What is a Sport?

Posted: September 29, 2010 in Idle Nonsense, Nomenclature

The questions used to be “What is art?” and “What is obscenity?” (Maybe the questions are still posed somewhere, but I rarely hear them anymore.) The glib, folksy answer — refusal to answer, really — used to be “I dunno, but I knows it when I sees it.” In a culture that is so pervasively banal and by turns obscene, I don’t really care about the obscenity question. The art question matters a lot to me, and I tend toward the strict or conservative answer that traditional forms such as architecture, literature (including poetry), sculpture, painting, dance, and music (not an exhaustive list) are arts, whereas film, video games, and a host of popular forms (especially in music and dance) are merely entertainments. Roger Ebert ran afoul of his readers when he averred in no uncertain terms that in his estimation video games are not art, but I presume he would allow that film is art, since he is a connoisseur of that creative realm. The controversy Ebert sparked demonstrates pretty effectively just how contentious mere definitions can be to those with personal allegiances.

The question applies equally when posed as “What is a sport?” There used to be cachet when a sport was admitted to competition at the Olympics, but I daresay that credibility was squandered when ice dancing (as opposed to figure skating), synchronized swimming (as opposed to swim racing), and rhythm gymnastics were added to the roster while venerable sports such as basketball and tennis were inexplicably deferred until relatively recently. One can only wonder how curling has survived as an Olympic sport despite its weirdness. (It may be simply its foreignness from an American perspective that makes the sport of curling so preposterous.) My interest is not so much to question whether established sports are deserving of the term sport but to wonder at the growing number of claimants. For example, is fishing a sport or a job/profession? Does calling some subgenre of fishing sport fishing really make it a sport?

One of Ebert’s gambits (retrospectively unwise) was to attempt to list criteria that would elevate an entertainment or expressive/creative form to the level of art. I have no wish to repeat that mistake with respect to games and sports. However, I will observe that despite numerous formal competitions for crosswords, Scrabble, chess, Monopoly, bridge, and poker, they are all recognized as games, not as sports.

I just finished reading Mike Sexton’s book Shuffle Up and Deal, and amid an embarrassing amount of hype and self-flattery, he argues that poker has finally reached critical mass where its acceptance as a sport is assured. After all, poker takes preparation, skill, endurance, strategy, and mental toughness to win. He’s barking up the wrong tree, I think, as no card game has ever been called a sport. Sports associated with gambling exist, such as horse racing, but the gambling aspect is not itself the sport. In addition, whereas many sports are relatively arbitrary with respect to the objective, the scoring, or the skill involved, most rely on demonstrable skill and expertise to succeed rather than a heavy dose of luck. Pokers players will no doubt argue that much skill is involved, and I agree, but unlike the bounce of a basketball or football, the arbitrariness of winning at poker negates skill to a much higher degree. And besides, a game of pure luck such as Rock, Paper, Scissors shares with poker game rules engineered to produce a champion independent of skill, though in varying degrees.

Among my friends, target games are frequently looked upon with particular derision. Golf is attacked as a sport-but-not-really-a-sport because its quotient of athleticism is too modest. No doubt the same can be said of other target sports/games such as skeet shooting, archery, bowling, and darts. It should be obvious that disqualifying any endeavor on the basis of some single criterion is analogous to Ebert’s exclusion of video games as art for failing any one of a variety of tests.

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