Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Definition of Sport

Every four years, about this time, I'm driven by the incessant coverage of figure skating to try and define what is, and what is not, a sport. Many years ago I came up with this basic definition, which I still think is pretty good:

A sport is an athletic competition in which the judges of the event rule on whether or not a specific action by the athlete is allowed, without judgement of its artistic quality.

Note the wording, I said "is allowed." There is no ruling on how graceful the action is, nor its beauty. If Alan Iverson does a triple toe-loop double axel slam dunk, the only question is whether or not he should be called for traveling or given two points, not his landing style.

Not to say that events which don't fit this definition are not interesting. They are athletic competitions, if they involve any kind of physical effort, or simply games, if they don't. Watching Sasha Cohen bend herself into a pretzel at twenty miles an hour is interesting, and we all want her to score well with the judges, but the judges are making a mostly subjective evaluation of her performance. Ask yourself. If Michelle Kwan and Roseanne Barr skate identical performances, who is going to get the higher score?

In a sport, it doesn't matter how the competitor looks. Jerome Bettis and Gale Sayers both got six points for crossing the goal line. Michael Jordan and Michael Mehl both got two points for hitting a fifteen-foot jumper. (OK, he hit more of them than I did.)

Not to say that there isn't some subjectivity in a referee's ruling. Did Roethlisberger cross the goal line? I don't know, you don't know, Ben doesn't know, and neither does the line judge that made the call. But he either did or didn't, no matter what the referee said afterwards. He didn't get four points for the effort and two points for presentation, he got six points because the line judge and referee were convinced, somehow, that the ball was over the line before his knee touched down.

But there are some events, no matter how interesting, which are not sports. Most of them seem to show up every four years in one version of the Olympics or another. Naturally, I've made up lists, so you can know which events on TV are sports, which are things that will make your wife/girl friend cry, and which you should watch only if there's absolutely nothing else to do:


  • Track and Field events: The definition of sports. Higher, faster, farther. All measureable.
  • Football (Soccer, Rugby, American, Canadian, Aussie): Kick the ball through the goal or push it over the line. Doesn't matter how pretty it is.
  • Basketball, Team Handball, Water Polo, Hockey, ... : Put the ball in the goal, and you score. Don't and you go home.
  • Baseball, Softball, & Cricket: Keep the ball from being caught or touching you. Run from one point to the next to score points.
  • Tennis, Badminton, Volleyball, ... : If the object hits the ground more than allowed, your opponent gets a point.
  • Speed Skating: Both regular and short-track. Whoever crosses the finish line first, wins.
  • Nordic Skiing: Again, the fastest wins.
  • Snowboardcross: Four people, one finish line. Showboating kills, as we saw this week.
  • Ski Jumping: This is borderline, because they award style points. But mainly you want to see who jumped furthest.
  • Bobsled, Luge, Skeleton: First to get down the hill without breaking his skull wins.
  • Curling, Bowling, Shuffleboard: Just get the thing you're pushing into the right spot, and you score points.
  • Golf: Put the ball in the hole with less effort than your competition.
  • Auto racing: Takes physical skill, and there's no doubt about the winner.
  • Horse racing: Ditto. The athlete's the jockey, by the way.
  • Biathlon, Decathlon, Pentathlon: Combined events, but they all involve physical skills.
  • Boxing, Wrestling, Martial Arts Combat, Fencing: The object is to kill your opponent, symbolically. It could be argued that boxing doesn't belong here, but it's possible to have quantifiable judging, i.e., how many punches hit the opponent.
  • Billiards/Snooker/Pool: It takes physical skill to get the ball to do what you want it to do, and scoring doesn't depend on the grace of your stroke.

Athletic Competitions that Are Not Sports:

  • Figure Skating: No matter how they try to quantify the technical aspects, there's always the fact that Sasha Cohen is better looking than Hillary Duff.
  • Gymnastics: Again, the way you perform counts as much as what you do.
  • Diving: Again, it's how well you complete a 2½ forward somersault, not that you actually did it.
  • Synchronized Swimming: Oh come on. You really thought this was a sport?
  • Martial Arts Forms: Yes, they are stylized fights, but it's how well you do the moves that counts.
  • Cheerleading: Competition form. You put a lot of effort into it, but it all depends on how the judges like your moves.
  • Ballroom Dancing: Figure Skating without the possibility of a severed jugular.
  • Moguls, Half-pipe Snowboarding, & Skateboarding: It's all about how rad you are, dude. (Does that date me?)

Things that aren't sports but still show up on ESPN:

  • Poker: If Stephen Hawking can play it, it ain't a sport.
  • Chess: Ditto
  • Spelling Bees: Lots of sweating, but no movement of anything other than lips.
  • Dog Shows: Sure, Derek Fluffy Overlord Champion may be a cool-looking Dachshund, but his handler's not an athlete, so it's not a sport.

Hmm. I really expected more Winter Olympics stuff in the not-a-sport category, but there's really only Figure Skating and the How-Cool-I-Look snowboard events. It's just that there is so frakin' much Figure Skating, I guess.