Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Good Sport

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.


Read/Think/Live said...



How about life-sized chess like they have at renaissance festivals--I think there is actual or mock combat involved, not sure if the outcome of the combat is predetermined by the rules of the game.

How about a version of poker where instead of chips you bet pushups or laps around the track, and the winner is the last one standing?


Alex said...
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Anonymous said...

Hmmm, you know, by that last rule, any boxing match which does not end with a KO or one side throwing in the towel is not a sport. Also, a lot of those events like gymnastics and figure skating are not quite as subjective as it often appears. They actually do have very strict criteria for judging how well a given maneuver is performed, and often the artistic bit is all the audience at home sees, even though it is only a small part of the total score. Not that there isn't subjectivity involved (even in scoring boxing), else we wouldn't have the "East German judge" meme.

Anonymous said...

How about hot dog eating or beer chugging?

2fs said...

I think your categories are pretty much sufficient. The last one (as you intuit) is controversial, since gymnastics (no matter how obscenely abusive its training regimen) quite clearly is something more than merely a subjective "beauty contest."

Another problem is when things that actually are sports move closer to performing arts, talent contests, or merely entertainment by taking on the characteristics of those fields. Volleyball is clearly a sport...but when the sponsors of women's volleyball encourage its competitors to wear tiny bikinis, that clearly is happening for reasons that have little to do with athleticism (except insofar as a lithe ass might be described as "athletic").

Sheer coincidence that I'm echoing my last two blog entries here, right?

yellojkt said...

As promised, here are the authoritative answers:

Darts and billiards: They fail the caloric intake test. Not nearly athletic enough to jump from Game to Sport. Of the two, I'd have to give the edge to billiards since, like cheerleading, whenever it is on ESPN that is my clue that real sports is on some other network at that moment.

Boxing: Watching two guys try to inflict concussions on each other has its own moral quandaries without delving into how the scoring makes the 'sport' more fixed than it already is.

Competitive eating, by definition, fails the caloric intake test.

I'm going to have to search my photo archives for my one foray into beach volleyball, which is a sport, albeit a massively prurient one.

That NYT op/ed piece pulls no punches whatsoever. PETA protests horse racing as cruel and unusual, but has nothing to say about gymnastics?

Elizabeth said...

How about agility competitions where a person and their dog run through a certain obstical course. They have to run the course in a certain order and the dog with the best time and most points wins. What do you think?

yellojkt said...

Agility dogs are athletes. Show dogs are, well, show dogs.

Cedar said...

I agree with 2fs about gynastics. It's abosolutely a sport, and one with pretty strict judging. I know that some events (floor exercises, for example) involve music, but the music always seems like an afterthought, and the gynastics are hardly moving in time to the music.

I watched synchronized diving yesterday (and it was awesome!). Is that a sport?

Ed & Jeanne said...

The important thing here is thank God for women's beach volleyball as an Olympic sport...

Elizabeth said...

Once in a while my husband will make fun of me for being a pom pon girl. I'll tell him to "knock it off, it's a sport!!" I guess I shouldn't let him read your definitions!

Ben said...

Thanks for putting together this list. I will use it as a reference.

To the person who said that gymnastics is a beauty contest: It would be a talent contest by these rules, as would any olympic judged sport I can think of.

My personal pet peeve is the ski jump. Whoever jumps the farthest doesn't necessarily win, as there are judged points for form. It is so utterly ridiculous.