September 11, 1997 in Sports

Dancing Issue Makes The Ioc Seem Out Of Step

Jim Litke Associated Press
 

Business at the Chicago Dance Studio the one stop for all your ballroom dancing needs is up noticeably the last few days. People couldn’t be much happier about the news: They are going to the Olympics.

“We are,” studio owner Bob Urbon said Tuesday, “aren’t we?”

Maybe.

Urbon and his staff wouldn’t be the ones going in any case. As pros, they’re barred from competing. And if you want to get technical, ballroom dancing can’t even become a full-fledged Olympic sport for at least a decade.

But the champions of cha-cha do not discourage easily. Like converts to any cause, they’re sure time is on their side. The funny thing about this cause is that they might be right.

Last weekend, the International Olympic Committee extended full recognition to the international federations governing ballroom dancing, rugby and surfing. That means those three sports now join a club that already includes two dozen others, among them billiards, golf, water skiing, orienteering and something called korfball.

Practically speaking, there are only two ways onto the Olympic program. The first is for a sport to get hot. The second is for one of its guiding lights - an anonymous patron, say - to purchase a major American university and (coincidentally) set up a scholarship granting every child of every IOC member free tuition, as well as room-and-board, for life.

Being mostly earnest folks, the ballroom dancing people steer the argument toward Door No. 1.

“The IOC favors emerging sports practiced by young people and women,” reasoned Steve Halasz, who heads the Chicago chapter of ballroom dancing’s national governing body.

“A lot of people think it’s an older people’s sport, but that’s not the case. There’s an extraordinary movement by young people involved in competitive ballroom dancing all over the world.”

Now that’s a scary thought.

And here’s two more: Brigham Young is the national powerhouse among the two dozen or so colleges that actually compete in ballroom dancing; and only last May, the International Dance Sport Federation hired superagent Mark McCormick and his firm, International Management Group, to further their cause.

“One more thing in our favor,” Halasz added. “A concern the IOC has is the ability of a sport to stage highly organized competition scattered around the globe. We’ve done that, too.”

In fact, the ballroom dancing people do a nice job. They already stage several hundred nice little events each year and even a few “majors.” The biggest in the states is the Ohio Star Ball, which plays to rave reviews on PBS. Internationally, the big to-do is held in Blackpool, England, where the legendary husband-and-wife team, Corky and Shirley Ballas, come out of retirement and perform for a few numbers.

Now imagine what happens if ballroom dancing goes big-time and Don King horns in. There would be a “Rhumba in the Jungle.” The “Quickstep in Queens.” A “Last Tango in Paris.”

Even that possibility, however, does not dissuade true believers. Neither does the fact that there are enough bad costumes in the Olympics already. Or the argument that ballroom dancing is an exhibition - no wagering please - not a competition.

“We hear that a lot. Most people’s first reaction is, ‘That doesn’t seem like a sport,’ ” Halasz said. “But until they’ve actually seen it, they can’t appreciate how athletic it is. It’s at least as athletic as ice skating. There are even physiological studies showing that the competition at the highest level is comparable with … anything.”

He does not say who did these studies, but the athletic component is legitimate, just as it is in skating, gymnastics, synchronized swimming and a whole lot of other alleged Olympic sports.

But it misses the point. It confuses athleticism with sport. Mikhail Baryshnikov might have been the greatest leaper ballet ever produced. But 5-foot-4 Muggsy Bogues - let alone 5-7 Spud Webb - could have dunked over him all day. Anything that has to be judged is an exhibition. To be a sport, the accomplishment that counts has to be measured objectively.

Ballroom dancing enjoys the occasional spike in popularity. It got a big lift a decade ago when Patrick Swayze mamboed in “Dirty Dancing.” Tango wannabes came out of the woodwork after “Scent of a Woman.” Ditto for the merengue after “My Blue Heaven.” It is experiencing one of those spikes now.

For all that, the U.S. federation estimates the number of competitive ballroom dancers here at 3,000, not enough to exert the kind of influence (without a bribe) required to become an Olympic sport.

Of course, it’s always foolish to underestimate the IOC. Choral singing, dumbbell swinging and still fishing were all Olympic sports once, too.


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