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.
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!”
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?