What Is A Sport, Anyway?

Yesterday Reddit user SpottedJack asked, “What is your definition of a ‘sport’?” sparking lively discussion about which physical and/or competitive activities qualify as sports.

Several months ago I asked, “What Is ‘Midwest,’ Anyway?” In the interest of continuing that analysis of the name of this website, and in the interest of bringing new life to a conversation that (with 4 “up” votes and 3 “down” votes) is now buried on the fourth page of the /r/sports subreddit, I ask you, “What is a sport, anyway?”

The folks on Reddit voiced the following opinions:

  • A sport is a physical competition.
  • The outcome of a sports competition should not be subjective. Thus athletic contests such as diving, gymnastics, figure skating, and perhaps even boxing do not qualify.
  • A sport involves athletes engaging each other on the field of play. Thus activities such as golf, bowling, swimming, and track-and-field, which compare individual performances (and don’t involve defense) do not qualify.
  • A sport must be more than simply “physical.” It must involve “athleticism.”

I think that these opinions give us too narrow a definition of sport. I also think that the subjectivity in sports such as diving and gymnastics is overblown. While judges in these sports reach different conclusions, there are hard criteria on which they base their scores. They aren’t simply voting for the athlete they like best.

Diving: Is it a sport? Swedish bronze medalist Arvid Spangberg would say, "Yes." (Photo from Wikipedia)

Before I go on, let’s look at how the dictionary defines “sport.” Here is the Dictionary.com definition:

an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

And here is the definition from Collins’ World English Dictionary:

an individual or group activity pursued for exercise or pleasure, often involving the testing of physical capabilities and taking the form of a competitive game such as football, tennis, etc

Both of these definitions suggest that a sport isn’t necessarily a competitive activity. Thus outdoor activities such as hiking and non-competitive fishing would count. But using these definitions one could also argue that activities such as marching band and dancing are sports.

This raises another question: Is there a line separating “art” from “sport” or are there physical activities that fall into both categories.

Cheerleading: Is it a sport? (Photo from Wikipedia)

One of the most contentious “Is it a sport?” debates involves cheerleading. By any standard, cheerleaders are athletes and cheerleading is an athletic activity. But is there a difference between an athletic activity and a sport? And is there a difference between competitive cheering and cheering on the sideline or during time outs?

In 2009 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that cheerleading was a “contact sport.” Thus, one cheerleader could not sue another for not catching her. A year later a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that competitive cheerleading could not count as a sport for Title IX purposes. The judge wrote:

Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX. Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.

Another sport that often comes up in “Is it a sport?” discussions is auto racing. Again, I would argue that drivers are, without question, athletes. I would ask: In a given type of racing is the technology and equipment more important to the outcome of the event than the physical skill of the driver? I would guess that, for most if not all types of auto racing, the answer to that question is, “No.” But if it were “yes” would that effect whether that type of racing qualified as a sport?

If there is an arbiter of what is or is not “sport” in our world, it would probably be the International Olympic Committee. In addition to the many sports that are part of the program at the Summer and Winter Games, the IOC recognizes 32 other International Sports Federations. These federations govern sports such as cricket, squash, baseball, and bowling. They also govern activities such as chess, billiards, bridge, life-saving, and climbing. (Life-saving was actually a demonstration sport at the 1900 games in Paris.)

If chess and bridge are sports, do other card or board games, even video games, qualify? Certainly there are other games that employ a similar level of strategy and problem solving. (And video games also involve hand-eye coordination, making them “physical.”) Do popularity, longevity, and the degree to which they’ve been studied set chess and bridge apart?

And while I’m sure that this guy who commented on my winning streaks article is glad to see billiards make the list, what about other table games such as air hockey and foosball? (Before you ask, table tennis is a sport by any definition.)

A sport? (Photo from Wikipedia)

At this point, I’ll shut up and let you decide for yourselves.

Which of the following activities qualify as sports?

View Results

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Please feel free and encouraged to defend your choice in the comment section.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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