As well as traditional snow and ice sports such as skiing and skating, recent reports have suggested that a surprising new entry might feature in the Beijing Winter Olympics: mahjong.
Yes, that’s right. A game perhaps more associated with old people sitting around in parks or housewives with secret gambling problems, mahjong has been mooted as a possible “demonstration event” at the 2022 Games. Demonstration events haven’t been a part of the Olympics since 1992, when for both Curling in the Winter Games and Taekwondo in the Summer it was a step to full inclusion. Other sports have not been so lucky: pigeon racing, cannon shooting and kite flying all failed to make the leap from demonstration to Olympic sport.
The origins of mahjong are murky and disputed. Despite some claims for ancient provenance, most experts agree that it emerged in its modern form in Shanghai in the late 19th century, when the crucial shift from cards to tiles took place. In the 1920s the game became popular in the west, and the craze for Mahjong parties where guests dressed up in “Chinese” costumes even inspired a novelty pop song, “Since Ma Is Playing Mahjong.”
Mahjong faces some challenges before being accepted as an Olympic event though. It has only recently been admitted by the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA), and has to wait in line behind longer-established games like chess and bridge.
“The six mind sports can be divided into three levels”, according to Chen Zelan, President of IMSA. “Chess and bridge, which have already been recognized as sports by the IOC, have the priority to be admitted to the Games. Among the other four mind sports, go and draughts are official member sports of SportAccord, while Xiangqi and Mahjong are still just observers of it, let alone (could they be included in the) Winter Olympic Games.”
There’s also the many different variations of the rules, and the strong element of luck involved. However the prospects for Olympic Mahjong are not as dim as it may appear. From 1912 to 1948, poetry was an official event at the Games, for which medals were awarded. So anything is possible.
Photos: Audrey via Flickr, pinterest.com