Open Mic: A Sport Is a Sport. Except When It Isn't.

Daniel MuthSenior Analyst IJuly 3, 2008

In this edition of open mic, we have a truly mind-bending grey area that is locking young journalists in fits of synaptic redundancy across the globe.  When is a sport a sport?  When is it a game?   When it neither?  What boundaries can we draw to separate the three?

When I started my initial exercise in pondering these dilemmas , I was certain I could find the answer.  After all, I’ve loved and played “sports” my entire life so pride demanded that at some point, I must have known what I was doing.  What have I been doing?

Well I’ve been competing I guess.  Yes, competing.  Sport is a competition…against someone else…with the objective being winning…”winning” being defined by the rules of that particular game. 

Ouch that hurt. 

And did I just use the word game?  Crap. 

Sports are games.  Or are they matches?  Or are they contests, or races, or duels?  Well, for simplicity, we’ll say all that falls within the “game” category.  Sports are games.  Everybody comfortable with that? 


But sports have to be more than games, haven't they?  Or maybe a specific type of game.  So what imagery comes to mind when someone says, “the Olympic games?”  I guess I see a physically fit man running in stride carrying a torch. 

I’m hoping that the fact that I’m picturing a physically fit man in running form is simply an artifact of my masculine pride, not an indication of deeper issues!

So there you have it.  Sports are games that involve physicality of some sort.  Strength, stamina, speed, balance, hand-eye-coordination.  Damn it, did I say coordination? 

That means tiddlywinks is a sport. 

And pool, darts, and quarters.  No, a sport needs to be a full body endeavor, meaning you can’t do it while sitting on you’re a**.  Poker is NOT a sport. 

Auto racing is, of course, which debunks my sitting on you’re a** statement.

Oh, and apologies to all the courageous and totally cool disabled-athletes out there.  That was not a shot at you, merely at poker players who think it’s a sport.  And it's not.

Well, this is harder than I thought.

How about this?  Football, baseball, hockey, soccer, tennis, basketball, volleyball, track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, MMA, boxing, and speed skating are all sports.  Golf is a sport.  Pool is not.  Nor is darts, bowling, shuffleboard, or trying to see how many crumpled up papers you can put through your basketball-rim trash can. 

That cleared things up.

Ideally, sports necessitate an opposing player.  Someone to overcome or measure yourself against.  But then how do we treat the enthusiast who sets the club record while golfing alone? 

I guess it’s history he or she is competing with, as it may be with Tiger though on a much grander scale.

And is sport somehow better than a mere game?  I don’t think so. 

Chess is not a sport, but to be the best you have to be an astounding individual.  If chess WAS a sport, you’d see a lot more grandmasters quarterbacking NFL clubs.  Or maybe MMA. 

These guys read fifteen moves in advance.

I do think sports must reckon with our bestial nature more so than our intellectual nature.  You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to play sports, though of course you DO have to play sports to be a Rhodes scholar, which means that sporting qualities are coveted within intellectual life too.  Leadership, teamwork, improvisation, fearlessness, determination.  You can tell a lot about someone by whether they stand or flee.  Or counterattack.

So sports involve guile, but not necessarily intelligence.  It should, of course, not be assumed that athletes are NOT intelligent, just that it isn’t a prerequisite for the class.  It is clear, however, that the very best aren’t idiots, and indeed this may be what separates them from the rest.

Man I’m getting dizzy.

Cycling, alpine skiing, racquetball, ultimate frisbee, cricket, horse racing, and dodge ball are all sports.  Lawn jarts, curling, cheerleading, synchronized swimming, and figure skating are not.  In fact anything with judges deciding the winner isn’t a sport.  Crap, there goes MMA and boxing. 

How about any game that involves judges evaluating the “artistic” merits of the performance is not a sport?  UGH!!  There goes gymnastics, and I’m not going to tell the shorty’s that they aren’t a sport.

Man, everything seemed so clear about twenty minutes ago.  Now I’m drooling a bit and have lost all the feeling in the left half of my body.  I think I’ll drink a cup of coffee and walk around the building, looking very rushed and busy.  It’s a great way to let the boss know you’re there and can clear the cobwebs.

So, I’m back.

What were we talking about?  Oh yes, sport.  I think I pretty much had it all figured out when I left. 


But my friends I’ve had an epiphany.  The good Lord reached into my brain and scooped out all the dross, leaving me with this tiny kernel of truth.

Through all the rhetoric and meandering word play, it comes down to the fact that I know a sport when I see it.  A sport is a sport. 

Except when it isn’t.