What Is A Sport?

During Friday’s coverage, those of us forced to watch NBC for our Olympic fix were treated to two-time figure skating gold medalist Dick Button getting roped into a discussion as to what qualifies as a “true” sport. Why? Because regardless of season, the Olympics are the perfect fodder for this debate.

Before I go any further with this, understand this is not about adding or removing any events from the Olympic Games. Rather, since it is these quadrennial events that spark this debate, I intend to use those events as a test for what constitutes a true sport.

A reason commonly believed to be the genesis of such debate stems from an argument over victory in an event like Button’s where victory is awarded subjectly, not won objectively on the field of play. Granted, wherever there are multiple opinions, there is conflict. However, I do not believe the subjective vs. objective conflict fuels this debate. Rather, I believe the cause lies in the overly broad definitions of the terms sport and athleticism.

Let’s start with the traditional definition of sport, as given by Webster’s Dictionary:

Main Entry: sport

Function: noun

Date: 15th century

1: physical activity engaged in for pleasure (recreation)

2: a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in

To me, there’s an important distinction between those two examples. The distinction is two-fold. First, to qualify anything done as recreation as a sport is far too broad. Under this definition, everything from sex to building a model railroad could be qualified as a sport. The second example holds the key to separating recreational activities from true sports; athleticism. Again, from Webster’s:

Main Entry: ath·let·ic

Function: adjective

Date: 1636

1 : of or relating to athletes or athletics

2 : characteristic of an athlete; especially : vigorous, active

The second example for Webster’s defintion of athletic holds the key to what I consider a truer, more refined definition of sport: the word active. However, before that refining can take place, the definition of athletic needs some refining of its own.

ath·let·ic – to actively engage in the primary physical elements of a sporting activity, such as running, skating, jumping, performing feats of strength, physically overpowering or outdueling an opponent, throwing or otherwise propelling an object of play (such as a ball) with great force using only one’s body, and/or propelling or catching an object of play with some type of instrument while that object is in motion.

With the term athletic more specifically defined, now a solid distinction can be built between recreation and sport; recreational activities would be covered under Webster’s original instance of what was the definition of sport. In contrast, to be considered a true sport given the tighter definition of athletic,  an activity must meet three criteria.

1) It must contain at least 1 element requiring true athleticism; it must not be only the mastery of a particular skill.

Olympic events excluded from consideration as a true sport under the first criteria would be Archery, Shooting, and Curling as none of them have an element of athleticism and consist of only the mastery of a few narrowly-defined skills.

2) It must require the athlete to actively expend the energy to perform that athleticism.

Active is the key word here. Whether one is riding a horse, capturing the wind under sail, or riding some device down a hill, the primary force propelling the particpants comes from something other than the participants themselves. Olympic events that cannot be considered true sport as the participants are all passively propelled by an external source of energy include all Equestrian events, Sailing, Downhill Skiing, Ski Jumping, Bobsled, Luge, Skeleton, and Snowboarding (Snowboard Cross).

3) It must contain the element of competition with an objective scoring method used to determine a winner.

By definition, every event in the Olympics contains competition, yet many of them determine the winners via judges, and therefore fail to meet this criteria. These would include Diving, Gymnastics, Synchronized Swimming, Freestyle Skiing, Figure Skating, and Snowboard (Half-Pipe).

By following those three criteria, the Summer Olympics events classified as true sports would be Badminton, Basketball, Boxing, Cricket (coming in 2020), Fencing, Judo, Kayaking, Rowing, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tae Kwon Do, Track and Field, Tennis, Triathlon, Volleyball, Water Polo, Weightlifting, and Wrestling. In contrast, the Winter Olympics would have only three; Cross-Country Skiing, Hockey, and Speed Skating.

Boxing is worthy of note as it nearly fails the 3rd criteria as it is uses judges in determining a winner. However, it also provides the objective victory conditions of the Knockout and the Technical Knockout. Also, there are three Olympics contests that are not considered for these purposes as they are a combination of events; some of which are true sports per the three aforementioned criteria and some are not. These contests are the Modern Pentathlon, the Biathlon, and the Nordic Combined.

Much like it was stated this is not intended to serve as a discussion as to what events belong in the Olympics, it is also not intended to be an indictment of something deemed to be a recreational activity rather a sport. Sports are not the only activities worth watching; much like may recreational activities require either a great deal of skill or a significant amount of physical prowess. Rather, this is about tightening some definitions so that every four years we no longer need to listen to the debate.

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9 responses

  1. [...] care what anybody says, NASCAR is not a sport.  A while ago, I wrote a piece that offered a hard definition as to what constituted a “true” sport. While this definition was applied to Olympic events, one can easily measure any activity against [...]

  2. [...] first step we had to take was to broaden the available field; we had to suspend our definitions over what constitutes a “real” sport. Not only have we made our point on that subject, but it would have forced us to exclude some damn [...]

  3. [...] you recall the Dubsism test of what constitutes a sport, I’m not sure surfing passes. But let’s be honest, half a million and hot [...]

  4. [...] there is the issue of “sport.” A while ago, I wrote a piece that offered a hard definition as to what constituted a “true” sport. While this definition was applied to Olympic events, one can easily measure any activity against [...]

  5. [...] knockout), boxing is judged on a completely subjective basis. I’ve written before about how events without an objective scoring system cannot by definition be called sports. The reasons for that are laid out in the linked piece, but the important part for purposes of this [...]

  6. [...] not even going to revisit the issue of what constitutes a sport; I’ve already done that.  Rather, I’m going to offer some ideas for improvements to [...]

  7. Good article, totally agree with you. Soccer is boring as hell to watch…but…sigh…I guess it is a sport.

  8. […] in curling. Hockey is the purest example of a sport on this list, and not just because it passes J-Dubs’ test for what is and isn’t a sport. Hockey is not only one of the four major-league American sports, it is also a world sport as well. […]

  9. […] Hockey is the purest example of a sport in the Winter Olympics, and not just because it passes J-Dubs’ test for what is and isn’t a sport. Hockey is not only one of the four major-league American sports, it is also a world sport as well. […]

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