Credit Rating for Sportspersons

Posted in context of a Wall Street Journal Article suggesting removal of Women’s Titles in Chess and reigning World Women’s Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk’s strong response against it.

Here is an excerpt of my Preface from Dot Chess-The Cricket in Between (2007)- where this topic is touched upon.

I have always wished for a credit rating system in every sport which allows us to recognize contributions of players who may not be in the top 10 or in the ‘medals’ category in an event such as the Olympics.

For instance, athletes who ‘finished’ 5th or 10th in a world event, must not to be seen as those who failed their nation, because not many professionals can ever brag to be in the top 10 or 100 or even 1000 in the world of their specific field. Yet such professionals- doctors, engineers etc- get their due credit in society because their jobs are more ‘necessary’. They can save lives or improve living conditions. Sure, I agree being an engineer myself.

But in my view, deeper down we make our lives worth living because we (should) pursue our interests in our free time- which is typically about sports, art, travel etc. So in effect the quality of our free time depends on the quality of the sportspersons and other creative persons. If we fail to credit sportspersons, then most of them have to quit and do routine jobs which many others might do just as well (as Alexandra has pointed out about women players quitting earlier than men).

Legendary Hockey Player Dhyan Chand- and leader of an invincible Indian hockey team during 1930’s-40’s adviced his son not to play the sport, as he would end up starving. Sports, Chess, and Art in India and elsewhere are filled with such stories- which might make for a great movie but do little for the well being of the discipline.

This debate- whether women’s events and norms must be any different from men’s in chess, (since it is an intellectual sport), are best answered by Alexandra- who is a women’s world champion. There only about 20 women in the top 1000 FIDE rated players. She explains that performance of women in chess is yet to reach standards of men- for various historic/social reasons but most of all people fail to gauge that to concentrate for 3 weeks during an international event, is physically demanding- where men hold the advantage like in most other sports. I guess her viewpoint matters, as she has been through the process and hurdles beyond chess.

Now coming to the credit rating of sportspersons. I can tell you that chess is in fact, is ahead of other sports and society as well. You can be IM or GM or (WGM/WIM) if you are indeed advanced in chess. This gives fans a way to recognize that even to be in a top list of 1000 in the world takes unbelievable effort and sacrifices. Such credits are missing in other sports, where players have made similar sacrifices in their youth but may yet be in the top 100 or lesser.

Next is the gender based issue. If there is a norm few notches lower for women, no problem, the title attributed is also not the same. So there are no qualitative concessions as such- you get a WGM instead of GM. But there is an acknowledgement about the fact that it is a bit more demanding for women to participate and progress- so crediting effort at an intermediary level – which still is like an ivy league achievement, mind you- which make sense.

In fact, in society, the variations of degrees such as PhD or Masters are far far greater. Graduating from Harvard or from another average institution leads to the same title such as MS or Dr. This is a lot more inconsistent than chess, as you cannot get the same title in chess with different effort.

So rather than reduce norms in chess, we need to see how we can learn and apply it to other disciplines. As a chess enthusiast I can easily understand that a WGM also took years of sacrifice and that it is not some diluted attribution. It will be a privilege to ask questions and get tips from a WGM or WIM (I do not think that Alexandra’s twitter followers undermine her tips or podcasts, saying ‘it is only women’s world champ’).

It is easy to write about sports. Figuring out what it takes to be in a list of 1000 who have contributed for decades, is another matter.

18 Oct 2009

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