Should Chess Be in the Olympics?

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Alexander Zhukov, the chairman of the Russian Olympic committee in charge of organizing the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, recently made headlines by stating that he was going to push to have chess included in the Olympic program. This may seem a little strange at first. After all, the Olympics are all about athletic performance, and chess doesn’t involve much physical activity at all, so it wouldn’t fit in with the other events. But in fact, there is a long history of this type of advocacy surrounding chess, and followers of the game tend to be quite passionate in their opinions on whether or not chess should be considered a sport.

If you ask the players themselves, there’s no question about: Chess is a sport. Professional chess players think of themselves as athletes, and the game is governed by an organizational body that is very similar to the bodies that govern other popular professional sports leagues.

The governing body, known as FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs), oversees numerous national chess governing bodies and is a member of the International Olympic Committee, who recognize chess as an official international sport. In spite of this fact, the IOC has never seen fit to give chess an actual event at the Olympics.

And why hasn’t the IOC ever included chess? It turns out that this isn’t an easy question to answer. The IOC makes their decisions as they see fit, and they generally don’t explain their thinking behind things. There are other baffling non-inclusions (not to mention baffling inclusions)—for example, why is handball included while rugby is not? There is no order to this system. It could be that there just aren’t any chess fans in the IOC.

But opponents of chess’s inclusion point to the simple fact that there are many games with international appeal that don’t necessarily warrant inclusion in the athletics-oriented Olympics. Many card games, for example, have international appeal, as do motor sports, billiards, fishing, and other board games such as checkers. If the IOC were to accept chess, then it would open up the Games to appeals from all sorts of other non-athletic sports.

This may be what the IOC has in mind when it rejects the appeals of chess advocates. The members of the committee have to protect the integrity and the traditions of their event, and allowing too many radical changes may hurt the Olympics’ stature in the long run. In the meantime, there are still the plenty of international non-Olympic events for chess professionals to compete in.

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