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Thursday, February 25, 2010
What about curling?

As the Olympics wind down, I found myself thinking about the "What's a Sport?" question as applied to one of the darlings of these Games--curling. Curling seems to have been discovered in Vancouver, as the public has learned of the game's rhythms (somewhat comparable to baseball), its shot-making and strategy (comparable to golf, with collision physics thrown in), and the attractiveness of many of the female curlers (several European curlers even posed nude for a fund-raising calendar). And curling was a staple of NBC's afternoon live cable coverage during the first week (because the stuff people initially wanted to see was being held for tape-delay), so it was easy to find.

So, is it a sport? Looking at our narrow definition (borrowed from anthropologist John Jackson), no. Jackson requires: 1) a ball or ball-like object as the center of attention; 2) a sense of physical urgency when the ball is in play; and 3) the opponent taking steps to thwart one player's efforts as to the ball.

Curling is OK as to # 1 and # 3--the stone qualifies as a "ball-like object" and the purpose of the game is get your stone closest to the center, often by deliberately knocking the other team's stone away. But it runs into a problem on # 2--sense of physical urgency while the ball is in play. There are no periods of running after the ball--much like golf, which Jackson expressly excludes from his definition. Perhaps we could argue there is physical urgency for the sweepers who must follow the stone and often have to move (and sweep) quickly to get the stone where they want it. The physical movement in curling is arguably greater and more urgent than in golf. In golf, the ball is hit and everyone stands and waits to see where it lands; in curling, the stone is launched and there is some rapid movement to control its progress. So perhaps # 2 is satisfied; it's a close call.

What about the broader definition: 1) Large motor skills; 2) simple machines only; 3) objective scoring; and 4) competition.

Curling passes. The brooms qualify as simple machines and large motor skills in upper and lower body, as well as great balance, are necessary for both the person who launches the stone and the sweepers (putting aside whether sweeping should be part of any sport). Scoring is objective and immediately determined. There you go.


Under the narrow definition, is there any activity other than conventional team sports which qualifies? (Curling is a team sport, but not quite in the same way that baseball and football are.) My major objection to the narrow definition is that it redefines "sport" to mean "team sport." (Are there any team sports which do not qualify? Relay races, I suppose, but again, these aren't quite team sports in the same way.)

If someone prefers team sports over other sporting activities, that is fine. But to proffer a sweeping redefinition of the word "sport" to justify this preference seems over-broad.

For what it is worth, look at the sporting press from the late 1850s--the first great expansion of the sporting press beyond horse racing--and you will find curling included among the winter activities reported.

You'll find baseball as well, but that was on ice skates. This fad has inexplicably failed to rematerialize.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 2/26/2010 10:34 PM  

What about this? A sport requires that its participants perform a movement with the intention of affecting a certain outcome, AND there must be room for improvement in the movement that leads to improvement at the sport.

So, chess and poker are out. Curling is in, but so are track, swimming, and other non-team sports. There are still a few gray areas here-- horse racing, for example-- but this offers a more precise benchmark of physicality.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/27/2010 1:04 AM  


The narrow definition would include some individual sports such as tennis, squash, or racquetball--a player attempts to thwart the opponent's efforts as to the ball by trying to hit it away from him or trying to make him miss.


I like your idea about improving the physical movement through practice. That is a nice addendum to the large-motor-skill element.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/27/2010 3:28 PM  

A team "sport" that would not qualify might be synchronized swimming. Lacks objective scoring.

BTW, I always worry when watching synchronized swimming that if one swimmer on a team takes a wrong breath and starts to drown the entire team will also drown. But that is beside the point...

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 3/08/2010 1:23 PM  

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