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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Defining Sport

Since I recently wrote about the importance of defining terms before we can have discussions or debate, how about an attempt to define "sport"? I long have been toying with a definition that requires objectivity in scoring and determining winners. Thus, if it is about objective questions such as who runs faster or who scores more points, it is a sport; if it is about getting a 5.6 from the East German judge, it is not a sport.

But John L. Jackson, an anthropologist at Penn's Annenberg School identifies three necessary conditions:

1) There must be a ball or ball-like object that organizes everyone's attention. 2) There must be a sense of physical urgency when the ball is in play. 3) The opponent must be able to take steps to thwart your efforts with respect to the ball.

Everything that does not possess all three elements is not a sport. it is a contest, a game of skill, an athletic competition, but it is not a sport.

Jackson put this out there to suggest that much of what we focus in during the Olympics is not, in fact, sport, including the privileged Olympic events such as track and field and swimming. His broader point is that the Olympics really is not about sport; it is about non-sport athletic competition--not the same thing.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 7, 2008 at 08:43 AM in Culture | Permalink


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I am actually in the process of writing a manuscript dealing with what criteria should be included when defining a physical activity as a " sport " and also laying out a few other sub categories of physical activity. Does anyone know of any books that already address this or maybe a website? I would appreciate any links or names that may be of help, like Wittgenstein. If you have any information or opinions that you think would help feel free to email me at [email protected]

Posted by: Jonathan | Aug 5, 2008 4:44:28 PM

This reminds me of Wittgenstein's ruminations on the difficulty of defining "game."

In any event, how about this: Any activity which never requires someone to get out of breath is not a "sport." Well, I guess this is similar to the "cigar" definition, which is useful as well.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | May 9, 2008 2:55:34 PM

How about this definition:

if it can be done with a cigarette/cigar, it is not a sport but a skill game.

Therefore, darts, pool, bowling, and, yes, golf are skill games, while swimming, track and field, football, etc are sports.

Posted by: AJ in Denver | May 9, 2008 10:51:33 AM

George Carlin had a routine on this. He agrees with the ball criterion. Also, there has to be the capacity for serious bodily injury.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 7, 2008 1:45:12 PM

One response to the original post says it all IMHO:

"The oldest definition and most true definition is that as follows:
A sport is an activity that mimics or prepares the body and/or mind for hunting and/or [individual] fighting.
Definition can include track, archery, boxing, wrestling, football, and almost anything else, but poker and chess
do not prepare you for hunting or fighting (even mentally), and therefore, they are not sports."

(I added [individual] as chess might help prepare a general for war,
but he won't be doing the actual fighting. So it doesn't qualify;
same as calculus (helps logistics personal to better support a war).

P.S. What about all the lawyers specializing in sports law -
shouldn't they be able to represent runners and boxers, too ??? ;-)

Posted by: Positroll | May 7, 2008 10:17:36 AM

I do like this definition I just found on the web:

an organism that has characteristics resulting from chromosomal alteration.

Posted by: sportsfan | May 7, 2008 9:47:32 AM

Any definition that would make ping-pong a paradigm example of a sport (it clearly meets all three above) but would clearly exclude boxing (among others) (it has none of the three above) seems to me to be a clearly deficient definition of a sport. I have to say that I don't find this persuasive at all. (I suspect that any attempt to give necessary and sufficient conditions will be unsuccessful, but this one seems to me to be quite obviously incorrect.)

Posted by: matt | May 7, 2008 9:44:52 AM

So what is the justification for excluding activities that don't include a ball or activities that are judged by subjective standards from sport? I haven't studied the etymology of the word sport so I am puzzled by the choices made here in defining what is and isn't sport.

Posted by: sportsfan | May 7, 2008 9:41:22 AM

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