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.