As we watch television in our quadrennial obsession with all sports obscure (and admit it: would you even cross the street to watch a swim meet if there weren’t a ton of hype and national pride and TV cameras wrapped around it?), millions of people around the world are asking “How is that a sport?” And let’s face it, a lot of things that are at the Olympics shouldn’t be. The dictionary is little help because its definitions are so broad. Here is one from the online American Heritage dictionary:
sport (spôrt, spōrt) n.
1. a. Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively.
b. A particular form of this activity.
2. An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.
3. An active pastime; recreation.
These definitions are overly broad and could include about anything. We need a stricter set of tests and criteria. Here are my canonical, authoritative and indisputable requirements for a sport.
A sport must have a winner.
This means it must be played by a set of rules and have a way of determining who is best. Without rules, it is just exercise. Yoga is many things: a discipline, a philosophy, a way of life, but no matter much you stand on your head, it is not a sport. Mountain climbing is another litmus test activity. People keep records for all sorts of feats for climbing. Fastest ascent, number of ascents, number of mountains climbed, but unless you are having a race under fixed conditions and declaring a winner, it is an activity, not a sport.
When I was in elementary school, there was a trend towards non-competitive games like pushing giant earth balls around a field or rolling down hills. Fun, active events but not sports.
A sport must involve physical ability or skill.
This separates sports from games. The most common physical attributes necessary to a sport are speed, strength, endurance, agility, or a combination of the above. Intellectual prowess may be needed in many specific sports, but it is not a necessary requirement. Sprinting is pure speed. Baseball, even pinch hitting, requires speed, hand-eye coordination, and strategy.
Chess is a game. A very hard one, but no physical ability is required. In fact, mastering it seems to preclude physical activity. The grey areas are in defining the level of physical prowess required. The most debated distinction is motorsports. Is the mere driving of a vehicle physical enough to merit classification as a sport? The hand-eye coordination and endurance necessary to be a competitive NASCAR is extreme. Taken down the scale, one could argue that lawn mower racing is also a sport. Perhaps. In the same sense that kickball is really just a watered down version of baseball. They can be called sports, just very low-level ones.
Also, the distinction between a game and sport is rather fuzzy. Golf is clearly a sport because of the extreme skill necessary. Few people can drive four-hundred yards or sink 30-foot putts like Tiger Woods. Going down the other extreme, darts and bowling are what I call the beer-drinking sports: activities where the calories consumed usually exceed the calories expended. This rough caloric intake guide also eliminates many games that require great skill but little exertion such as marbles, horseshoes, and Space Invaders.
Anything meeting the first two rules where score is kept in some objective counting type of tally is a sport.
The object being counted can be runs, goals, points, or strokes, but there needs to be a way to determine who did more (or in the case of golf, less) of something. Most team sports fall into this category, but it also covers individual sports such as tennis. In many ways this rule encompasses most people’s traditional definition of a sport.
Anything meeting the first two rules that involves measurement of speed or distance is a sport.
This rule covers most traditional track and field events. You are either racing others or seeing who can move something like a shot-put, javelin, discus, or yourself (either vertically or horizontally) through space. Racing can include other components such as bicycles, skates, horses, or again, arguably, motor driven vehicles. Really nothing very controversial here.
The next rule is where I start to lose people because the following exceptions rule out activities as a sport.
Anything choreographed, set to music, or that includes an artistic element is not a sport.
Once you include music, it is A Performing Art, not A Sport. This rule eliminates everybody’s favorite winter game (behind curling), figure skating. At the amateur level, they like to de-emphasize the artistic aspect in favor of the athletic component by strictly regulating the type of music, skimpiness of the costumes, and the number and type of stunts that must be performed. But the mere fact that artistic merit is over half the score makes it less than a sport.
Ballroom dancing and cheerleading are trying to gain legitimacy as a sport rather than a competition, but it is nearly impossible to weed out the inherent artistic elements that make these activities distinctive.
The above rule is really a subset of the bigger, most controversial rule:
Anything involving subjective judging is not a sport.
If judges are involved it is either a Talent Competition or a Beauty Pageant. Now judges are different from referees or umpires in that the latter enforce the rules, while the former determine the winners. Let’s make that clear through a few examples. Weightlifting is a sport because the winner is the person that lifts the most measurable weight. Bodybuilding is a beauty contest because the person with the best looking muscles (as determined by the judges, not by any standards of good taste) wins. Swimming is a sport because the winner is the person that finishes first. Diving is a talent competition because the person that makes the prettiest and most difficult dive wins.
The real problem area here is gymnastics. Gymnasts are very athletic and train very hard. So do ballerinas, but nobody is calling ballet a sport. In both endeavors, their ultimate goal is to impress an audience, either a paying crowd or a group of judges. In gymnastics, everybody is doing pretty much the same moves and stunts, but the winner is the person that does them the best, i.e. is the most talented, not the strongest, swiftest, or most accurate. You could make gymnastics a sport by adding quantifiable criteria like who can hold an iron cross the longest or vault the furthest or do the most camels in a row, but that would destroy the reason people watch gymnastics, for the elegance and grace. Both very unquantifiable qualities.
I know I am courting controversy here, but my criteria are clear and objective. Just like sports should be.
BlatantCommentWhoring™: Name an activity and I will determine its sportiness based solely on my criteria here.