What separates a “sport” from a “competition”? Who should be considered an “athlete”?
Following his heroic and gutsy championship performance at the 2008 U.S. Open, the respect, admiration, and legend of Tiger Woods has ballooned.
On the same weekend that Kobe Bryant shrunk in the spotlight of the NBA Finals, Tiger claimed a stranglehold on the title of best competitor in the sporting world. As a result, numerous commentaries have praised Tiger as the best athlete worldwide, too.
But hold up! Not so fast.
Although I’m a Tiger Woods fan, I'm stuck on the term "athlete." As far as competitors go, Tiger is a beast. He has few peers in terms of clutchness, mental toughness, and showing up large on the big stage.
But can he be compared to freakish athletes like LeBron James and Reggie Bush? Does Tiger stack up with the cream of the crop in terms of strength, speed, leaping ability, and overall athletic explosiveness?
I can’t answer that, because golf isn’t a medium that demonstrates or requires much athletic prowess—and I haven’t seen Tiger compete in any other sport.
I’ve played golf and the most strenuous aspect for me was toiling in the hot sun for four hours and lugging my own golf bag and clubs. I’ve endured more taxing afternoons of yardwork.
And professional golfers don’t even carry their own gear! With that alone, I disqualify golf as a sport. If the framework of a competition saves you sweat by employing another stiff to do the heavy lifting, then that event is not a sport. So, I do distinguish “sports” from “competitions.” Golf is a competition.
There’s no question that golf requires a great deal of skill, practice, and other sport-like qualities. But if you can be a premier competitor while possessing a modicum of athletic ability, then you are engaged in a competition, not a sport—and you are a competitor, not an athlete.
The John Dalys and Craig Stadlers of the world are hardly athletic specimens, yet they are major champions.
Let's get back to the question of Tiger as an athlete. He’s the LeBron James of golf, but that’s like claiming that I’m the LeBron James of bowling...which, by the way, is also not a sport.
Again, skill and practice are required to excel in this competition, but minimal physical exertion and athletic ability are expended. And frankly, bowling is just not that hard.
I bowl maybe once a year, if that, and my best score is 222—or something in that neighborhood. Because I bowl so infrequently, I can’t even remember exactly. And I pulled off this score during a holiday get-together with family when I hadn’t bowled in years. Enough said. That’s all the breath I’m wasting on bowling.
Billiards...same deal. A competition, not a sport. Case closed.
In my mind, it breaks down like this. To qualify as a sport, it must possess all of the following attributes:
1) Competition against other participants to win as an individual or team
2) Skill and physical training required to succeed
3) A combination of at least three athletic qualities such as strength, speed, quickness, leaping ability, hand-eye (or other body) coordination, agility, and stamina required to excel
4) Running or an alternative athletic/physical exertion (e.g. swimming, boxing, cycling)—beyond merely walking or sitting
Initially I thought I would have to create more exhaustive criteria, but the litmus test is actually quite simple and point No. 4 is often the definitive qualification. Thus golf, bowling, billiards, competitive eating, and poker do not qualify as sports. And, no, Takeru Kobayashi and Johnnie Chan are not athletes.
So what about NASCAR, which ranks as one of the most popular (supposed) sports?
Nope, not a sport.
Driving absurdly fast in tight quarters, while risking life and limb, is no doubt a skill. And the duration of races does require physical stamina. But the entire spectacle is done while seated.
Beyond hand-eye coordination and stamina, no athletic prowess is needed to be a successful driver. And driving for a long time is a borderline qualifier for physical exertion and it is hardly athletic. So NASCAR fails both requirements No. 3 and No. 4 as specified above.
Really, come on. NASCAR can be boiled down to the following eight words: Drive fast. Turn left. Go straight. Don’t die.
In conclusion, team sports such as basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and soccer are indeed sports. Tennis, track and field, and gymnastics also qualify as sports. However, curling, hunting/fishing, and professional video game playing are competitions, not sports.
And if you don’t compete in a sport, you are not an athlete. Sorry, Tiger!