What is sport?

15 Mar


What is sport?  This might seem like a silly question as it is one that we often take for granted. “Of course, I know what sport is,” you might say.  But how do we actually define sport?  This is a question that I use to start my sociology of sport courses each semester, and it is one that it is a bit more complicated than we might think.

I usually show a little slide show and we give the thumbs up/down as to is it a sport and why.  Some sports people don’t have any trouble identifying as sports – basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, etc.  But then we get into some that maybe aren’t as clear-cut.  What about mountain climbing, cheerleading, auto-racing, leisurely jogging (or marathon running), poker, equestrian, figure skating, BMX biking, and many others?

What makes them a sport or not a sport?  Is there a professional organization/association that helps give legitimacy? If it’s shown on ESPN is it a sport?  If you don’t get paid for it or do it purely for fun is it sport or a hobby?  Do there have to be winners and losers?  Does context matter (i.e. Tiger Woods on tour vs. a game of putt putt, or two people playing catch vs. a baseball game)?  What if you don’t compete directly against someone else, but against the clock or yourself? Or for judges?  These are some of the questions that are worthy of considering.


It’s especially salient during the Winter Olympics* as we might see many events that we are not familiar with and may not consider “sports” at first glance.  The biathlon (a combination of cross country skiing and rifle shooting… Sport? Or hobby consisting of two seemingly unrelated activities?); figure skating (they’re not competing against one another, but being judged/scored by a set of judges); half-pipe (sport or extreme sport? And is there a difference?); curling (isn’t that just shuffleboard on ice?).  They are in the Olympics as sports, selected and backed by the IOC…is that good enough for them to be unquestionably defined as sports?

In my sociology of sport courses, after we’ve discussed and debated some of these questions, I give them two different definitions.  The first is more of a “hard-line” and what we end up calling absolutist definition, while the second is more of a relativist definition that seeks to take into account specific groups context:

1)  “Sports are institutionalized competitive activities that involve rigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by participants motivated by internal and external rewards.”  In this institutionalization includes standardized rules, official regulatory agencies, organizational and technological aspects, and learning the rules and skills becomes formalized.

2) The relativist definition seeks to look at whether or not something is sport according to two broad questions: What is considered sport by particular groups at particular times in particular places? And, Whose sports count the most in particular places when it comes to obtaining support, funding, and resources?

I like both, and find that they can both be valuable when deciding to give the thumbs up/down on whether something is sport.  I also heard a good piece on NPR near the end of this year’s Winter Olympics that I really found valuable as well.  (It’s only about three minutes, and is worth a quick listen.)

In this piece, Frank Deford keeps his definition broad, simple and then goes on to provide a hierarchy, or purity, of sport.  His definition is “anytime you compete in a physical activity”; with “compete” and “physical activity” being the keys.

The purest form of sport, he argues, is when one individual competes directly against a rival, “mano a mano.” In this, you and your rival are competing to win, while at the same time trying to stop the other from winning. Example: wrestling, tennis.

Just below this, he says, are things like racing.  Individuals are competing directly against one another, but they are generally not trying to impede the other’s chance of success. Example: track, swimming.

Slightly lower in the hierarchy is when there is an “apparatus” involved, such as a horse or car.

Another notch lower is when an individual competes by him/herself and then is measured against others competing by him/herself.  This would include sports like golf or bowling.

And finally, according to Deford, at the bottom of the hierarchy (but still sport), is when individuals are judged/scored on their performances and then this judging/scoring is used to determine a victor. This would include things like gymnastics, diving, snowboarding, or figure skating.

Of course, it’s not perfect and it may not cover every possible scenario of sport, but I do like it in a broad sense. I don’t think it completely solves the debate of is it/isn’t it sport, but it does give a nice framework for having said debate.


*I’ve had this post on the docket since the Winter Olympics, but am just now getting to it!  

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Posted by on March 15, 2014 in sociology, Sports, Uncategorized


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