An Olympic Musing: What Makes a Sport?

Paul Gilham

The Olympics are happening. It doesn't have anything directly to do with Texas, per se, but it's the biggest event in the sporting world at the moment and we're all sports fans here, right?

Frank DeFord has a thought-provoking piece this morning that brings up the debate that seems to rage every time Olympic fever takes hold--and particularly the Winter version. Namely: what is a sport? In the Summer Games, the debate mostly revolves around gymnastics, whereas in the Winter Games figure skating takes center stage in the debate. But Sochi provides several other events whose status as "sports" are debatable--snowboarding, ice dancing, and curling spring immediately to mind. So I thought this might be an excellent opportunity to politely disagree with Mr. DeFord and share my own general rules for what makes a sport.

DeFord's thesis is, essentially, an all-inclusive one. He says "anytime you compete in a physical activity, you have a sport." He also touches on one of the most divisive questions on the topic--namely, whether something can be called a "sport" if the outcome is entirely determined by judges imposing their subjective impressions on the scoring process.

With much respect to one of our greatest sportswriters, I believe DeFord's definition is correct but incomplete. I'll get to that in a second. First, I need to lay out a couple of basic truths on which this entire exercise is based. Number one: I mean no insult to any institution, individual, or activity by not classifying it as a "sport." Many things I would classify simply as an "athletic competition" require far more skill, strength, and/or general athletic ability than many things I would classify as a "sport." In other words, being a sport does not, in my system, make something any better than an activity that is not a sport. It's merely a system of classification, not a statement of quality or value.

Second, any explanations based on some ethereal notions of what a sport can and cannot be, based simply on the viewer's built-in preferences, are silly and irrelevant. Here, I fully agree with DeFord; the guy who says "nothing that involves music outside of halftime can be a sport" is inherently denigrating those activities he does not believe to be sports, and that is a violation of rule number one. As will shortly be explained, I do not consider figure skating, or competitive cheerleading, to be "sports;" that has nothing to do with their use of music, costumes, or anything else that offends the sensibilities of certain traditionalists. I continue to recognize that competitive cheerleaders and skaters are far better athletes than, say, golfers.

With that established, here are my criteria. First, in order to be a sport, an activity must be an athletic competition. The definition DeFord gives of "sport" is, to me, the proper definition for "athletic competition." There are all kinds of competitions out there--math, sewing, cooking, mock trial, etc. Anything where your goal is to defeat an opponent is a competition. An "athletic" activity can be defined as one requiring physical exertion. This is the first area that inspires controversy in these discussions--namely, how much physical exertion? Some like to argue that golf, for instance, is not a sport because it isn't taxing enough. The same argument would be the one that would disqualify curling and race care driving for those who believe them not to be sports.

Thus, some things can be eliminated from "sport" consideration by not meeting the threshold requirement of being an athletic competition. In my view, this eliminated my above examples, plus most anything you can do while sitting still--such as chess. My basic criteria is that, if you can reasonably expect to be injured in the normal course of the activity, then the activity is physical enough to qualify as "athletic." This allows for the inclusion of golf and race car driving; I suppose reasonable people can disagree on whether curling fits within my definition. I tend to say no, but could be convinced otherwise.

In my system, then, the dividing line between an athletic competition and a sport is exactly what DeFord identified and rejected: in my opinion, something is a sport only if the system of scoring is inherently neutral. "But Abram," you may protest," umpires and referees make bad calls that affect the number of points a team has all the time!" That is correct, but in a perfect world, the scoring of points in, say basketball, is undisputed--the ball either went through the hoop or it didn't, and the shooter was either standing behind the three point line or she wasn't. In other words, the job of a referee in a sport is to enforce objective rules that form the structure within which the players try to score; it is not to place a point value on a competitor's actions.

Contrast that with activities I would classify as athletic competitions. In figure skating, in a perfect world, the judge's subjective opinion still determines the winner. The same goes for gymnastics, snowboarding, ballroom dancing, cheerleading, and anything else where scoring is entirely determined by judges. I understand the argument that the judges are supposed to simply apply a predetermined set of standards, and to an extent that's obviously the case; i.e., if you fall on the ice, you're clearly--and objectively--not winning a medal. But at the margins, among those who skate their best, the judges are making tiny distinctions between competitors that determine the difference between the medal stand and empty-handed.

Ultimately, I think the reason there is even any point to distinguishing between sports and athletic competitions is simple: a sport is something people can play, in its entirety, with a clear winner and loser, without a referee or any formalities at all. Kids playing soccer on an empty lot walk away knowing which pickup team scored more goals than the other.

A couple of gymnasts, on the other hand, can obviously do all the activities and display all the skills present at a gym meet with no one else around. But in order to have a full competition, with scoring and winning and losing, the gymnasts need a neutral third person to tell them who was better. It doesn't make gymnastics any less impressive an athletic feat than playing baseball. In fact, it is very clearly a far more impressive athletic feat. But in order for the contest to take place, it requires some level of organization, sanction, and formality. It is an intense athletic competition, and--like figure skating, cheerleading, and others--it is fun to watch and requires immense skill and preparation. It just shouldn't be classified as a sport, and there's nothing wrong with that.

What do you think?

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