Boxing, Ballet, Basketball, and Bureaucracy: The Anatomy of a Sport

Ben OlchCorrespondent IDecember 29, 2009

LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 14:  (R-L) Manny Pacquiao throws a right to the head of Miguel Cotto during their WBO welterweight title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 14, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

What is a sport? 

There are so many activities, games, and competitions in our world today that it can be difficult to decipher what is a sport and what is not. 

Some may say this is a relatively easy question to answer, “just throw on ESPN, if it’s on the World Wide Leader, it must be a sport” or, “find out what was included in the Olympics last time around, they include every sport.” 

Right, because cheerleading, poker, and trampoline are definitely sports. 

But then again, maybe they are.

According to, sport is defined as, “1: an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc. 2: A particular form of this, especially in the outdoors.” 

Sounds reasonable, a sport is basically an athletic activity (sorry poker, you’re out) that requires skill, is often competitive, and normally takes place outside. 

But wait, if you put two ballet troupes in a park and judge their overall effectiveness, with a hefty check for the winner at stake, that’s a sport?

Obviously not all sports take place outdoors. I think we can all agree on that. 

We can play football inside a dome and outside in the snow—same sport, but with different surroundings. 

So, if an activity does not have to take place outdoors to be a sport, is acting a sport? 

Let’s use live acting that is done on a large scale, the kind of stuff you see at the Tony’s every year, as an example. 

I remember flipping channels a year or two ago and happening to come across a live performance of some show with a ton of physical and athletic men and women doing things that we are used to seeing Adrian Peterson and Kobe Bryant do. 

Which begs the question, is performing in a musical a sport?

This appears to be a bit of a ridiculous question. 

I mean, we are never going to see “West Side Story” performed on ESPN.

But, for due diligence sake lets go through the definition provided by 

1: “An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess.”

Check, no doubt about it. 

And don’t sit there and pretend you have any better chance at performing in a Broadway musical then you do playing point guard at Duke. Because you don’t. 

2: “often of a competitive nature” 

First of all, I’m throwing out the “often” aspect. 

Sports are competitive. 

It’s a huge reason we love it and why tanking games is a criminal offense. 

Is performing in a Broadway musical competitive? 


Maybe it’s not as easy to recognize as two teams lined up directly against one other, but performers and directors and producers are extremely competitive. 

Not necessarily with one another, but imagine rehearsals between a few hundred people who are making minimum wage on the side and vying for one or two spots. 

That is pure competition. 

Beyond competition in rehearsals, any time an award, like Best Musical at the Tony’s or a Super Bowl Ring, is up for grabs, performers and football players work harder and become more competitive. Both sets of people hope for the same end result: glory, respect, and money. 

The entire production of a Tony-worthy show is a competition for those three end results. 

Now, maybe not all actors perform for glory or money, maybe they just act because they love to act. 

The same can be said for football players. 

Some football players just play because they’re athletic or because it’s all they can do.  Not every football player wants to win. 

But, the great teams are different. 

Remember when the 2002 Patriots ran onto the field together before the Super Bowl instead of being introduced separately? 

That team may have had guys who were not playing to be the best, who were not as competitive as some, but as a whole, the most important thing for them was winning.  They put there egos aside and focused on winning above all else. 

The same can be said for a great musical production.  A musical that wins the top prize at the Tony Awards is not going to have one great actor and a bunch of guys who are just there to collect their check and go home. That cast and crew are going to come together to attempt to produce something special. 

A great show, like a great team, has to have individuals who decide that they want to win. 

They have to compete.

If people who perform in Broadway musicals are athletic, skilled, and they compete, then should we start clamoring for Sports Illustrated to write reviews of “Show Boat?" 

I don’t think so. 

But why? 

If musicals fall under the definition of sport, how are they not?

The biggest difference between football and musicals in terms of discovering the anatomy of sport is the way teams or cast and crew score points and eventually win. 

In football, teams score points directly against their competition.  If one team thinks they are better than another team that is getting more positive attention, they can prove it on the field. 

However, in musicals, everything is judged. 

One cast and crew from a musical can’t prove their show is better than another by challenging them to a dance-off on the stage. 

No, musicals score points from reviewers and at the box office.  It is completely based on opinion. 

The dichotomy between two shows may be so great that it would be nearly impossible to find anyone in their right mind who didn’t agree that one show was not far superior to another. 

No matter, it’s still all a matter of opinion.   

Our working definition of sport says that the activity must be physical and competitive.  It does not say anything about whether or not opinion should, or can be, the deciding factor for declaring a winner. 

However, in order to differentiate between football and musicals, between sports and a show, we have to add a third piece to our definition. 

3: Opinion and perception cannot be the deciding factor for determining a winner of a sport.

Many so-called sports pick their winners purely by way of the opinions of judges. 

For example, divers and gymnasts win or lose medals in the Olympics based on how judges perceive their routines. These events are clearly physical and competitive, but using the third part of our definition, these events are no more sport than ballet. 

Which brings us to boxing.

According to Wikipedia, something resembling boxing has been around for at least 7,000 years. Carvings that depict fist fights with spectators on site have been found in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. 

However, is this ancient activity a sport?

Now that we have a working definition we can easily decipher the answer. 

Is boxing physical and competitive? 

Yes, extremely. 

The biggest fighters have muscles bulging out of there bodies in 46 different directions and they normally try to destroy each other for a huge pay-day. 

Does boxing determine its' winner with opinion and perception as its deciding factor? 

Well, this is a bit of tricky question.

In boxing we have three possible outcomes: a knock out, a technical knock out, and a decision from the ringside judges. 

If a KO or even a TKO (when the referee stops the fight to protect against one boxer from killing the other who has been beaten senseless) were the only two possible outcomes, this would be an easy question.  However, most boxing matches come down to a decision from judges who probably couldn’t punch their way out of a paper bag. 

If we are going to claim that competitive ice skating is no longer a sport because the winner is chosen based entirely on the opinion of judges, then how can we continue to consider boxing, one of the oldest and most physical events we have, a sport? 

Based on our definition of sport, when the fight ends in a KO or TKO we have a sport, but when the fights goes to a decision, we are actually watching a show with a winner who has as much to do with his victory as an Oscar winner. 

Which is fine, but it’s no sport. 

The only problem with this view of boxing is that looks as if our definition advocates a fight that lasts as long as needed for one fighter to knock the other out. 

Is that really a sport? 

A fight to find out who can keep consciousness the longest? 

Probably not, but we cannot rule out a sport because of gruesome activity. 

Although whether or not men who try to destroy each other are sportsman (defined by as "a person who exhibits qualities especially esteemed in those who engage in sports, as fairness, courtesy, good temper, etc.") is another debate.

Maybe you are saying, “wait a minute we have judges in every sport, referees in basketball, umpires in baseball, and so on.” 

In reality, those sports have officials, not judges—a huge difference that can not be taken lightly. 

An official keeps the game and players in order and makes sure everything runs smoothly. 

Yes, they have to make many judgments (fair or foul, ball or strike, legal or not), but they do not make the final decision of whether they think someone did better than someone else. 

In sports, we discover the answer to who is better by playing on the field. In entertainment, we can choose who we think does a superior job. 

Imagine if referees gave Michael Jordan an extra point when he skied through the air before delivering a powerful dunk. It’s not going to happen, although judges do give points in the slam dunk competition.  A show that is scored in much the same way as a boxing match. 

It does not matter if you have to go to Hong Kong to find one person who disagrees that a boxer thoroughly dominated another for 11 of the 12 rounds and the judges all mark it the same way. 

It is still an opinion. 

Remember the French judge?  It only takes one.

To conclude, we now know that a sport is an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess, competition, and a lack of opinion and perception as the deciding factor in who wins or loses. 

To diving, trampoline, and boxing fans: don’t stop loving these activities, just understand that a sport cannot be judged. 

A sport is supposed to be pure and devoid of bureaucracy. 

Sure, we will always have players who cheat and teams who spend way more money than the rest, but the players on the field won’t be judged by how fast they go or how hard they hit. 

They won’t get extra points for jumping higher or throwing harder. 

In a sport, a team or person wins by besting their opponent.

In a show they win if someone else thinks they were better.


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