Golf, Poker, etc: Game or Sport?

Steve Zawrotny, MS, CSCSContributor IJuly 3, 2008

With the explosion of televised activities in recent years, it's time to put to bed the debate, "What Makes Something a Sport?" These activities are on TV because they make money, not necessarily because they are sporting events.


Let’s start with some basic definitions, courtesy of


Game: a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators


Sport: an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.


Hence, a sport can be a game, but a game is not necessarily a sport. Merely competing does not make something a sport. The key difference: a sport implies not just activity, but athletic activity.


What are athletic activities? Such things as running, jumping, throwing, lifting, and hitting with or swinging an implement at a moving ball, to name just a few. All of these imply a certain amount of physical exertion.


Therefore, sports are activities such as football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, swimming, wrestling, tennis, and the like. And yes, I consider bowling, ping pong, and badminton to be sports.


Not sports: golf, poker, car/boat racing, gluttonous eating, pool , chess, darts, and equestrian, to name a few. These are at best, games. Yes, pool and golf involve striking a stationary ball with an implement, but nothing else athletic. (I say if golf is a sport, so is mini-golf). And spectators at these two events are prohibited from cheering or making noise during play.


[SIDE NOTE: Why it’s OK for a stadium full of people to yell at the top of their lungs while a batter awaits the delivery of a 95 mph fastball in his general vicinity, and it’s not OK to scream and cheer while a golfer hits a non-moving ball is beyond me. You don’t think a baseball batter has to concentrate as hard as a golfer does? Just another point against golf being a sport!]


Are golf, poker, et al., competitive? Yes. Do these activities require a high level of skill? Yes, with the possible exception of “competitive eating.” Are they athletic? Absolutely, positively, NOT!


Car/boat racing and equestrian are similar in this regard – people riding in, or on, the actual competitor, as in a car, boat, or horse. No doubt a certain amount of skill is required for all of these.  But the human involved need not be athletic in the traditional sense of the word. Why equestrian is an Olympic activity is beyond me. It’s the horse that is doing all of the running and jumping, not the rider. If this is a sport, then why not add NASCAR to the Olympics? In both activities, you have a person competing by riding something.


For a further distinction, I’m open to considering polo as a sport, as the polo rider has to perform in a more athletic manner than the equestrian rider does.


Finally, to wrap this up, please don’t suggest that poker is a sport. Regardless of its coverage on ESPN (why?) and the skill it may require, sitting in a chair while looking at something in your hands is not athletic. Any serious student or avid reader could tell you that.