Sports | Sports Columns

CHEUNG: Politics too big a factor in athletic outcomes

  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    ticking clock | The charging call against junior forward Alex Rosenberg at the end of the first overtime against Harvard two weeks ago is one play where the referee's decision may have been influenced by external factors.

Two weeks ago, Light Blue junior forward Alex Rosenberg drove to the hoop late in a tied game and was called for a charge. A no-call or blocking foul would have likely meant a Columbia victory and an exciting final weekend of Ivy play. Instead, Harvard is all but guaranteed its third straight NCAA Tournament berth. 

What I love most about sports is that they are direct tests of how your skills and efforts match up against those of other people. With everyone gunning for first place, competitions are the culminations of days, months, and years of work. Who has done enough to claim the top prize is a question that can only be answered on game day.

Now, there are two ways to read what I just wrote. On the one hand, one athlete might just be that much more talented and may have put in more work, which would make the victory well-deserved. On the other hand, we have, perhaps, a far more realistic possibility: On game day, politics come to the forefront. Gone are the days when matches only involved the players, the rules, and the refs, and winners were determined solely by skill sets and strategies. 

People commented after Columbia’s loss to Harvard two weeks ago that the referees only made that call because Harvard is Harvard—that with the roles reversed, the defending player would have been called for the blocking foul. In other words, politics was the problem.

Politics influencing the athletic world—especially in sports which require referees or judges—seems to become more of a problem with each passing year. Take the recent Olympic Games at Sochi. Yes, there were the stories of athletic triumph and sportsmanship that took place in Russia over the course of February. Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy, and Nick Goepper became only the second trio of American athletes to sweep the slopestyle podium at the Winter Olympics—and in their Olympic debuts to boot. Russian Anton Gafarov crashed and broke his ski in the men’s cross-country skiing sprint finals, and it was Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth who came onto the course to give him a new one, saying that Gafarov should have dignity as he crossed the Olympic finish line. But the stories of controversial calls based on the politics of refereeing and judging received more attention.

Figure skating, as usual, was at the forefront. In the women’s singles final, 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim shockingly lost to Russian teen Adelina Sotnikova by a relatively large margin, and now a Change.org petition to investigate the judging system has over two million signatures. Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the gold medal in ice dancing amid charges of foul play from some members of the Canadian press. There were also controversies in alpine racing, halfpipe, and ice hockey.

No level of sports, and no sports in general are exempt from this disease. I remember watching one of my teammates at the 2011 Karate Junior World Championships in Malaysia and thinking to myself that if both of his parents were not high-level referees in the World Karate Federation—responsible for the promotion of the refs calling his matches—he would never have made it to the podium with a bronze medal. He was clearly getting kicked in the head and none of the refs even blinked. Calls that were made against other competitors in his division were not made against him. Meanwhile, his mother was circling the ring each time he was up, as if to dare the refs to make a match-changing call against her son. If that’s all it takes, then what happens when you have to make a tough call against the most prestigious academic institution in the world? What happens when you have to make a call against a world power hosting one of the world’s biggest sporting events?

The bottom line is that politics are ruining sports. Winning means nothing when you have to cheat the system to get to the top, and the saddest part is that sometimes people are cheating for you and you may not even be aware of it. What is the point of trying to put your hard work to the test if you have so little control over the result? 

Melissa Cheung is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. Closing In runs biweekly.

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Akatheraptor posted on

This column is strongly lacking in two things newspaper editors generally look for: Evidence, and lack of libel.

I understand it's a column. But the charges it makes are serious. The fact that something is opinion does not provide licence to make wild accusations with no basis in fact.

Here are the sentences in this column that the author has not even attempted to substantiate:

-In other words, politics was the problem.

-Gone are the days when matches only involved the players, the rules, and the refs, and winners were determined solely by skill sets and strategies.

-No level of sports, and no sports in general are exempt from this disease.

-Calls that were made against other competitors in his division were not made against him.

-The bottom line is that politics are ruining sports.

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Really confused posted on

This column makes non sense in light of your last one. Two weeks ago, you were telling everyone to quit whining and just deal with the loss. Now you're saying the fix was in? Did something happen in the intervening time?

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Melissa posted on

Actually, you are oversimplifying my claims. Last week, my point was that players and coaches should look internally and see what they could have done better to help the outcome go in their favor first before shifting blame. The outcome could very well have been politically-based; I never said that politics don't exist, but my point was that teams should do everything in their power and look at how they can improve their games so that these politics don't have to be determining factors.

This week, my point is that politics do seem to be taking over the sports world, and I centered my argument around the Olympics. Last week I proposed a way to deal with the loss without focusing on politics, whereas this week I am proposing that politics have come to consume sports, as evidenced in Sochi, and that yes, maybe the only way to look at the loss against Harvard was that it was based solely in politics. The columns were not meant to respond and engage with each other; they're just two different perspectives.

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Craw posted on

It's funny you think the call went Harvard's way because of the prestige. I agree it was a bad call, but only after seeing the replay. How about, it was just a bad call? And go watch the video of the Harvard-Penn game from Feb 2012. Same call went against Harvard and cost them the game. http://youtu.be/lwShWkRR5XU

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Melissa posted on

I wrote: "People (NOT ME) commented after Columbia’s loss to Harvard two weeks ago that the referees only made that call because Harvard is Harvard—that with the roles reversed, the defending player would have been called for the blocking foul." If you scroll to the comments section of my last column, you will see that others made that remark. I personally do not know and have no opinion of why the call was made the way it was, as I did not see it myself. In my last column, if you read it, I alluded to what you are saying, which is that maybe it was just a bad call.

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Craw posted on

Welcome to the world of sportswriting. If you're going to write about a specific example to prove your thesis, make sure you have: a) seen the example, and b) agree with what "people" said about it based on your own judgment. Because if you see it and disagree with those "people," it's not a worthy example, right? Also, your editors decided to use a photo of Rosenberg in the Harvard game for the article... so the readers certainly assume that you (the writer) saw the game as well as the play that's referenced in the photo and the article. Anyway, I agree politics can interfere with sports. But in Ivy League hoops? Probably less tainted by politics than 99% of all athletic examples that are available to choose from for this article. I look forward to reading your future columns!

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