Sports, we talk about them every day. Papers have the sports section, the nightly news has the sports report. You're reading a blog about sports on SSN. Our schools and institutions have sports teams. We love to go to sporting events. Sports are part of our culture and something we talk about almost every day. There is a whole industry built around playing and reporting on who plays them best. But have you ever stopped to think about what is a sport? A lot of people will tell you a lot of different things about what they think is a sport but let's take a look at what it really means.
In my school, as I'm sure is the case in many, there is often debate over whether or not you can call Ultimate (Frisbee) a sport. Some people say yes it is and some people say no its not. It's a team game and it uses an object somewhat like a ball. It has goals and a point system and penalties. So why wouldn't it be a sport? Well some argue that it's because it's not popular enough, some because the high school league doesn't use referees. Other say it's because a dog can do it. (but let's get one thing straight: a dog can catch Frisbee not play ultimate.) Does it fall short in any way of being a sport? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a sport is defined as:
(noun) c. (1). A Physical Activity engaged in for pleasure, (2): a particular activity (as in athletic game)so engaged in.
Very plainly, the English language isn't much help in this debate. As far as English majors are concerned a sport is any game from the hallowed fields of baseball and football to the game of corn hole you played at the family BBQ to a 5 year old running around like an idiot. This is the most broad definition and really the fallback for any game trying to seek acceptance, because as long as you're moving its a sport. That does however create an interesting divide. No mental activity can technically be classified as a sport then. That means that competitions such as the poker world championships, the majority of card games, and every strategy competition that exercises the mind is not a sport. We could classify these as a sport only if we called them a mental sport.
While some "sports" that technically aren't sports are fall clearly into their mental competition category, there are a few competitions that bridge the gap. Most notable of these is NASCAR. While relatively little skill is needed to drive a car, not many Sunday drivers could jump behind the wheel of a stock car and pilot it through a 500 lap race in Daytona.
But does that make NASCAR, or any car racing, a sport? As we look at it as a case study, we'll see that sitting behind the wheel of a car for that long does take a degree of discipline physically. A certain degree of physical endurance does have to be mastered in addition to the nerves of steel and tactical understanding in order to master car racing. Conversely, however, do race car drivers have to physically train rigorously enough to make the a sport. In the 4 hour race, they are being pulled around by their cars after all.
So clearly, going to the most basic of definitions for the word sport hasn't helped us too much to make a comprehensive list of sports, and maybe this is because the word sport's English definition doesn't take into account the social uses of the word. Our modern uses for sport have probably shifted a bit from the straight definition of the dictionary. Let's consult urban dictionary, the experts there ought to know. The second most 'like'd definition on the site defines it as:
(noun) An athletic competition that is objectively scored.
Well, that's a little bit better. This means that any competition that has a point or scoring system counts as a sport putting basketball in the same group with corn hole but not with running around in the yard for no reason. Sports that are timed such as track and field and rowing have an objective score of time instead of points and would also fall under the terminology. So great, this must be what it means to be a sport.
Except, not really. A problem arises because there are competitions that are subjectively scored, not objectively scored. Athletic events like diving, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics are scored from the judges perspective. And while the reasons judges can take points away are objective in nature, for example in gymnastics separated legs on a shoot-over is a deduction, it is up to the judge to notice the error and decide how big a deduction to give. By this definition, this is less of a sport and more of a competition of athletics. But based on the Merriam-Webster definition, gymnastics lies firmly in the category of a sport. So which is it?
Maybe it's based on the popularity of a game, but if it is then who is the governing body to say who gets to be a sport. Is it the IOC? The International Olympic Committee is in a very good position to determine if a sport is a sport or not because they are so cross culture and bridge the gap between professionals and amateurs. The IOC's mission statement can be summed up as mainly wanting to create a better world through sports. But not all sports. The IOC only recognizes about 40 sports in the Summer Olympics for size and time constraints and really does not and has not defined what a sport is. They have given their own requirements for Olympic sports but not what it means to be a sport. What about the high school and college leagues? Can they have a say in what is a sport is? Well yes, but not the final. While the NCAA does represent a huge number of collegiate sports leagues, there are some it does not due to budget constraints and interest levels.
The same is true for state high school athletic associations. Could SportsCenter or ESPN help us define it then? No, because then only the games they cover would be sports and they don't even have all the sports with professional leagues. Really, whether or not a sport is a sport can't be decided by media outlets or any of the governing bodies. These bodies tend be good only at separating professional sports from amateur sports, but not sports from other athletic competition.
Well, we've come up with a hierarchy of sports so far: first, "real" or physical sports are separated from mental sports, which by definition aren't actually sports. Then, sports can be divided into subjective and objective sports, which if urban dictionary is to be believed makes real sports objective. Then, sports are broken into professional, Olympic, and amateur with some overlaps. But maybe now we can put together a better definition of what a sport is. After a search for a universal definition I'd like to present the Sports Heaven definition for sport.
Sport: (noun) a game, physical activity, or athletic competition, either team or individual, through which a winner can be decided, done for amusement or enjoyment.
This definition is a combination of the common perception of a sport and the actual definition and hopefully clears up some of the misconceptions about what it means to be a sport, which might help us answer some of our original questions. So is Ultimate (Frisbee) a sport? Yes, Yes it is. The game is objectively scored and is a team athletic event. By any of the presented definitions it is in fact a sport. What about NASCAR? That one is a little bit tougher because of the physical activity requirement. All racing leagues have not only races with winners but a season long point system, but does it take enough physical stamina to call it a sport. For the endurance factor it takes to be a driver, I call it a sport.
Gymnastics, while being scored subjectively, is a sport under two of the three definitions and it is a physical activity with a decidable winner, so yes it is a sport. One thing we didn't mention that often pops up in sports debates, especially in high school, is cheer-leading. And no it is not a sport, while it is a physical activity, standing on the sidelines of a game cannot select a winner nor is it scored. Only competitive cheer-leading, where winners are chosen, is a sport.
On the matter of determining if a game is a sport, many often unfairly discredit certain sports from their title but we have to remember that when the definition fits, as much as we might not want to admit it, it is what is. Sport is a tricky word so use it wisely.