Style, not fashion!
When first staged in 1894, the modern-era Olympic Games were viewed as a gathering of the young. It is therefore only fitting that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is staying young at heart by embracing so-called trend sports. At the Tokyo Olympics of 2020, medals will be awarded for skating and freestyle BMX riding for the first time. "We can't keep waiting for the world's youth to come to us," reflects IOC President Thomas Bach. "We need to reach out to them, in the urban centers." Another sport is being tested at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires with a view to introducing it at the 2024 Olympics in Paris: breaking.
But is breaking really a sport? That question is not only causing controversy among TV audiences but on the global hip hop scene as well. After all, together with the disciplines of rap, DJ-ing and graffiti, breaking forms the hip-hop culture spawned as a protest movement in the Bronx of the 1970s. Young black Americans there not only forged a new kind of music out of traditional blues, jazz, soul and funk, but simultaneously laid the cornerstone for a global cultural phenomenon. Today hip hop is the world's most popular youth culture. While the dancers of the 1970s performed on asphalt or stray wooden planks, and DJs tapped electricity from nearby properties so they could play on the streets, today the dancers appear in major competitions around the world, such as Battle of the Year, Red Bull BC One, Freestyle Session and Taipei Bboy City. And soon they will be competing at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.
Changes are unavoidable. Whereas dance performances typically involve the presentation of the dancers' personalities, identities and styles, here the skills, sporting achievement and level of difficulty need to be isolated so that points and medals can be awarded.
Skepticism dominated on the hip-hop scene when the World Dance Sport Federation (WDSF), the body charged by the IOC with organizing Olympic dance events, set about introducing breaking as an Olympic discipline. Nobody believed that a body with no knowledge of its long tradition and cultural codes could successfully pull it off. In March 2017 the WDSF responded to these doubts by appointing a number of hip-hop experts including Thomas Hergenröther – the founder of the world's biggest breaking event, the Battle of the Year. Initially a consultant to the WDSF, Hergenröther has since been assigned responsibility for overall project coordination.
In addition to the time pressure – the requisite qualifiers had to be completed in time for the Games in Buenos Aires – Hergenröther faced two major challenges. Firstly, he needed to reconcile the unique practices of the breaking scene with the strictly codified stipulations of the IOC. "The Olympic Games have existed for an eternity. There are extremely rigid, time-honored rules. Technology is becoming all-pervasive, sucking the energy out of the culture," says Hergenröther. "But the IOC wants to stage a spirited competition, so compromises are inevitable." His work with the IOC has made great strides over time, he adds. An 80-page rulebook has already been drawn up, listing all the equipment permitted and detailing procedures for dealing with situations arising during competitions. One result: headspin caps have now been anointed an official item of sports equipment.
Secondly, it seems that the IOC originally assumed that – as in established sports – a global organization existed for breaking which the Youth Olympics could tap. That wasn't the case. In many countries breakers have no regular training facilities, let alone experts to coach them. Ultimately YouTube videos are the only "training manuals" available. Moreover, there was no standardized set of rules for judges to apply at international competitions. When adjudicating bouts between two contestants – so-called one-on-one battles – they would simply point to dancers to show which one had won a round. And spectators had little or no idea of how and why they had reached their decisions.
So the aim was to define a scoring system that was transparent for both audiences and the dancers, one that – notwithstanding its technical criteria – had to be compatible with the values of hip-hop culture and the traditions of breaking. Otherwise the dancers would have rejected it. To this end Hergenröther secured the services of Niels "Storm" Robitzky for his coordination team. Back in the early 1990s, this living legend of the hip-hop scene won the Battle of the Year multiple times with his Battle Squad crew. Today he serves as a judge for the leading breaking competitions and is revered as a top expert in the field of urban dance.
When drawing up the points system, Storm modelled the scoring on three linguistic disciplines from the seven liberal arts of the Classical era: grammar, logic and rhetoric – also known as the trivium. As a consequence, the judges now award points in three categories – mind, body and soul – which cover the artistic, physical and interpretative quality of a dance routine. During each round of a one-on-one battle, the judges enter their scores on a tablet. As a result, spectators can follow how individual judges are rating each dancer, and see which dancer is leading and whether a matchup is one-sided or too close to call. Storm attaches great importance to having head-to-head battles between two dancers. He also emphasizes that the juries should focus on coherent performance and overall impression, i.e. on style, rather than simply grading individual moves performed in a largely arbitrary sequence.
Based on this new points system, three qualifying tournaments have already been held for the 2018 Youth Olympics, with the top 90 qualifiers facing off in the final round on May 25, 2018, in Kawasaki, Japan. At this event the leading 12 exponents from a dozen different countries will be nominated for Buenos Aires. After the Games, the IOC will decide whether breaking is a viable Olympic discipline, and conceivably include it as early as the 2024 Paris Olympics. So far, Hergenröther and Storm are satisfied with the progress of their project. As a major companion event, the Youth Olympics are helping to establish breaking – and therefore contributing to the further spread of a youth culture whose main goals are fostering international exchange and authenticity. Since its emergence 40 years ago, breaking has enjoyed consistent popularity. It’s a win-win situation: "It's the Olympics that need us," says Storm, "not the other way around."
Axel Zielke is a music scholar and hip-hop expert.
Breaking: Originally known as b-boying and b-girling, breaking is a dance style from hip-hop culture which emerged in the Bronx during the early 1970s. The name derives from the instrumental breaks and drum solos in sounds played by hip-hop DJs at parties and events during the period. Broadly, the dance form consists of four elements: toprock (standing elements), downrock (normally elements where the hands touch the floor), power moves (athletically demanding moves such as headspins) and freezes (motionless poses).
ONE-ON-ONE: The term one-on-one describes a contest between two dancers, analogous to a singles match in tennis. Two-on-two, three-on-three, four-on-four and even five-on-five battles are also possible in hip hop.
Headspin cap: This cap is worn by breakers who perform headspins, i.e. twirl their bodies while balancing on their heads. Equipped with a nylon pad attached to the front, it reduces friction, makes spins easier and helps prevent injuries.