How do we define ‘sport’
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 00:02
The International Olympic Committee recently responded to declining viewership and loss of revenue by recommending wrestling be cut from the 2020 Summer Olympics. Supporters for eliminating wrestling asserted that by cutting wrestling, the Olympic planners might be able to include other sports, such as softball or karate, and increase viewership.
Critics responded by pointing out wrestling has been included since 1896. History and tradition seem to be on their side. Underlying these arguments is an appeal to the legitimacy of the sport itself, and even the question of what a sport is exactly.
This isn’t an idle question.
Every year Americans spend over $25 billion on professional sports, and college sports depends on that classification to receive money to offset expenses not recouped by regular attendance.
The popularity of football and men’s basketball, the only profitable sports at Oregon State University, belie massive deficits in other events such as gymnastics, track, golf and rowing, including the $1.13 million deficit in soccer. The attribution of “sport” to a given activity legitimizes these deficits, and allows the university to attract incoming freshmen with expansive athletic opportunities.
When that legitimacy is questioned, apologists tend to fall back on a definition of sport as any athletic event in which skill and dedication are required. Certainly, skill is required, and I admire the dedication of athletes who devote decades to perfecting that skill. But if these were sufficient qualifications, then any activity requiring skill and dedication could be considered a sport. I can imagine the applications to the International Olympics Committee now: competitive yo-yo and speed crochet.
Some have argued sports are those competitive athletic events that tend to inspire feelings of solidarity. It is sometimes called tribalism, and it’s a good way to examine the nature of what a sport really is. Under this model, sports serve a societal function — by creating bonds of loyalty between people, sports increase social cohesion. This definition is arguably the most inclusive one I’ve heard.
Nevertheless, one has the sense that if the spectators were removed, a sport would still be a sport. Furthermore, track and field events are all sports but do not, in and of themselves, generate the level of solidarity we see in things like football, soccer and baseball. Instead, we group them under the larger community of school or nation.
Teams also seem unnecessary. Marksmanship and archery are both sports, but do not involve teams directly competing against one another. Instead, individuals compete to best the score of other individuals. If a sport is somehow competitive, but doesn’t necessarily involve one team directly opposing the other, what then is the defining characteristic of that sport?
Let me propose a model going beyond teams, fans and even team play. It includes a system of rules, objective judges and referees. Beyond these necessary requirements, three additional ones seem sufficient to qualify an activity as a sport.
Webster’s Dictionary mentions sports were activities often engaged in by nobility to prepare themselves for war. Throughout history, sports seem to have prepared people for the rigors of combat. I consider this a primary qualification of a sport.
Wrestling, archery, marksmanship, javelin throw and other sports meet this requirement. But the model clearly fails for things like football, basketball and baseball, until we add two further qualifications. Just as war is not inherently individualistic, sports shouldn’t be either.
A sport ought to foster camaraderie and bolster hardiness by means of physical confrontation. Basically, people ought to be running into one another as part of the sport itself, not as an outcome of engaging in physical activity — as might happen in volleyball. A sport then is any athletic event that prepares someone for combat. Failing that, an activity is a sport when it fosters teamwork and is physically confrontational.
This isn’t an inclusive definition. But definitions necessarily exclude some things. To put it another way, though a chair shares many characteristics with a table, the definition of a chair necessarily excludes tables. So it may be with sports.
As the controversy surrounding the IOC’s recommendation demonstrates, defining our terms remains important.
Closer to home, the notion that “sport” confers to an activity goes a long way toward deciding where funds will be appropriated. Why, for instance, is golf funded instead of cheerleading? The answer lies in how we distinguish what falls under the rubric of “sport.”
So, while the above is not perfect, it serves as a functional definition. The challenge remains to create a better one.
Steven McLain is a senior in history. The opinions expressed in his columns do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Barometer staff. McLain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.