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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
 
Defining Sport

I jokingly have been interested in trying to define "sport." I have toyed with a definition that requires objectivity in scoring and determining winners. Thus, if it is about objective questions such as who runs faster or who scores more points, it is a sport; if it is about getting a 5.6 from the East German judge, it is not a sport.

But John L. Jackson, an anthropologist at Penn's Annenberg School identifies three necessary conditions:

1) There must be a ball or ball-like object that organizes everyone's attention.
2) There must be a sense of physical urgency when the ball is in play.
3) The opponent must be able to take steps to thwart your efforts with respect to the ball.


Everything that does not possess all three elements is not a sport. it is a contest, a game of skill, an athletic competition, but it is not a sport,

Jackson put this out there to suggest that much of what we focus in during the Olympics is not, in fact, sport, including the privileged Olympic events such as track and field and swimming. His broader point is that the Olympics really is not about sport; it is about non-sport athletic competition--not the same thing.





29 Comments:

Unfortunately, I think shuffle board would quailfy as a sport under this definition?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 8:35 AM  


I prefer the Wasserman definition.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 9:15 AM  


Shuffleboard definitely fails # 2--you don't have to run or jump after the ball-like object, you can walk to your next play. And it probably fails # 3, because the opponent cannot physically prevent you from making a play on your ball-like object. I doubt Jackson would agree that # 3 is satisfied if the opponent can use its own ball-like object to hit your ball-like object.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 5/07/2008 9:27 AM  


This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Track isn't a sport, it's a test of skill? Huh? Why?

I can see arguing that an event whose winner depends on judges (gymnastics, figure skating, etc.) but to argue that a sport requires a ball is unnecessarily inserting complexities into a definition.

-Amos

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 9:28 AM  


I suggested to my class that it requires "athletic skill or movement" which becomes too subjective. So I propose we define it as "any activity in which it could be argued that use of steroids would, in theory, give the participant an unfair advantage." That would exclude activities like bowling, skeet, target shooting, race car driving; and would include swimming, track, gymnastics, golf, etc.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 5/07/2008 9:38 AM  


If not shuffle board, what about curling? Clearly physical with all the brushing of the ice. Also, the definition provided in #3 is broad enough to encompass knocking your ball/puck/whatever they call that curling thing out of the way.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 10:37 AM  


I have two proposals: the Sweat Test and the Co-Ed Test. Under the Sweat Test, an activity is a sport if, after playing a standard session however defined (nine innings, four quarters, 18 holes, 60 minutes and so on), your body is sweating. No sweat, it's not a sport. Some allowance would have to be made for outdoor activities performed in unusually high or low temperatures.

Under the Co-Ed Test, which is easier to define in the negative, an activity is not a sport if men and women of equal experience levels can compete against one another on an equal footing.

Some sports would pass the Co-Ed Test but flunk the Sweat Test. These would include golf, bowling, and at least in some cases even baseball. I can't think of anything that would pass the Sweat Test but fail the Co-Ed Test.

Anonymous Peter -- 5/07/2008 11:11 AM  


What makes the word "sport" so holy that we are offended by track not being a sport? I say this because my first reaction was identical to Anon 9:28.

The more I think about it though, what is wrong with track and field being a skills competition?

If you run the 100 meter dash or are throwing the shot, your competitors have little direct impact on you. You can set the stadium, conference, national, or world record in your event without having even seen the person whose mark you beat. Your competitors cannot touch you, they cannot play defense to disrupt your attempt to clear the bar in the pole vault.

The same goes for golf. Your opponent can do nothing to interfere with your actions.

The NCAA has permitted experiments with remote swim meets where the schools competing aren't even in the same venue. They start races at the same time and swap times.

Blogger Mark -- 5/07/2008 11:50 AM  


Peter:

Interesting, but:

Golfers sweat, even though they are not running--walking a course is tough (as I found out just from being in the gallery one time). Plus, do you have to sweat constantly (because you are running around the whole time) or is it enough that you sweat every couple of innings when you come to bat and run the bases or when a ball is hit your way in the field. This may have the effect of meaning that some baseball players play a sport (pitchers, shortstops, and second basemen, who have to move on every single pitch and every single play) and others don't.

The problem with the Co-Ed test is that something can be a sport when played at younger ages and cease to become a sport as people mature. A lot of girls can play any sport on equal par with boys at the age of, say 10-12, but by the time they hit high school and college, the physical disparities between the average male and the average female take over and prevent most women from competing. So is baseball or soccer not a sport for 10-year-olds, but becomes a sport in high school?

Mark: I believe your points go to one reason that the Winter Olympics are not as popular in the U.S. Yes, it has something to do with athletic activities (word choice deliberate) such as skiing and skating that are not as engrained into American culture. But it also is the case that in most of the competitions, the athletes compete *only* against the clock and never each other. I think the remote swim meet idea would be a terrible one.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 5/07/2008 12:00 PM  


I have often debated the definition of Sport with my lawyer and non-lawyer friends. Usually to argue that golf and track do not qualify.[FN1] This is the working definition I've come up with. A two-prong test:

1) There has to be a minimal degree of physical activity.

We haven't drawn the line as to what would be a minimal degree but we've decided that golf clearly meets this prong and chess and poker clearly do not. A close question is whether billiards would qualify.

2) Any participant's (team, player, side, what have you..) action must depend on the action, or reaction of his/her/their opponent. To clarify, if you remove the opponent, it is impossible to make the repeat the events of the play. (e.g. a baseball batter cannot hit without the pitcher throwing it to him, a chess player cannot take an opponents piece unless the opponent first moves that piece to an attacked square)

I think this is where golf fails the "sport" test. While I'm aware that golfers and runners will plan their strategies in consideration of their opponent or size of their lead, the actual round of golf or race can be played regardless of whether there was an opponent on the course.

FN1 - This is in no way meant to diminish the athletic skills or challenges in the game of golf or track but merely to classify the different activities among games, sports or athletic competitions.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 12:12 PM  


Amazing post and comments. How about not defining what "sport" means and instead defining each individual sport. Or, if that simply won't do, how about saying that it is a sport only if it looks like a sport, walks like a sport and quacks like a sport--oh, and if there is some sport of mandatory drug testing too...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/07/2008 4:32 PM  


Come on, now. This is an easy one.

If the WWL covers it, it's a sport. If it's good enough for ESPN, then it's good enough for me!

Congratulations, poker, you made it.

Blogger Stephen Cole -- 5/07/2008 8:35 PM  


The definition we used in the sports management program as an undergrad was "any physical activity with an element of competition". I suppose that could require a definition of physical activity, but still...

Blogger Jimmy H -- 5/08/2008 8:27 AM  


....add, "where a human being is involved as the primary participant"...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/08/2008 8:39 AM  


Here at Lynn University, I have long suggested (half-jokingly...) to our sports management students that a sport is:
(1) an activity involving a ball or something that is propelled (an arrow, a puck, a hammer...)
Alternatively, students may turn to my second definition:
(2) A race against time or a competition for higher scores COUPLED WITH -- and here's the important part -- the opportunity for significant bodily injury.
That means that sports like golf (ask Tiger), bowling (torn muscles) or curling (frostbite?) are in, but poker, chess and ballroom dancing are out.
Enjoy playing around with the definition!

Anonymous Ted Curtis -- 5/08/2008 10:37 AM  


Rather than posting up hokey ideas, how about reading some of the sports science literature. Here is a good starting point:

Hughes, M.D. & Bartlett, R.M. (2002). The use of performance indicators in performance analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 20(10), 739-754.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/08/2008 7:31 PM  


The same goes for golf. Your opponent can do nothing to interfere with your actions.

and

I think this is where golf fails the "sport" test. While I'm aware that golfers and runners will plan their strategies in consideration of their opponent or size of their lead, the actual round of golf or race can be played regardless of whether there was an opponent on the course.

What if golf reintroduced the stymie rule? Would it then be a sport?

Blogger James -- 5/08/2008 7:46 PM  


The stymie rule, thats good ha ha.

anon 12:12,
Any participant's (team, player, side, what have you..) action must depend on the action, or reaction of his/her/their opponent. To clarify, if you remove the opponent, it is impossible to make the repeat the events of the play. (e.g. a baseball batter cannot hit without the pitcher throwing it to him, a chess player cannot take an opponents piece unless the opponent first moves that piece to an attacked square)

so chess is a sport but golf isn't? my oh my...


My handicap? Woods and irons!

Blogger Jimmy H -- 5/08/2008 10:20 PM  


I must admit that I'm a first time blogger so my naivete may come through in my response, but I believe that with a little tweaking of Jackson's first rule, track and swimming could be included under the "sport" definition.

As stated, rule #1 proclaims that 1) There must be a ball or ball-like object that organizes everyone's attention. In my interpretation of this rule, it appears that the ball would serve as the organizational tool that not only organizes everyone's attention, but also serves as the baseline with which everyone on the playing field is judged/scored. If a player scores a goal, then they clearly defeated their opponent by outmaneuvering/outstrategizing them. The rift in this argument for all of the track&field and swimming supporters is that their ultimate judgment is based on a clock, not a ball or ball-like object. Because of the clock aspects of these sports, inherently rules #1/#3 cannot be completed. However, I think it's difficult to state, as some have, that swimmers or track athletes do not engage in competition against each other simply because the clock is the final judge. Clearly, swimmers and runners have an effect on their opponents and thus an effect on the outcome of the race (Rabbits in a track meet?, the best times usually being posted at events with the best competition, etc...) SOOO...what if the clock were interpreted as having the same attributes and purposes as the ball?

Taking this into account, could a clock not act in the same fashion as a ball does in Jackson's rule #1/#3? I believe it does, thus meeting the 3 rules established in defining a "sport". To satisfy #1, the clock acts as the organizational tool with which everyone's attention is based off of. To satisfy #2, there is definitely a sense of physical urgency to complete the race when the ball(clock) is in play. And to answer #3, you can take steps to thwart your opponents efforts in respect to the ball(clock) by utilizing strategy. Although you may not physically be thwarting their efforts, you are still using techniques to change your opponents outcome/performance.

I'm a former football player so I'm most certainly not biased towards swimming and running, but I think they should certainly be classified in the "sports" arena. What do you think?

Blogger David -- 5/09/2008 3:23 PM  


This proposal is a fairly radical redefinition of the word "sport". Look at a newspaper from a century and a half ago and it will classify as "sport" first and foremost horse racing.

Another traditional usage is of "sportsman" meaning a hunter in the Teddy Roosevelt vein.

None of this is to say that we can't redefine a word, or at least restrict it to a narrow sense in some contexts. But this certainly isn't a search for some existing truth about "sport": it is defining a subset of those activities which traditionally fall into the category of "sport" and assigning the word to this subset.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the point of the exercise is.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 5/09/2008 10:55 PM  


Let's try THIS definition and see what everyone thinks--again, I realize there are going to be exceptions and "what about ...?"'s to all points.

===================================
An activity is not a sport if any of the following apply:

(1) The only way to see who wins an activity/sport is by a subjective method (judging) rather than by an objective method (fastest, highest/longest, most/least points).

(2) There is NO OTHER WAY, other than a subjective method, to determine a winner in the activity when it is played competitively.

===================================
Number (1) would eliminate all of these:
Cheerleading/spirit,
Dressage,
Diving,
Ballroom dancing/dancesport,
Gymnastics (any and all forms),
Synchronized swimming,
Figure skating, and
Roller figure skating.

All these can be won only by subjective means--judging (and no, Tonya Harding's method doesn't count!).

Number (2) would include AS SPORTS boxing, judo, taekwondo, and (amateur) wrestling, since you can win by other ways than judging (i.e. a KO in boxing, a pinfall in wrestling).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 5/10/2008 2:27 AM  


Jimmy H -

Chess would not be a sport. It meets the second requirement but not the first (minimal degree of physical activity). The two-prong test is an "and" test, not an "or"

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Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/03/2008 1:49 AM  


Poker is not a sport, however I believe any event that requires an amount of physically challenging training and some sort of skill to compete with is a sport. So john you are flat out wrong in my opinion when you say track and field, golf, and swimming are not sports. By your standards polo and tetherball are more sporty than boxing, you need a reality check my friend and I might add a new set of rules. Your ball rule is f@#ked up because you are excluding wrestling (not WWF I’m talking about NCAA), cycling, lifting, speed skating, snow/skateboarding, surfing, gymnastics, and competitive eating to name a few. Not too sure about the last one but I don't think all of those athletes would appreciate anybody telling them their sport is no sport. Just because you don't think these sports are as popular doesn't mean they are not sports. "SPORT -- an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others." -- Oxford Dictionary, no mention of a ball, hmmm curious.

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