What makes something a Sport?

When I was in my teens, I fell asleep most nights listening to a radio program called “Pete Franklin’s Sportsline”. It was the 1970s and long before sports talk radio had become ubiquitous. Each night Pete would talk about the local (Cleveland, Ohio), teams. Some topics he wouldn’t address because he didn’t think they were sports.

On Tuesday of this week, the International Olympic Committee announced that wrestling had been cut from the 2020 Olympics. Much debate has ensued about this decision. In my mind it sparked a more fundamental question. What makes something a sport?

For years I have thought there must be a way to look at an activity, apply some rules and determine whether it is a sport. And so, I present my three criteria that determine whether an activity is a sport. I have given this quite a lot of thought. The simple application of these three criteria will help you determine whether something is  merely entertainment, a game, an athletic competition, or a sport.

Athleticism and the real risk of injury. To be a sport, an activity must include an athletic endeavor. Something which requires physical effort, and in which there is an inherent risk of injury.

Outcomes are decided with Objectivity. By this I mean that the outcome of the event is determined only by the objective actions of the participants. The outcome is not decided by a judge or set of judges. This isn’t to say that there aren’t officials. Officials are needed to make sure rules are followed, and to rule on plays within the game. But, the actual outcome must be determined objectively.

An element of Defense. The actions of one participant must be able to directly influence the actions of another, in real time. There must be a way for one participant to actively prevent the other from succeeding.

These three, simple criteria: Athleticism, Objectivity and Defense; can be used to determine whether an activity qualifies as a sport, or something else. To demonstrate, let’s run through some examples.

There are obvious activities that qualify as a sport because they easily meet the three criteria. Baseball, Football, Basketball, Auto Racing, Volleyball, and Hockey are but a small sample. All contain the three essential elements. They are, in fact, sports.

What about track and field events, and golf? They pass on the Athleticism and Objectivity tests, but fail on the notion of Defense. One cannot “goal tend” the hole in golf, trip a fellow runner, deflect a javelin, or block someone in a dash. These, then are Athletic Competitions. Many others fall into this category, including competitive swimming.

Next let’s consider Diving, Gymnastics and Figure Skating. Each of these pass the test of Athleticism, but fail in both the criteria of Objectivity and Defense. Simply, they are not sports.

Test and activity you like against these three criteria and you will see that it is easy to classify what is, or is not a sport.

So what?

One may ask why this is important? Are there not competitions for all of these, and many other activities? Why classify them as fitting a particular definition? Simply…because it is fun to do. There is nothing here to suggest that these other activities are not worthwhile. Personally, I very much enjoy playing Scrabble. There is Objectivity, and even a measure of Defense. But, there is no Athleticism involved.

From time to time I will run through lists of activities and help determine whether they qualify as sports, athletic competitions, or something else. Eventually, we may even find a way to name all 8 possible combinations of the criteria.

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4 Responses to What makes something a Sport?

  1. bigdaddytom says:

    A sport risks serious bodily injury, or death. The rest are games played by adults. Rules are only ethical dedication. A bad move on a technical climb or base jump, whichever, is fatal. A bad move in football forfeits 5 yards. Bold, adrenaline games are sports. One plays a game of golf. One does not play a game of climbing El Cap. To each their own. I choose sports, not games.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I find this to be very close minded. How can you say that just because someone personally can not affect the outcome of lets say the performance of a gymnast, it makes it not a sport. When gymnasts spend nearly 40-50 hours a week training, a real year round with absolutely no off season. Elite gymnasts are almost always home schooled and spend more time training then eating, breathing and in their own home. In MY opinion gymnasts would qualify ten times more an athlete then football, baseball and most definitely auto racing which does not require much talent at all then to have a need for speed and to turn the wheel of a car.

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    • Bobby-C says:

      I didn’t say gymnasts weren’t athletes, I said gymnastics isn’t a sport. That doesn’t make me closed minded. I have full respect for their hours of dedication and work, just as I do for those who practice brain surgery. Both are enormously difficult, and take talent and dedication to master. Neither are sports.

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      • Bobby-C says:

        Actually, your ill-informed opinion about how much athleticism it takes to successfully drive a 3,800 pound vehicle at 220MPH, while surrounded by 39 other vehicles doing the same thing, in temperatures reaching 120 degrees in the cockpit, for 4 or 5 hours makes YOU closed minded.

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