Earlier this year, you may recall, we demonstrated the far-reaching and all-encompassing nature of taxonomies when we highlighted the taxonomical approach sportswriters apply to making preseason baseball predictions in Of Taxonomies, Biology, and Moneyball. With the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games, we could not pass up the opportunity to once again share some insights into two of our favorite things—sports and taxonomies!

A simple Google search of “sports taxonomies” returns more than 12 million results.  Although usually not considered related, sports and taxonomies actually do have more in common than one might think. On a very basic level, both sports and taxonomies rely on hierarchical relationships to make connections. For example, athletes are members of teams, teams compete in leagues, and leagues often vie for superiority by playing in inter-league or world championship matches. In other words, athletes are the child, or narrower node in a taxonomy, branching out into broader and broader nodes the further up the taxonomy one might venture. As such, a baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers is a member of the National League and would compete for the World Series title in October.  Granted, baseball is no longer an Olympic sport, but we digress.

Another similarity between sports and taxonomies is relying on a highly controlled, specific vocabulary to function and provide insight. In the same way that great care must be given when creating a vocabulary for taxonomies, sports rely on their game-specific vocabulary to draft regulations and manuals to clearly define objectives. In tennis, for example, you have to win four points to win a game, six games to win a set, and two or three sets to win a match. Tennis officials have spent years and years carefully writing and revising these rules so as to make the sport more user-friendly, only just recently adding player challenges and Hawk-Eye technology to professional competition. Because language, like technology, is ever-changing and evolving, so too must the respective vocabularies grow and develop. Taxonomies can easily become outdated, if time is not devoted to updating and maintaining a coherent and precise vocabulary.

The principles inherent to taxonomies are not constricted to only the baseball and tennis sporting realms. Did you know that you can use Gentile’s Taxonomy to learn how to spike a volleyball? It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that the United States men’s and women’s volleyball teams are the defending Olympic gold medalists. Or, how about the fact that Michael Phelps—who is the winner of an incredible 16 Olympic medals and going for more this year—is nicknamed the Flying Fish after an actual fish in the order Beloniformes of the class Actinopterygii?  Every Olympic sport can be tied back to taxonomies in one way or another—however tangentially. Oh, the possibilities!

On the other side of the fence, a 2002 study in the Journal of Sport & Social issues written by Richard Giulianotti looks at the taxonomy of being a spectator.  In his study, Giulianotti divides fans into four different spectator identities—the fan, the supporter, the follower, and the flaneur—based on an individual’s investment into a sport and the degree to which a sport shapes the individual.  For example, I just finished a Fantasy Gymnastics draft (yes, similar to Fantasy Football, but with Olympic gymnasts).  I’ve already purchased my U.S. gymnastics memorabilia, and I am eagerly counting down the hours until Olympic gymnastics gets underway. (The women’s qualification started on Sunday at 3 a.m. EST, by the way!!)  By Giulianotti’s account, I’d be considered a (SUPER?) fan, who “develops a deep level of intimacy or love for the club or its specific players” and who “closely resembles the fans of leading musicians, actors, and media personalities, through their largely unidirectional relationship toward these household names.”

Whether we can help ourselves or not, we’ll soon be inundated with heart-tugging stories of Olympic hopefuls, chest-pounding predictions of national medal hauls, and harried accounts of the host city’s furious preparations. For athletes, there are the Wheaties boxes to be earned, magazine covers to be had, and endorsement deals to ink. And for the Olympic viewer? You can’t forget about the hours camped in front of the television in hopes of witnessing history in the making.  Whether you are a supporter, follower, fan, or flaneur, sit back, relax, and enjoy greatest sporting event in the world. After all, the Olympics only come along once every four years.

Brandon Call, Editor
Access Innovations, Inc.