what\’s a sport

Ask RandBall: What is a sport?

Monday, January 29th, 2007

As mentioned earlier, we’re going to try a new feature here called “Ask RandBall.” If you have a burning question — please, not a burning sensation — or something you’re merely curious about, please shoot an e-mail our way. Depending on how many we get, this could be a daily feature, a weekly feature, or something we never speak of again. But our first one comes from Diddy, who asks:

“What exactly is a sport? Do NASCAR and events like gymnastics, ping-pong and pool count as sports, or something else entirely?”

Diddy, we’re so glad you asked that question — namely because we already answered it in April 2006 in the Newspaper of the Twin Cities. We’ll spare you some of the set-up, but here is what we wrote and have believed for about half of our 30 years on this planet:

About 15 years ago a friend and I boldly set out to determine
criteria for “true sports.” We came up with three iron-clad
thresholds a would-be sport had to pass in order to meet approval.
1. There has to be a certain level of physical exertion. If you
barely break a sweat, or don’t break one at all, it’s probably not a sport. This helps separate games from sports. Billiards, for instance, is a game. In poker, you might break a sweat, but it would be a sign that you’re probably not going to win the hand. It’s on ESPN all the time, and many people (this one included) enjoy watching it, but it’s not a sport. Bowling and curling, though not overly taxing, do involve lifting, a coordinated movement and heaving. The verdict was that they marginally passed the test. NASCAR, in which drivers sweat off several pounds, passes easily.
2. The winner cannot be determined by judges. Gymnastics? Out. Figure skating? Out. They require athleticism and grace, but they are not sports. There are other events, such as boxing and wrestling, in which the winner can be determined by decision, but they can also be won via knockout or pin. Those two are safe. Virtually every sport has some authority figure – umpire, referee, etc. — enforcing rules, but the outcome is not subjective. The players on the field ultimately determine the winner. Bowling, curling and NASCAR are safe.
3. The athlete has to be the one doing the most work. Uh-oh. This rules out horse racing and auto racing because the horse and the car are the biggest factors. Put the greatest driver or jockey in the worst car or on the worst horse, and he/she probably won’t win. Give Kobe Bryant the worst shoes, and he can still score 35. Bowling and curling, however, pass the test. 
So we are left with a world in which bowling and curling are
sports, but NASCAR — a Sunday ritual for many people (though not this guy) that has developed even a fanatical following among fantasy players — is not. It just doesn’t seem right. Now, you could argue we were snobs and that the original criteria were only developed to validate the sports we had already chosen to like — traditional “ball sports” such as baseball, basketball and football. But it could also be argued that the greatest value in the three tests is that they reinforce what a sport should intrinsically “feel” like: athletes running, jumping, shooting, throwing and sweating with nothing but their talent to separate victory from defeat.
Maybe the three rules — developed half a lifetime ago — need to leave room for a gray area.


    Sport                           Sport                                 Sport?

Diddy, we hope that answers your question. We certainly have strong feelings about it. We’ve been in multiple debates about the three rules, as have many of our friends. Your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.