Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Which activities should be considered sports? Why?

I've been trying to come up with a definition of sports ever since my racecar driving ex-roommate argued for car racing as a sport.

After watching just five seconds of rhythmic gymnastics, I find the question screaming in my head again. I may not be able to define what a sport is, but I know this sh*t sure ain't it.

Defining "sport"

Rule 1: Competition
First of all there has to be a competitive aspect--compete head-to-head (volleyball), against the clock (swimming), or against a standard (gymnastics).

Rule 2: Physical activity
Obviously there has to be motion, physical exertion. Chess will never be a sport (unless it's battle chess! Arrrghhh!!). Car racers claim (accurately) that car racing takes lots of exertion. But exertion alone is not the only criteria.

Rule 3: Human-powered
A big rule for me--and this is where my ex-roommate and I differ--is that the primary kinetic energy of the activity has to be supplied by the athlete. That rules out anything with an engine: cars, motorcycles, planes. Also rules out things like sailing, horse racing, and firing guns.

One exception: gravity can be an activity's primary kinetic force and it would still count as a sport. Downhill skiing is definitely a sport. I'll even accept boxcar racing and tobogganing. Surfers talk endlessly about waves, but waves are really just free potential energy which surfers convert into kinetic energy by harnessing gravity.

Rule 4: Augmenting human power is okay
I have no problems with human-generated energy being augmented by mechanical aids--a pole vaulter's stick, a diver's springboard, bicycle gears, etc. Archery is a borderline case but I'll accept it.

Is that it?
There must be one last part of my definition missing because we haven't managed to rule out synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics yet.

I think a sport has to include some sense that the skills on display are deemed useful or desirable in an almost Darwinian sense. The strong and fast survive. Gymnasts display super agility and explosive power. The winners of head-to-head confrontations are the very embodiment of natural selection. These all reflect primal qualities that nature values.

So my last rule is this:

Rule 5: It must be an athletic fight for survival
Obviously this is meant in a slightly abstract sense. And I realize that at first blush this last rule seems almost a little random or arbitrary. Rule 5 is my way of saying that there is a visceral quality to the activities that most of us would consider sports. Even if chess didn't fail previous rules, it would fail Rule 5. There just isn't a visceral thrill to watching people play chess. Yes, it can be thrilling and engaging, but only at a mental level, not at a physical life-or-death level.

Now am I saying that every sport must be about testosterone-fueled deathmatches? No, not exactly. Let me explain with an example:

Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are not sports because they are NOT about any sort of athletic fight; the raison d'ĂȘtre of these activities is elegance and artistry. They are exhibitions of beauty first and foremost; the athletic showdown aspect is a distant second. Therefore, by my definition, they are not sports.

This explanation leads us to a clearer understanding of Rule 5. In fact, now we can amend it with a corollary:

Rule 5.i.: The athletic fight for survival must be the primary purpose of the activity
If any other value--e.g. artistry or elegance--overshadows the fight for survival, the activity cannot be considered a sport.

Putting the definition to the test
Happily, this definition also knocks out figure skating as a sport. Yes, they are judged on the technical merits of their athletic feats, but the primary emphasis is on artistry. Not a sport.

Now "Dancing with the Stars" is athletic and competitive. But I'd argue that it's not a sport because it also values artistry over athleticism.

What about balance beam? Isn't that about beauty and artistry? No. Gymnasts are judged by the difficulty of the athletic feats that they perform while on the beam. Yes, it's supposed to look pretty, but that is a secondary value that does not outweigh the athletic feats.

Weightlifting is a sport (demonstrate strength). Bodybuilding is not a sport (show off body).

Synchronized diving? Not a sport. Even though it is based on athletic feats, the synchronization is the part that is more valued. Artistry trumps athleticism, therefore not a sport.

Now earlier I ruled out horse racing as a sport. But what about polo? If horse racing is out, polo should be out for the same reason (primary kinetic force is the horse, not the athlete). But why do I feel like polo should be considered a sport? I think it's just the weight of history calling it a sport. If people drove in golf carts and batted a ball around, we wouldn't consider that a sport (though it sounds like hella fun). So swapping a horse for a golf cart shouldn't make a difference.

Hell, Pluto isn't a planet anymore. So I guess polo is no longer a sport.

Got any other sport candidates that might challenge this definition? Bring 'em on.


Anonymous Ahae said...

What about competitive eating? It might fail on the physical exertion part, but the "athletes" would probably disagree on that point.

Tue Aug 26, 12:36:00 PM CDT  
Blogger cracknut said...

I come around to banzai's definition for motor-racing. While it's very competitive and it can place great physical demands on the body, the lack of human motive power is key. After all it's call MOTOR-racing for a reason.

As for competitive eating, HA!

What about single diving tho? Is it more about grace than balance beam? I'd argue that's about equal but I've never competed in either one.

Tue Aug 26, 01:44:00 PM CDT  
Blogger banzai said...

I think diving is actually a very clear-cut case, but there is one subtlety. Diving is ALL about technical perfection of execution; it's almost 100% athletic with only a tiny bit of aesthetic consideration for pointed toes and straight legs.

What's confusing is that the diving aesthetic--diving's notion of beauty--is borne out of technical perfection. They value perfect execution so much that it is raised almost to an art form.

But the core component of that beauty is still technical, athletic execution. The obsession with the size of the entry splash reflects the perfection (or lack thereof) of the dive; this is not artistry for the sake of artistry.

So it's very much a sport by my definition.

Tue Aug 26, 01:57:00 PM CDT  
Blogger Morrow said...

What about competitive shooting? I.E. shooting clay disks over a hundred yards away flying away from you at a rate of 40-50 mph?

Oh, and hunting and fishing, definitely not sports.

Tue Aug 26, 04:44:00 PM CDT  
Blogger banzai said...

I don't buy shooting as a sport. The primary kinetic force is supplied by gunpowder. It takes physical skill but I claim that that's not the only criteria to make it a sport.

If shooting is a sport, then we open the door to rocketry. Precision fireworks. Demolition. Turbine-powered land speeding in the Utah salt flats.

Tue Aug 26, 05:19:00 PM CDT  
Blogger Brad said...

What about Arm Wrestling?...I'd argue no...yet it would seem to make your 5 points. To go a step further: thumb wrestling. Clearly NOT a sport we would argue. Yet to a classroom of 8yr olds?

In some ways, I think my point is that 'sport' has a subjective component that is determined BY society that can't really be objectively described.

Would society today consider the gladiator games of Rome, 'sport'?

Tue Aug 26, 11:51:00 PM CDT  

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