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What is a sport?

April 22, 2012

In addition to not having a well-accepted definition of what constitutes a “game”, we find that we have the same even greater problems defining sports. There have been a few cursory attempts, but nothing that I think really stands out as authoritative. Game designers have only just begun to create a definition for games in  general, let alone for the much-ignored subset of sports. Dictionary definitions tend to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Oxford’s dictionary just give us “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”, before listing a number of examples. About the only thing that everybody seems to agree on is that sports require a measure of physical activity. I like to state this rule as follows:

“A sport is a game in which there is a physical axis of execution.”

But obviously not every physical game is a sport. Calvinball isn’t a sport. Corn-holing probably isn’t. Monkey in the Middle, despite being recreational, physical, and having distinct goals, definitely isn’t.

“A sport is a cultural construct.”

There was an excellent article some time ago (that I can sadly no longer find a link to) that explored this concept. It said essentially: I can make a game out of touching every tree in my backyard, and try to beat my own time. But it isn’t a sport. But suppose that it becomes popular, it takes off in my neighborhood, then my city, then the whole country. People reproduce my backyard and have tournaments. There’s a league devoted to it, the National Tree-Trouch League (NTTL). At some point, it became a sport, even though the activity never changed. Therefore, the idea of “sport” must be a social, cultural construct. Sepak Takraw isn’t a sport in the U.S., but it is in S.E. Asia. Or is it? A sport may simply be “that which the majority agrees is a sport”.

For the purposes of this blog, I don’t intend to come up with an authoritative answer. I don’t even know if it’s possible, but fortunately, I also don’t think I need to. In accordance with some of the definitions already provided, I’m going the descriptive route. The definition I’m going to use is:

“A sport is something that you might see on ESPN, or its equivalent.”

Even this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’m hoping to use this space to broaden horizons, so it seems disingenuous to limit my own. If somebody thinks it’s a sport, it probably is, and it’s probably worth investigating.

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