean that everyone else who is serious about their game will want representation at the Olympics, which will be a bad thing. Eventually, when the Olympics are so diluted that Competitive 4-Member Minesweeper teams are vying for gold medals, people may find it more prestigious to not be associated with the Olympics. For now, I am still undecided about whether the Go world should seek Olympic recognition. Further arguments, anyone?

uXs says: I'm not really in favor of adding Go to the Olympics as they are now, simply because I wouldn't know whether to put it in the Summer or the Winter Olympics. If there were something like a "Mind Olympics", then I would be in favor. I still wouldn't know about the drug testing though... :-)

AvatarDJFlux: I have resumed playing in 1999 after ten years of total estrangement from go. Things had changed a lot since I last played (see my page Where is Go going?).
One of the new ideas is this desire to have go recognised as an olympic "sport".
It seems to me that IGF is pushing very much in this direction, and I therefore must assume that Nihon Ki In is behind this and pushing a lot too.
I believe that some reasons have been mentioned here: a greater spread and popularisation of the game (and God knows how much this need was felt by Nihon Ki In, who observed with fear the diminution and aging of go population in Japan), pride and prestige (if FIDE obtains olympic status for chess why not go?).

But the biggest reason of them all has not been mentioned but en passant: MONEY!

Being a recognised olympic "sport" means being able to milk the cow of public funding, not to mention the possibility to have something more prestigious to sell when looking for private sponsors.
Money means the possibility to pay a salary to strong players. This in turn means the chance to transform a wannabe pro into a real one.
Money means the possibility to pay a salary to secretaires and other officials of national and international federations. This in turn means the chance to transform an amateur engagement into a real job.
Money means power: and I know some (so far amateur) officials that like power very much.

OTOH, I believe the main issue for Nihon Ki In (and professional organisations in general) is to have the largest possible base of active players: these are the people who buy newspaper, magazines, books, lessons and whatever, thus funding the pro system.

Having said all that, I must not, I cannot, and I do not want to pass any judgement on this. But I think we must have clear which are all the issues around this discussion.

Ah! And BTW, drug tests would be a VERY seriuos issue if go will ever be recognised as olympic sport. Can you imagine searching for caffeine in the blood of a dozen of participants to a small tournament in a small town???

On the drugs issue: caffeine is a stimulant, and massive doses could be expected to affect athletic performance. However, it's also a common component of many foods and beverages. The limit set by WADA is 12 ug/ml in urine, which looks quite high to me: only 1% of a caffeine dose ends up in the urine, and it takes a long time to get there (5 h halflife). I think you could drink two or three cups of very strong (175 mg/cup) coffee and still pass. WADA is not targeting coffee drinkers. Now, if you start injecting higher doses, that's another matter, but my guess is that intellectual performance would go down at those levels.

More interesting is the question of beta blockers, which are also banned. I've heard that some substantial fraction of professional musicians use beta blockers on occasion to control performance anxiety. One might imagine that they could be helpful for tournament go players, as well. Any anecdotal reports?


axd: If Chess got through, why wouldn't Go? Otherwise the status of Chess should be reviewed. And sure, minesweeper should apply. In three to four thousand years. Then they can claim that their cultural/historical baggage is a good indication of the depth of the game, then they have a good reason to raise their mindgame to an Olympic level. In Game Country, the rule of the strongest reads: "The simpler the game, the longer it will survive." I'm betting everything on Go will survive the next many thousand years.

unkx80: Go is a demonstration game in the [ext] 2007 South East Asian Games. Two news articles [ext] here and [ext] here.

See also

[ext] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Asian_Games
Primer: Weiqi to be introduced as a recognised sport

Go at the Olympics last edited by Unkx80 on December 12, 2007 - 18:39
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