Art as sport: Can breakdancing benefit from its Olympic tag?
Can you lift an element from a vibrant, politically charged subculture and turn it into a major mainstream sporting event? The short answer is yes. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did just that, when it named breakdancing as a provisional sport in the 2024 Games to be held in Paris. (The Committee typically introduces a sport provisionally, then reviews its success to decide whether to continue with it.)
But can breaking truly be considered a sport, and what does it stand to lose, or gain, by its change in status from a street dance form?
This is a vibrant, nascent, underground culture with origins in the New York of the 1970s, with its Black ghettoes and Latin-American dreams. The Olympic committee’s stated aim, in including the dance form in the global sporting championship, is to make the Games ‘more urban’ and ‘more artistic’.
“Breaking as a form is inspired by elements of sport, like the flips and movements in gymnastics,” says Arif Chaudhary, 23, a professional b-boyer who also goes by Flying Machine, and is part of Mumbai’s emergent breaking subculture. “It has all the ingredients of a sport: the need for fitness, flexibility, agility, footwork, hand-eye coordination and mental strength.”
It is limitless, he adds — suggesting that he doesn’t share other b-boyers’ worries that taking it mainstream will dilute its identity. “We play with gravity, momentum and speed; we have flips, drops,” Chaudhary adds. “It also teaches you calm — it has moulded me and made me mature. Aren’t these things that sport is all about too?”
When breakdancing debuted at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, b-boys and b-girls competed in one-on-one ‘break battles’ on which they were scored by a panel of judges — a far cry from its roots in a yearning for free creative expression.
Points were awarded on technique and variety; and interpretative and artistic quality. The men’s medallists were from Russia, France and Japan, while the women’s medallists came from Japan, Canada and South Korea.
“Our fear is that in becoming a sport, it could become mechanical and suffer from a lack of feeling,” says Johanna Rodrigues aka B-Girl Jo, 23, from Bengaluru. “But a more dangerous way of losing that artistic touch is if the dance is ever taught without the values of hip-hop.”
Those values are focused on peace, universal love, a desire to focus on what unites rather than what divides; and a need to be free of all elements of the establishment that run counter to this philosophy.
“The idea of competition, of being ‘the best’ is not important in breaking culture,” Rodrigues says. “It’s also just about having fun.”
What both sides concede is that Olympic sport status could make the world take breaking — and by extension hip hop culture — more seriously.
It could help legitimise the movement, especially in India, where parents can often be hesitant to let children follow a largely uncharted path. Breaking could even end up in the curriculum,” Rodrigues says.
Now that is something that would certainly divide the community even further.
“Breaking has enough to offer as both sport and art. Time changes things. It could be an art form, it could be entertainment in movies, it could be an element of cultural education in academies and it can be a sport at the Olympics,” says B-Boy Bojin, 38, a Taiwanese international-level competitor, performer and teacher who has served as judge at international breaking competitions. “That just represents more opportunity. What there shouldn’t be are conflicts and misunderstandings between the breaking community and the national federations.”
WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
Five new sports were added to the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics that will now be held next year.
Karate: The traditional Japanese martial art will see men and women competing in kata (forms) and kumite (sparring) events.
Skateboarding: Like breakdancing, this is another sport with a rich street culture that’s been added to up the Olympics’ youth appeal.
Sport climbing: This is a form of high-intensity scaling that typically lasts for shorter durations and will be conducted on climbing walls.
Surfing: Japan’s stunning Pacific coastline will see the world’s top surfers compete, divided according to size and type of the board used.
Baseball / Softball: This one is back as an Olympic sport after last featuring in the 2008 Beijing Games.