From the Vault: “Sports, Not-Sports, and Everything In-Between”

I originally wrote this piece about ten years ago for Core Magazine, a now-defunct dot-com boom publication. My editor asked me to weigh in on this long-standing debate about what was, or wasn’t, a “sport.” He wanted it to “push peoples buttons.” I think he got what he asked for. This column turned out to be one of their all-time most-read articles and generated dozens of email responses, ranging from people who loved the piece to people who demanded I be fired. Since then, the topic continues to come up again and again at bars and parties; friend have often asked for my official definition from this piece. So here it is, republished for the record. I revised the story two years ago with a few minor updates, but 95% of this article is the original version

This week, ESPN, the “worldwide leader in sports,” begins more than twenty hours of World Series of Poker coverage. Also this month, the network will cover the Firestone IndyCar 200 race, NASCAR events, and the “X-Games,” which features guys on skateboards, bikes, and motorcycles. That’s all fine, although a bit curious for the biggest sports network in the history of civilization, since not a single one of those events is actually a sport.

A golfer walking with a caddy

An “athlete” walks with his man-servant.

The argument over what is and isn’t a sport has raged in bars and parties since Roman times (gladiator fights yes; being eaten by a lion, no). I intend to clear all this up once and for all. I recommend printing out this article and keeping it folded up in your wallet just in case it’s needed to settle a debate on the subject somewhere in the future.

Let me start with a basic disclaimer. Many activities that are not sports are difficult, challenging endeavors that few people have the athleticism, talent, or skill to do well. Many non-sports are as physically tasking or as competitive as any sports. But they aren’t sports. They are something else.

So a definition is in order. Here’s mine: A sport is a competitive human athletic endeavor in which winners and losers are determined by objective scoring or time.

Let’s break that down:

Competitive. This one is obvious. Sports pit athletes or teams against other athletes or teams. Doing sit-ups at the YMCA isn’t a sport. Moving furniture into your friend’s new apartment isn’t a sport. Chopping wood is tough, athletic work, but a grizzled old coot whacking away at a tree in the woods isn’t participating in a sport. In fact, stay away from that guy. He sounds creepy.

Human. For an activity to be a sport, the primary source or power and motion must be the human body. If your “sport” depends on a gas-guzzling engine, a horse, or 60-foot sail, it is not a sport. That means NASCAR’s not a sport — the car’s doing most of the work. Horse racing isn’t a sport, either — certainly not a human sport — all the jockey is doing is riding; the horse is doing the running. And whipping a defenseless horse doesn’t help the weak argument that a short guy riding on top of an animal is a sport. Motorcycling and boat races? Nope. Some guy who rides a skateboard day and night is not a sportsman, he’s a curfew violation.

Athletic.
At some point, a sport must be an activity that requires some measure of athletic power or speed. In short, moving isn’t enough. Some large muscles need to work. This instantly disqualifies table-top and pub games like ping-pong, pool, foosball, and darts. Shuffleboard and bocce ball are also disqualified. Don’t even show me that croquet mallet. I love poker, but playing cards isn’t a sport, it’s a game… or a gambling problem. Spelling words correctly is a great, but it’s not a sport, even if you jump around the stage after you nail the word “serrefine.” Playing a videogame is not a sport, even if that videogame simulates a sporting event. The athletic requirement also puts a serious question mark around any “sport” largely enjoyed by flabby, overweight, drunk men, such as golf, bowling, corporate softball, and eating contests.

Winners and losers determined by objective scoring or time. Here’s where about half the Olympic “sports” get dumped. No jury or panel should ever decide a sporting event’s outcome. The players in the arena should decide who wins. Any competition in which you can lose by not smiling enough or not charming the judges isn’t a sport, so kiss figure skating, diving and gymnastics goodbye.

That’s right, Gymnastics isn’t a sport. Gymnasts may well be incredibly athletic, graceful, and skilled, but if a bitter Bulgarian judge with indigestion and a hangover can deny you a win, your chosen activity isn’t a sport.

Does this mean that boxing isn’t a sport? Judges decide fights, don’t they? Well, if a fight ends in a knockout, it’s a sport. If it goes to a decision, it’s damn close to not being a sport. Maybe boxing can do away with judges and rounds, and just let the fighters brawl until someone’s sprawled out on the ground unconscious… oh wait, we already have that — it’s called “hockey.”

The second part of this rule is that winners and losers can be determined by time. Nothing is more pure than the brutal reality of the stopwatch. It’s one reason I love watching sprints. Winners and losers are determined by hundredths of a second. Same goes for field events like the high jump: either you clear a bar or you don’t. You squeak over a certain height or inch beyond a certain point… or else, you lose. No aesthetics are involved, no assessment of poise, and no bonus points for style. You either make a time or distance, or you don’t. This is sports at its most basic and pure. Imagine a panel of judges scoring Michael Johnson: “Very fast, yes, but I didn’t like the grimace on his face as he rounded the final curve, and his posture is very odd, so I give him a 7.5. Now that fellow from France did finish last, but what lovely strides! And his selection of red shorts with understated off-white trim is an inspired choice! 9.75!”

Other rules:
All good rules have their exceptions and fine print. The definition of sports is no different. Here are various additional qualifications and corollaries to the definition of “sports”:

Uniforms, not costumes, are part of sports. One more reason to reject figure skating. I’ve seen skaters dressed up in cowboy outfits, 1950s clothes, and Robin Hood costumes. The prosecution rests.

Killing isn’t a sport. Sure, Hemingway thought killing a bull in a stadium in front of tens of thousands of howling fans was a swell way to spend an afternoon, but it isn’t a sport. Neither is shooting down ducks, turkeys, rabbits, or deer. Jaws and The Deer Hunter aren’t sports movies. Suffice it to say that if your sport requires you to break one of the Ten Commandments, it’s not a sport.

Sports don’t have servants. Any sport in which you have a personal manservant or assistant who carries your gear for you on the field of play isn’t a sport. Golf was already in trouble because many golfers are so fat, drunk, or lazy that they drive from hole to hole in little carts rather than walking. But the use of “caddies” to carry gear for golfers disqualifies it as a sport. Besides, any “sport” largely dominated by chubby, middle-aged rich men can’t be a real sport (see the rule on flabby, overweight, drunks above).

Any “sport” with a script isn’t a sport. This means pro wrestling is out. But wrestling was probably already disqualified due to the excessive use of folding chairs as weapons. If pro wrestling is a sport, so is a Jackie Chan movie.

Summing this all up, you’re safe calling football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and tennis sports, as well as most track & field events. I’ll even concede that soccer is a sport. It may be a tedious, boring snoozer of a sport, but it qualifies.

But anything with the words “rhythm,” “synchronized,” “ping,” “figure,” “auto,” or “moto” in the title is probably not a sport.

If you see anyone holding up a scorecard, it’s not a sport.

If you can sit in a chair while competing, it’s not a sport.

If your sport starts or ends with the letter “X,” it’s not a sport.

If it involves drinking or eating anything, it’s not a sport.

If chubby, middle-aged men dominate it, it’s not a sport.

If you wear sequins, it’s not a sport.

If it requires bullets, it’s not a sport.

Finally, let’s be honest: if it’s something I like, it’s got a better chance of being a sport. If it’s something you like, but I don’t, it’s probably not a sport. Simple, right?

8 thoughts on “From the Vault: “Sports, Not-Sports, and Everything In-Between”

  1. I completely agree with 95% of this and find it funny. However, I find it ridiculous how so many Americans (I’m from FL) find baseball so entertaining yet argue that soccer is boring and tedious. TEDIOUS; are you kidding me, baseball is the epitome of tedious. Other than requiring being completely jacked (and having to take supplementary steroids to keep it entertaining) to smack a ball as far as possible and being able to run short distances quickly – by your definition you could almost rule out baseball as a sport.

    Maybe if you took some time to learn the positions in soccer and the strategies used, as well as get it through your head that scoring isn’t all that makes a sport entertaining, you’ll find that soccer is a blast to watch.

    -WCR

  2. Thanks for the comment, William… I make no pretense of defending baseball as “exciting” (unless it’s played in October).

    It’s a fair point that I don’t understand the subtleties of soccer in the same way I do American football or basketball, and if I did, I might appreciate it more. But I doubt it. If they got rid of the ties, I might reconsider…

  3. You try gymnastics AND win a gold medal for it in the Olympics for it, then I MIGHT actually latency to you… Some of the sports you’ve listed are actual sports and you might just not UNDERSTAND them. If you try to understand what they have to do and how they have to do it and EXACTLY how they are scored you probably would take some of those sports back.

    “After a day of football, a gymnast would be bruised.  After a day of gymnastics, a football player would be dead.”

  4. You try gymnastics AND win a gold medal for it in the Olympics for it, then I MIGHT actually listen to you… Some of the sports you’ve listed are actual sports and you might just not UNDERSTAND them. If you try to understand what they have to do and how they have to do it and EXACTLY how they are scored you probably would take some of those sports back.

    “After a day of football, a gymnast would be bruised.  After a day of gymnastics, a football player would be dead.”

  5. Good article, but I think the logic behind your second point might be a bit construed against skateboarding. If you think along the same lines for other sports than you could easily discount skiing, rowing, biking, as well as any form of skating (hockey and speed-skating) by claiming that they involve some form of instrument that helps the athlete propel themselves along.
    If that is what you believe then more power to you, but I’m really curious as to what you actually think about those sports.

  6. Gymnastics fit into everything you listed that you think describes a sport. I’ve been a gymnast for 10 years. From 8 to 18 so I think I know what I’m talking about when I say gymnastics IS a real sport. Maybe if you actually tried it you would agree. It is not scored by smiling or whatever you said. It is scored on difficulty of skills, balance, gracefulness, TIME, etc. There actually are time limits on events so don’t claim that that’s a reason it’s not a sport. You should really do your research before you criticize. Gymnastics is also tougher than most other sports. It can take months maybe years to master just one basic skill. It’s not that hard to throw a basketball in a basket. It’s not that hard to master throwing in baseball. Gymnastics requires a lot of training. To reach higher levels in gymnastics takes extraordinary dedication and hard work, especially compared to most other sports. Most people don’t know that gymnastics was created as a method of training all types of athletes. Later it was a method for training the military in more than one country. It requires very high levels of strength, extraordinary balance and coordination as well as a good deal of courage and confidence- and that is just to be an accomplished beginner. If you think gymnastics is just pleasing the judges enroll in a local gymnastics class and see how long it takes you to learn a back handspring or a back extension roll. These are basic skills in gymnastics similar to learning throw or bat in baseball. Elite gymnastics is an entirely different world compared to other sports. GYMNASTICS IS A SPORT

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