I realize that the future of the nation’s access to Hydrocodone and suppositories presently hangs in the balance, but an opportunity to explain one of my longstanding personal theories on a deep cosmic question has finally presented itself, in the sailing of the America’s Cup and historic victory of Team USA this week.
What is sport?
The eternal debate over which activities constitute “sport” and which do not, ends now. For too long, we’ve been left to our own individual view. Bass fishing. Ice skating. The WNBA. What are they? We need an objective test. A standardized list. Even the so-called Worldwide Leader in Sports, without distinction, sloppily conflates the performances of Kelly Slater and Jimmie Johnson and Shaun White with those of Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick and Albert Pujols. All world class athletes for sure. Not all participants of sport. But, how can we know for sure?
So, presently, I think we’re all working with a kind of intuitive definition of sport that includes three generalized elements:
1. An activity;
2. requiring some threshold level of physical exertion/skill; and
3. performed within a measurable and competitive context.
These three elements by themselves lead to all kinds of controversy. Is race car driving a sport? It requires an above-resting-heart-rate level of cardio; physical strength; and world class eye hand coordination. It’s also a race. But, it sure looks a lot like just driving a car. Is surfing a sport? The physical element is plainly satisfied. But, what really is a surfing “contest”? Non-standardized playing environment. And, physical techniques poorly suited for quantification and measurement. How about billiards? A kind of low-grade eye-hand coordination, relative to something like baseball or golf. But, plainly an objectively measurable competitive outcome.
Most people think the controversy is all in the second element. Are you being “athletic” enough to constitute sport? But, an emphasis on the second element leads to unnecessarily forced accusations like “soccer players are bed wetters” in order to try and discount an activity as sport, when plainly the physical element is present. And, while there is admittedly some grey area caused by our intuition that sport requires “physicality,” I actually think the real confusion is almost entirely in the third element.
When we doubt sport, we are really subconsciously reacting to an activity out of context.
See the problem is that we live in a “game” culture. And, so we are constantly turning everything into a measurable test of wills and talent. Pie eating contests. iPad math games. Iron Chef. Seed spitting. Spelling Bees. Madden Bowl. Project Runway. Jeopardy. Last Comic Standing. That cup stacking thing. Otherwise non-competitive activities that we simply decide to score. And, then we’re stuck wondering if it is a sport. There really isn’t any activity that we can’t quantify and make competitive. And, so we wind up shrugging our shoulders at ESPN’s 2:00 am time slot and reluctantly accepting that the Lumberjack Games must be a sport. “They’re really strong. And they get a trophy carved from a tree trunk.” Check and check.
But, intuitively we know this isn’t right. And, when we can’t clearly challenge on the basis of athleticism, like with The World’s Strongest Man competition or American Ninja Warrior, it’s all the more frustrating. “I know he’s pulling a transport truck with his teeth, but that can’t possibly be a sport.”
Consider the mystery solved. Our definition of sport simply needs to include the following clarification.
If an activity has some context other than its competitive one, it is NOT A SPORT, even if it also now enjoys a competitive context; it is just an activity. By contrast, sport has no other context for its activity than its competitive one.
Football doesn’t have a non-competitive context. Football was invented for football’s sake. You can choose to not keep score but that doesn’t make the performance of the activity any less advesarial. It is always pitting, so to speak. Some activity called “footballing” did not predate the competitive, sport version of football. The activity is a priori, in philosophical parlance. Same with basketball or golf or hockey.
Certainly you can break down the individual elements of an inherently competitive activity into non-competitive ones. Like hitting balls at the range. Or throwing a baseball off a brick wall. But, that’s just practice; not the actual and full activity itself. When you play baseball. You’re playing baseball. And, if you want to say that spinning the football with your dad in the backyard isn’t a sport, we can agree to agree. It’s an activity. Football, however, is a sport.
So, let’s look at the modified rule in application.
Skateboarding? Not a sport. Skateboards were toys and transportation first. X-games came later. It’s an activity. And a public nuisance.
Horseback riding? Not a sport. Horses were for transportation, hunting, and nation-state imperialism originally. The track came later. It’s an activity. And a farm animal.
Car racing? Not a sport. It’s an activity. You may have heard of it. It’s called driving.
And, cycling? Yep. Not a sport. It’s an activity. Horn. Woven basket. Tandem seats. Picnic. The Tour came later.
Surfing. Uh uh. Any activity that includes the risk of shark attack is not a sport. It’s survival.
To be clear, all of these are athletic or rather require athleticism. But, so does hand-to-hand guerrilla warfare. That doesn’t make it a sport.
To the point, this “original context” view eliminates the sort of qualitative judgment the debate about sport presently implies. So, currently, the race car driver has to behave sort of defensively that the athleticism and physicality required of him is high, whenever his racing is not accepted by some as a sport. But, this proposed addendum to the definition of sport effectively shifts the debate from athletic v. non-athletic to activity v. sport. And, truthfully this view is already in line with the culture of these activities. Competition and scoring were imposed on many of these activities, like surfing and skateboarding and axe hurling, whose participants philosophically already see contests and competitions as a kind of existential threat to the purity of the real experience and culture of those things. A definition, which focuses on the original purpose of the activity, therefore, removes this more judgmental and artificial exercise in critisizing the physical talent or skill or difficulty of relative sports.
How about foot races you might ask or long jump? People have been jumping over and running from and after things for as long as we’ve been bi-pedal. And, mostly for non-competitive reasons. How can the 100m or triple jump not be a sport simply because they have other non-competitive contexts?
And, so, I have promulgated an important corollary to our definition, called the “Antiquities Exception.” It goes as follows:
If the activity was originally considered a sport, in antiquity, then it remains a sport in modernity.
Object hurling. Javelins. Shot puts.
All of these were “sport” in antiquity. They’re grandfathered in, so to speak. If it was a “sport” before the invention of pants, let’s say, you can continue to claim it now.
Before I continue, it’s critical that we say a little more about the second element — that physical exertion/skill be present. Although this is where most people believe the debate lies, I think it’s pretty straightforward.
If an activity requires two or more of speed/quickness, strength, agility, flexibility, and eye-hand coordination, it satisfies the physical exertion demands of sport.
This working definition quickly helps identify inherently competitive activity without physicality, as “game,” and inherently competitive activity with physicality, as sport. Things like board and yard games, therefore, pretty rapidly find their water level as games.
Cornhole. A passion.
It also relegates something like billiards to the game category for its reliance essentially on only one attribute in eye hand coordination but solidifies something like ping pong or table tennis as sport for demanding quickness plus coordination.
Here are some interesting test cases.
The sleddings. Bob, dog, snow. Ancient activities. But, not necessarily ancient sports. 1967 was the first Iditarod. Not a sport. Anything that involves “packing” or “food stores” is not a sport.
Skiing. As a means of snow escape, maybe as old as 5 to 6 thousand years. As a sport, relatively new. It’s, at best, an activity, at worst, suicide.
Sailing. You already saw the spoiler. Not a sport. Anything used to “circumnavigate” cannot be sport. Satellites. Shuttles. Boats.
Roller Derby. Although roller skating itself is an activity, punching women in the face while roller skating has no other context. Sport.
Lumberjack Olympics. Not a sport. Anything that scores or measures “job performance” is an evaluation not a sport.
Arm wrestling. Have you seen Over the Top? Sport.
Fishing. As with the sleddings, if the activity also doubles as a food source or other life necessity, not a sport.
One of my favorites. Cheerleading. Not a sport. It has another context. Called cheerleading.
Horseshoes. A game. Eye hand coordination only.
Ice skating. Regardless of the definition used, ice skating will never, ever, ever be a sport. Panty hose = no sport.
Women’s softball. Begrudgingly a sport.
Clemson football. Not a sport. It plainly has no competitive context. It is strictly non-competitive.
How about swimming? Evidence of “swim meets” and Speedo in the Ancient World is admittedly a little thin, but it has such a high association with modern sport, like track, that it’s hard to not deem swimming a sport. So, is swimming more like skiing, essentially a type of environmentally specific transportation, or more like sprinting, an old sport? To resolve it, the Antiquities Exception should reasonably be extended to cover any competition based on an irreducibly singular athletic movement that doesn’t include equipment. Like running or jumping. Whereas skiing and sailing are an activity in human/equipment hybrid, swimming is a base athletic activity. A sport. You’re lucky, Phelps. Real lucky.
One more canard: gymnastics.
Trust me. The the back layout with a half twist has no other context. And, no one can quibble with the physical requirements. But, it gets such a bad rap for scoring that it seems to fail the measurable/competitive element as simply not well-suited to assessment. I would offer that although the current judging system is an abomination, as with boxing, that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine a more technical and objective type of adjudication. Sport. By the skin of your leotard, Tim Daggett.
So, let’s review. A “sport” is
1. Any activity;
2. requiring physical exertion, to include two or more of the following physical attributes – speed, agility, flexibility, strength, or eye-hand coordination; and
3. performed within a competitive context, so long as the activity has no other non-competitive context,
otherwise, it is a game or an activity.
Antiquities Exception: Any physical activity deemed a “sport” in antiquity is a sport in modernity, to include any competition based on an irreducibly singular athletic movement that doesn’t include equipment.
Baseball. A sport.
Sailing. Not a sport.
Lacrosse. A sport.
Fantasy sports. Not a sport. Even if you’re in an auction, keeper, league-specific, PPR, rotisserie, War Room league.
So next time someone invites you to a NASCAR event or the Kentucky Derby or the Billabong Pipeline Masters, you can confidently say, “Why thank you. I’d love to attend that ‘activity competition’ with you.”
(And, yes, please use air quotes, when you do.)
Written and performed by theipoetlaureate. Music produced Fab da Eclectic.
Today’s blong here: