Two Sides to Every Coin: What Classifies Something as Being a Sport?

The Doctor Chris Mueller@@BR_DoctorFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2012

Photo by Laura Gilmore
Photo by Laura Gilmore

The word "sport" has been applied to a plethora of activities ever since the word was created, but what truly makes something a sport?

Is poker a sport? Is beer pong a sport? Are foosball, table hockey and ping pong sports? What about billiards or shuffleboard? Does driving a car really fast make you an athlete?

Many poker players would argue until they were red in the face that poker is, but many others would say that it is a game, not a sport.

The same thing can be said for a number of other activities which require little or no physical exertion to perform. A person who is paralyzed from the neck down can technically play poker if someone holds the cards for them and places their bets.

Other activities which have been confined to dorm rooms and backyard parties are starting to become popular enough for people to hold actual tournaments featuring the games.

Things like beer pong, tossing bean bags and competitive eating have been referred to as sports. As soon as someone calls something new a sport there is always someone there to say, "That's not a sport!"

In this edition of Two sides to every coin I will take a look at various questionable sports and attempt to make neutral points so you can determine if you think it is a sport.

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Before someone can really say if something is a sport one must know the definition of the word. Before continuing please take a moment to visit the link for which brings you to the definition of sport. A lot of the definitions listed will not apply so take it with a grain of salt.

There are clearly many different definitions of the word, but we are discussing the word sport as in "Baseball is a great sport" and not "You look good sporting that new fez."

Poker (Card games in general)

Poker may well be the most controversial activity when it comes to calling it a sport. It requires no physical ability to perform unless you count the ability to keep one's face from giving away their hand.

The game of Poker is not something which can be measured in terms of skill because there is a significant presence of luck in the game.

While players may be able to "read the table," there is no denying that the flop of a certain card at any point could spell the end of the player.

If you ever watch Texas Hold 'em on the World Poker Tour on ESPN, you will often see someone who did not have that great of a hand suddenly end up winning because the fourth or fifth of the community cards gave them a winning hand.

Being able to read the table, calculate odds in your head and even count cards are all skills which can be honed by experienced poker players to increase their chances of winning.

Since there is some skill involved as well as a defined winner, many would say poker is a sport. Because there is no physical ability needed, others would say that it is not.

Before you make any decision about card games being a sport, consider this: The Olympic Committee is actually considering accepting poker as a sport in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I couldn't believe it either.

Billiards (all forms of table games)

Billiards is something which also treads the fine line of being a sport. Most people would probably say it is a sport without batting an eye, but there are those who question it being called a sport.

There are different types of games which fall under the category of billiards such as pool, snooker and carom billiards. Cue-based games have existed in some form or another for over 500 years and have been included in sporting events since the late 1800s.

This one may be a bit easier to classify since there is more physical skill needed than in poker, although physical conditioning is nearly irrelevant.

Like many activities, billiards can be played by almost everyone. It basically requires you to be able to stand, point and hit the cue-ball with the cue. Standing might not even be necessary if a table is low enough for someone in a wheelchair to shoot.

The skill level required is very different from that of most sports as people of all ages, sizes, sexes and any other way you can classify a person can almost all play on an even playing field with the exception of people with physical conditions which would limit their movement.

A heavy emphasis on hand-eye coordination is necessary to understand and master the game. Many people over the years have proven that they can do things many would think impossible with just a cue and two or more billiard balls.

The activity of billiards may be closer to being a sport than some things because of the fact that it requires physical ability, but there are some who would still insist that it is a game and not a sport because anyone can play it well with enough practice and limited physical prowess.

These same things can be said about almost all games played on a table, from foosball to air hockey. You have to have skill in order to beat your opponent just like with any sport.

ESPN considers billiards a sport judging by the fact that you can actually see competitions on the channel. You may have to go to "ESPN 8: The Ocho" to find it though.

Target Shooting (archery and guns)

Did you know that shooting is an Olympic sport? Not many do since it never seems to find a place on whatever channel is showing the Olympics, but it is there and it is very entertaining.

The Olympics has featured over 25 different types of shooting-based competitions since the modern Olympics were created in 1896.

Everything from air pistols to crossbows to sniper rifles have been used at the Summer Olympics in various events.

Despite all this history, there are still people who do not consider target shooting a sport. The main argument used to declassify shooting as a sport is that it does not require someone to be physically fit to be good.

While this sport can be competed in by someone of any size and shape, it certainly requires many things other sports utilize to do well. Strength is definitely necessary when handling certain weapons to avoid catastrophe.

Shooting requires extreme hand-eye coordination as well as a lot of mental calculations involving distance to the target, wind direction and speed as well as any other environmental factors which may impact the accuracy of the shot. These things apply to both guns and bows.

This is all on top of the fact that handling a gun or bow is not the easiest thing to do, and the bigger the gun, the harder it is to control.

Hunting is also considered a sport by many, but others do not see it as something competitive as much as they see it as something which is done for survival. Can't it be both?

There is no way to judge just how long people have been competing to hit a target because it is likely that the first form of target practice involved rocks being thrown by early civilized men.

Racing (Specifically NASCAR, Formula 1 and MotoCross)

Anyone can drive a car really, really fast, right? To be a driver in a professional driving sport you have to be able to do more than push the peddle to the floor and blast Black Sabbath through the stereo.

Being a race car driver requires the drivers to be able to react under pressure at high speeds with a 2,000-pound death machine driving at over 200 MPH.

NASCAR may actually have the highest injury per appearance rate of any sport considering how many crashes happen on a yearly basis.

Many people who do not watch or like racing sports will argue that they are not a sport because driving a car is not a sport.

While a race car driver does not necessarily need to be in great physical condition, there are plenty of people who would argue that it is indeed a sport.

There is a certain level of physical skill needed to drive one of these machine effectively at speeds over three times what we are allowed to drive on freeways.

These things all become more dangerous once you remove the hood, seats and top of the car and replace it with a motorcycle.

Here is a scary statistic for you. In the last 100 years, over 200 people have died just in one particular yearly race. It is the Isle Of Man Tourist Trophy which is contested in the United Kingdom.

Does being more dangerous than most sports make racing a sport? That's not for me to decide.

This may be one of the most difficult activities to classify as being a sport because so many people are on either side of the fence.

Pro Wrestling

Professional Wrestling has been getting flack ever since it was discovered that the results of the matches were predetermined back in the very early part of the 20th century.

Wrestling was looked at as low-brow by many people for years until it became part of the main stream culture of the United States, Japan and Mexico.

When WWE and WCW were at war, the ratings were at their highest for a business which had enough fans to satisfy two different top promotions.

Despite all of the physical abuse these men and women put themselves through for the entertainment of the fans watching, wrestling is not considered a sport by many people.

The fact that the winners and losers being chosen ahead of time and the matches being set up in advance is the main argument provided by most critics. "Basically, there is nothing to compete for or win so it is not a sport" seems to be the main argument used.

While the titles are given to those who the company thinks deserves them and not someone who wins a match, there is definitely competition in wrestling.

Just like in any business, wrestlers are competing with each other to keep their spot on the roster as well as to see who can make the most money or have the best match.

The winners and losers are chosen by the fans and the promoters, not a decision from a referee. When the fans get behind someone, whether it is to cheer them or boo them, it will help to ensure that person's success in the industry.

Technically, pro wrestling could be viewed as a judging sport because there are a few people who decide who gets the push and who doesn't, similar to how sports with judges give scores deciding the winners and losers. 

Chess (and other board games)

Chess is a game which has existed in some form or another for over a thousand years, and it is played by millions of people every day whether it be on a mobile phone or a standard board.

There have been world championships in existence in the modern era since 1886, and since then, there have been thousands of tournaments with many different sets of rules and restrictions.

Chess is recognized as a sport by many organizations but there are still those who would condemn that use of the word sport.

While the game is able to be played by anyone who can comprehend the rules, there are also versions of the game which incorporate other factors like speed and the number of moves taken to win the game.

If Chess is a sport, than it could open up the argument for any board game which is played competitively to be called a sport.

If my friends and I have a particularly heated game of Chutes and Ladders, does that make us athletes? If boardgames are becoming sports, than is Dungeons and Dragons a sport? What about Checkers? At least that game uses the same board as Chess.

Where do we draw the line?

Certain activities like boxing, basketball and hockey are always thought of as sports, but where do we draw the line on what is considered a sport?

Video games are beginning to incorporate movement and motion-control into games which is bound to bring up the argument down the line that gamers are athletes when playing with Kinect or Wii and moving their body to play the game.

That argument would certainly make a lot of parents who want their kids to spend more time playing real sports upset as video games have gained a reputation for contributing to laziness.

The new technologies which promote moving around could help to change the habits of today's youth and make them healthier.

People like to be able to define things in order to better understand them, but when it comes to deciding what is and what is not a sport, there is as much debate as with any other topic.

Thanks for reading. Please share your thoughts below on the things mentioned in the article as well as any other fringe-sports you think are debatable.

All historical information used in this article was gathered at under the entries for the sports mentioned.