Professional dunkers, gymnasts and high jumpers have a common dream—to fly.
Though these sports have similar movements, only two are recognized as Olympic sports—Gymnastics and the High Jump. But professional dunking is gaining popularity around the world, so its potential to become an Olympic sport is not totally unrealistic.
“I think it’s garnered enough widespread interest that people from all over would buy onto this,” said Pat Dickert, a junior guard for Colby College in Massachusetts. Dickert came onto the national scene in June when he posted a video on Instagram showing himself dunking from the free-throw line.
Dickert thinks its similarity to gymnastics and diving is reason enough for it to become an Olympic sport. He said, “It has the same elements as like say for example diving or the open floor events [in gymnastics]. It incorporates the same elements of coordination, power and speed.”
Dunking does require several elements of athleticism, such as power, speed and jumping ability. But it is usually seen as part of basketball rather than its own entity.
Peter and Jake Randall, twin brothers who will be juniors at Rockhurst University in Missouri, are members of the dunk community. They regularly post videos of their dunks on Instagram. They said the only way dunking will become an Olympic sport is if it’s viewed separately from basketball.
“If you look [at] it like it’s just something that’s part of what basketball is about, like how the long drive is part of golf, then people are going to say no,” Peter said. “When you compare it to High Jump, and it takes athleticism, it takes skill, you have to have style, power, explosiveness, all these things that make a dunk what it is, then I do think you can talk about it being an Olympic sport.”
If dunking is similar to other aerial sports, what’s stopping it from becoming an Olympic sport?
For the International Olympic Committee to add a sport, the sport must meet certain requirements. First, it must be governed by an international federation that follows the rules of the Olympic Charter. An international federation is an organization that oversees its sport on the international level. The sport also must be practiced around the world.
The IOC added rugby and golf to this year’s Games, but the committee has removed sports such asbaseball and softball in the past. Baseball and softball will return to the Olympics in 2020 when the Games are hosted in Tokyo.
The Committee has also approved karate, surfing, sports climbing and skateboarding for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Establishing an international federation for dunking would be the first step in the process. But even if that happened, another issue would pop up: the need for a specific judging system.
Gymnastics has a judging system. Judges rate the quality of gymnast’s execution in relation to the difficulty of each move.
So what would dunking’s system look like?
“You have whether or not the ball goes in hard, how the ball goes in,” Dickert said. “Are they dunking the ball hard, are they tearing the rim down, or are they just dropping it in?”
Dickert said whether the judges had never seen a dunk before (i.e., originality) would also be a factor.
In addition to the elements of a potential judging system, Dickert suggested having two divisions: one that uses no props and relies solely on athleticism, and one that uses props.
“If you’re using people, if you’re trying to jump over them, even though it looks more exciting to certain people, they tend to be easier dunks for dunkers to pull off,” Dickert said.
Dunkers call jumping over props or people a “double up.” A double up enables a dunker to gain momentum by pushing off from a person’s shoulder or leaping over a prop.
“They’re actually propelling themselves up even further,” Dickert said. “And on top of that, they’re stabilizing themselves in the air. So actually, to the trained dunker, it’s a more controlled way to dunk than just catching in midair.”
The Randall brothers said there should only be one division, but dunkers should have a limited number of prop dunks to perform.
The judges’ backgrounds would also be a factor. Dickert thinks the judges would need to be close to the dunk community.
“You’d have to get a collection of judges who are not just in and around basketball, but in and around dunking as its own entity,” he said.
So what if dunking met the IOC’s requirements? What if it established a federation and created a solid judging system? If those things happened, dunking would have a better chance of becoming an Olympic sport.
But this is the Olympics we’re talking about, the biggest stage in sports. What kind of gravity-defying dunks would people do?
“I’m certainly convinced that if we put technical focus on the sport, and had everybody thinking of dunking as a technical Olympic sport, then you’d find people jumping from their heels on the 3-point line,” Dickert said.
He said he’s seen long jumpers jump from as far as 27 feet. The free-throw line is 15 feet from the hoop.
“If you found another person that was my height and that could palm a basketball, all he would have to do is use the same long jump tech, get off the ground a little bit higher,” Dickert said. “And he could probably jump three feet farther than I could and dunk it.”
Like gymnasts train to do miraculous flips in the air, professional dunkers train to dunk. They don’t train to drop their 40-Yard Dash time. They don’t do Olympic lifts.
They train to do one thing: fly through the air and do something amazing.
“We’re training for it, and it’s not even an Olympic sport yet,” Jake Randall said. “But if it did become an Olympic sport, I think it would just completely blow up, and there’d be a lot more people involved in the dunk community than there are today.”