The Definition of Sport (by request)

I have been watching alotta “sports,” lately.  The Winter Olympics are my favorite.  But the other night I was really gagging on the “Slope Style” snowboarding commentary (“He really threw down a heater!”).  Later, they switched to figure skating and it got worse (“Their emotions were open.  And their feeling.“).  But then they switched back to snowboarding (half-pipe) and the skater style announcer-dude described a young woman’s run as, “a machine gun of awesomeness.”  Boom goes the dynamite.  While gushing about the slow-motion instant replay, surfer style announcer-chick said, “YOU CAN SEE THE INTENSITY IN HER EYES!” I’ve never been very good about reading people’s eyes, especially when I can’t see them because the eyes are hidden behind mirrored snow goggles, but then, I’m not an xgames style announcer-dude/chick.

I put quotes around “sports,” in the fake sense, because I don’t think that figure skating is really a sport.  I’m also skeptical about most of the snowboarding events, and “activities” like curling.  As a kid I was always disappointed when “Wide World of Sports” featured something like bowling — I liked to bowl when I was a kid, but watching bowling on TV is like watching shuffleboard. Bowling, curling, and shuffleboarding are the same thing, and you know shuffleboarding isn’t a sport.  And don’t get me started about cheerleading.

When I tell someone that figure skating isn’t a sport, they invariably say, “It is too.”  And then the smarter ones add, “Figure skating is really hard.  You have to be in shape to be a figure skater. They train their bodies. They are athletes.”  We could do that, I suppose — redefine athletes to include all people who discipline their body to do something demanding.  But if we did that, we would also have to call ballerinas athletes (and ballet a sport), because ballerinas (and ballerinos, or whatever you call male ballerinas) are in major league shape.  You can see their shapeliness through those little white tights. They are certainly way more in shape than your average Boston Red Sock.  Ballet is not for wimps.  And to that list of athletes we would have to add roofers and bike messengers and soldiers and treadmill test walkers (it’s a real job — look it up).  But I don’t think ballet is a sport.  It’s an art.  And I don’t think treadmill test walking is a sport, either — it’s a job.

Now I agree that a sport should require people who are in shape, which is why chess isn’t a sport and one of the reasons curling, bowling, and duck hunting, aren’t really sports.  Maybe curlers and bowlers are more physically fit than they look on TV, but I doubt it.  You don’t exert yourself when you ride out to the pond in your climate-controlled ATV, sit in a blind, shoot a duck, and watch your dog go fetch it. “Bring it here, boy!  Good boy!  That was exhausting.”  The fitness requirement is the reason baseball almost isn’t a sport.  And golf.  So being in shape is important to sports, but it isn’t enough.

The second thing that sport requires is competition.  Generally, that competition should be head-to-head, or measured such that you can tell who won by a score, or a time, or a result.  If you punch your opponent and he can’t get up, you win (assuming you are boxing).

“Ha!  See!  Gotcha, Torchier!  We cheerleaders are physically fit AND somebody wins! Sis Boom Ba! The winners scream and yell and smile, and the losers scream and yell and fake smile — ra ra ra!”

Well, I suppose it’s true that cheerleaders are fit (these days anyway — back in my day they just needed to be cute) and it is true that they compete.  And it’s pretty cool the way they pile on top of each other and throw the tiny one through the gym rafters.  Youtube is filled with cheerleader- pile- throwing bloopers.   I can watch those for hours, but it’s not sports competition.

And that’s because cheerleading and ice dancing and snowboarding the half-pipe… are judged.   Refs and umpires make sure that athletes follow the rules in sports, but judges don’t just monitor technical elements, they also evaluate artistic elements and I’m sorry, but if you can win or lose based on vague notions like intensity, style, fashion, or musical taste, then it’s not a sport.  It’s a show, or a performance, or an exhibition, or the circus, or something, but it’s too subjective to call it a sport.  When Usain Bolt runs faster than everyone else in the world, it doesn’t matter if he had a cute outfit, or if he was smiling nicely, or if “the Russian judge” was in a bad mood — he just wins.  If there is some guy wearing make-up during the downhill, it’s not because he hopes it will influence the outcome (as far as I know — maybe filling your pores with pancake makes you more aerodynamic).  If you see a downhill skier crying, it’s not because he is “really feeling the run — the intensity and the passion, and, boy, this is just his night.”  No, if you see a downhill skier crying it’s because at 80mph  on the part of the hill called the “Russian Trampoline,” his bindings pre-released and he flew 75 yards through the air before shattering his femurs and kneecaps on the hay bales in the woods.  Real athletes often cry when they lose or when they win or when they find out they’ve been disqualified for using their speed skates to slice the Korean racer’s thigh wide open (who is crying because he is bleeding out on the ice), but they don’t cry in order to score points with the judges.

So to be a sport, you need an unjudged competition between athletes.  That’s my definition. The outcome is determined by the performance of those athletes, not a judge or an art critic or a biased insider who has been paid off to make sure “the favorite” is on the podium.

One more thing… A definition is like a belt — if it’s too tight, it’s uncomfortable.  But if it’s too loose, your pants fall down.  My own definition is a little tight because part of me wants to think that slope style snowboarders are athletes (yes, they are judged, but it is mostly on technical matters).  And what’s more, what they do is so dangerous, they have to wear helmets. I could probably be talked into a helmet clause: “If your event is likely to kill you, then it’s a sport.”  Cheerleading is getting pretty dangerous these days, but they’ll never wear helmets.  The judges and participants could never tolerate helmet hair.

Figure skating, “synchronized swimming,” square dancing, running to catch a bus, sweating on the elliptical, and scraping paint are really neat activities.  I like even like watching them on TV (except figure skating and synchronized swimming).  If you are really good at those things, I commend you for your discipline and hard work.  But if you think those activities are sports,  then I think your definition is too loose and your pants are falling down.


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