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What Criteria Is Needed For An Activity To Become A ‘Sport’?

Last week, Elise Christie became the World Champion at the ISU Short Track Speed Skating event in Rotterdam, the first British woman ever to accomplish this. Speed skating – a sport that consists of physical power, technical, finesse, mental tenacity – few would argue that it isn’t a sport.

But then again, most of us have been involved in a discussion concerning ‘what is and what isn’t a ‘sport’. Can any of us truly define what makes a sport, a sport? The dictionary tries to and its definition is as follows:

“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

So, to simplify this definition down to its nuts and bolts, for a sport to be a sport, according to the dictionary, it must involve some sort of exercise and physical skill, there must be a winner and a loser at the outcome of the exertion and it must be entertaining for both the participant and any potential viewers.

Okay then, understood. But many activities which are widely considered sports; snooker, darts, golf – do any of them require physical exertion (exercise)? The answer is obviously no unless you count walking around a golf course, stepping up to an oche or sauntering around a snooker table as physical exertion. Yes, there are other physical requirements to each of these sports but plainly they do not require much physical exertion compared to other mainstream sports – none of them require running.

So, since the above three sports do not require a great deal of physical exertion at all, does this mean they’re not sports as defined by the dictionary? Well, all three are defined as sports according to a list generated by this sports science website. On the other hand, the same site also includes e-sport (competitive gaming), lawnmower racing, and even demolition derby as sports – none of which include any physical exertion whatsoever. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also has a list of what they consider a sport to be. On this list, amongst others, there is; equestrian eventing, equestrian jumping, equestrian dressage, and shooting. Again, none of these require physical exertion on behalf of the human, what the horse goes through, though, is a different matter entirely. So, should we start to disregard physical exertion as a requirement for an activity to be defined as a sport? We have proven, after all, that there are many ‘sports’ that require almost zero physical exertion bar the finger movements of a shooter, the lifting foot of a lawnmower racer, and the straddling of a horse.

The thoughts of a chess champion


One ‘activity’ or ‘sport’ or whatever you want to call it that appeared on neither of the aforementioned what is and what isn’t a sports list is chess. There is no doubt that chess is a game that requires an enormous amount of skill to master, but is it a sport? Ramachandran Ramesh, an Indian Chess Grand Master, and chess coach is of the opinion that chess is a sport:

“I don’t think the involvement of physical exertion alone can be called a sport, though it is easier to accept it that way. Any element of competitiveness, preparation, entertainment, element of victory and defeat if involved may be considered a sport. In chess there contains all of the above elements. So I would definitely consider chess to be a sport.”

Insert ‘Ramesh’ picture here and describe it: “Picture of Chess Grand Master, Ramachandran Ramesh” Although it is unsurprising that Ramesh regards chess as a sport, the chess grandmaster is not solely biased towards his own ‘sport’ as he considers any game with a competitive edge to be a sport:

“All board games like draughts, poker, rummy, etc can be called a sport in my view. Maybe there are classifications like board games, action sports, etc to differentiate sports involving physical exertion and those that do not.”

There is already an international body that recognizes ‘mind sports’. The international mind sports association (IMSA) was founded in 2005 and recognizes the likes of draughts and chess as sports. May I remind you, the Olympics nor the sports science website which was mentioned earlier regard chess or draughts as sports, so it just goes to show how widespread opinions are.

But does Ramesh have a point? To decide this, we need to look at mental exertion as averse to physical exertion.


The Science

Andy Grant - What Criteria Is Needed For An Activity To Become A ‘Sport’?

Scientific studies have concluded that mental exertion is at least as strenuous to our well-being as physical exertion is, if not more. One study maintains that although physical exertion does not affect our ability to think properly, mental exertion on the other hand directly affects both our ability to think and our physical endurance. Whilst four hours of playing football would be very strenuous for the body, four hours of chess on the other hand would be equally strenuous for the brain. So should an activity be considered a sport based on the fact that it makes one feel physically tired, or should the definition perhaps change to an activity involving both physical and/or mental exertion?

Insert picture of ‘Andy Grant’ here and describe it “Sports Coach UK’s Strategic Lead – Andy Grant. Sports Coach UK’s strategic lead, Andy Grant, is under no illusion, however, that for an activity to be a sport it should contain some level of physicality: I think sport requires physical skill (not necessarily high activity levels). I would include archery and shooting as sports for this reason. Card games and chess are purely cognitive and I wouldn’t personally class them as sports. I’d still class e-sport as an active leisure pursuit rather than a sport.”

Tim Bacon is a sport scientist, academic, and coach and agrees with Andy: “Yes, I do think there should be some physical element to it.”

“So standing playing pinball is a game, standing in goal in soccer is a sport – standing for both – attention and reflexes important for both – but pinball is not a sport and soccer is because there is a minimum threshold of physical movement/activity for a sport to be considered as a sport.”

The image below shows Tim’s model of how he would classify whether activities should be considered sports or not – Tim believes a sport can only be a sport if it requires some physical exertion. But his model shows that there are three different levels of physical exertion. His model indicates that activities such as chess belong in the ‘not a sport’ category.

a - What Criteria Is Needed For An Activity To Become A ‘Sport’?

Culture clash

Could it be a cultural thing? Is the dictionary definition of what a sport is just a western definition? Columbia’s national sport Tejo, involves players tossing a 1.5-pound metal puck into explosives, whilst loudly cheering and drinking beer. As strenuous as this sounds, I don’t think the Olympic sports committee will be naming Tejo to the Olympic lineup anytime soon. But Tejo is still Columbia’s national sport – would Tejo be considered a sport in other countries? No. Still, it goes to show that what one person considers to be a sport another will completely disagree with.

Placing bets

What about other aspects of what makes an activity, a sport. If one can gamble and make real money bets on the outcome of an event, is that alone enough to make it a sport? If a bet takes place, then there will always be a winner and a loser – which is a requisite to whether or not a sport is really a sport, right? Moreover, the ability to gamble on something creates a shift from the activity being simply a hobby to becoming a spectator sport. Take e-sport as an example. For those of you who don’t know, e-sport is essentially an alternative term for competitive video gaming. Esports, which are already considered a sport in Asia, attract a huge fan base of supporters from all around the world. Playing video games, which, not so long ago was considered a living room hobby to most people, has become a sport in Asia with audiences placing bets on e-sport competitions. So, does being able to bet on the outcome of an activity make that activity a sport? Well, the public was able to bet on the outcome of the US presidential race and they were able to bet on what color outfit the queen would wear on her diamond jubilee. So no, being able to bet on an outcome of something does not make that thing a sport, although, one thing that all fully recognized ‘sports’ have in common is that they all have betting markets.

Does money make a sport a ‘real sport’?

Tobias - What Criteria Is Needed For An Activity To Become A ‘Sport’?

Sticking with the monetary argument, is it important for a person who has invested lots of time and money into a certain activity to do everything in their power to force that activity into being recognized as a legitimate sport? And if so, does this grey the waters given that if someone wanted to make crazy golf a legitimate sport, all they would need to do is throw enough money at the IOC to get it placed into the Olympic rooster given the IOCs history of accepting bribes. To hell with the requirements, here’s a wad of cash, make it a sport, please. For a sport to be recognized by the public from a simple hobby or pastime to a legitimate sport inevitably leads to more popularity for the sport which is followed by money. Tobias Verfoort, is the FIFA manager for FAB Games, an e-sport organization that has a number of competitive e-sport teams across a variety of games and he believes that given the time, more and more money will find its way into the e-sport world and this will lead to it being accepted as a legitimate sport:

“I believe that with time eSports will grow a lot. Young people are growing up in an interactive world and they will come into contact with eSports.

“Within the next 1-2 Generations e-sport will be interesting for companies that would, under normal circumstances, have nothing to do with e-sport but they will need to advertise in the eSports scene in order to reach their target group. With this, there will come more money into the e-sport scene and more and more people will try to have their slice of the pie.” Insert picture of ‘Tobias’ Verffort here with the description “Tobias Verfoort, FIFA manager for FAB Games.

Clearly, to someone looking to make money from a particular activity, having that activity be recognized as a sport is helpful due to the increase in popularity that being labeled as a ‘sport’ brings. On the other hand, the video game industry is a multi-billion-dollar one, sports and video gaming work hand-in-hand with each other regardless of whether professional video gaming is considered a sport or not. So from a professional video gaming perspective, no, it is not important whether eSports are considered legitimate sports or not.

From activity to a sport

Tim Warwood 1 - What Criteria Is Needed For An Activity To Become A ‘Sport’?

Maybe we need to look at an example of a sport that has only recently been regarded as a legitimate sport, snowboarding. The IOC first introduced snowboarding as an Olympic sport in the 1998 Winter games in Nagano, Japan. Before 1998, snowboarding was seen as a hobby by some and too much of an inconvenience – because of the need for snow – by others. It was regarded as an ‘under the radar’ sport by snowboarders themselves and they were happy to keep it that way.

Tim Warwood is a snowboarder, snowboarding presenter, and commentator for the BBC, and recalls that before its Olympic debut, snowboarding was not very well received. Insert picture of ‘Tim Warwood’ here with the caption, “Snowboarding presenter Tim Warwood power sliding on the snow”

“It was a bit of a notorious sport, back then riders were seasonality, with no money, that used to break all the rules on the mountain. It is also worth remembering that when the 1998 Olympics was on, snowboarding was still banned in a lot of ski resorts.”

Tim though does believe that the Olympics hold much sway in what makes an activity into a sport.

“I think the Olympics, for many people, makes a sport a ‘real sport’. People thought that because it (snowboarding) wasn’t in the Olympics, you couldn’t win a major medal from it and you couldn’t make money from it, it certainly wasn’t a profession. But now you can say you are a full-time snowboarding instructor and nobody would bat an eyelid. But if the Olympics wants your sport in their circus, it will happen. Is that a good thing? Yes, probably.”

BBC snowboarding commentator Ed Leigh agrees with Tim that the Olympics increased the popularity of snowboarding, but it came at a price:

“Snowboarding’s popularity within the mainstream has increased exponentially with its inclusion at the Olympics, but at the same time levels of participation have dropped. As the sport has become standardized and more predictable so its appeal has waned. The qualities that first made it exciting and saw the IOC covet its culture and excitement are being crushed.”

Following the years after it was made a legitimate sport by the IOC, snowboarding exploded in popularity. But Tim does not believe that money is needed for a sport to be considered a sport, nor for a sport to be popular.

“Yes, I did consider it (snowboarding) to be a sport before the Olympics. No, I don’t think a sport needs money to be popular. It needs to have a good scene for kids and adults to be into and yes, of course, if a sport is ‘cool’ then companies will flock to it. But in terms of legitimizing – a sport is a sport to whoever does it, I don’t think anyone can say that’s that and this sport is this.”

Does it really matter?

From a philosophical perspective, maybe we should all learn from solipsism – the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. After all, does it really matter if you don’t think toe wrestling is a sport but your next-door neighbor is adamant that it is? If you think pig racing is a sport, then why care what anyone else thinks or if the dictionary doesn’t classify it as a sport? In the end, it doesn’t matter if the activity in question is considered a sport or not it only matters to the toe wrestlers and pig racers of this world who want other people to recognize that they have a legitimate job. Jared Tendler, an author and mental game coach to the e-sport organization Team Liquid and over 450 professional poker players believes that it is all a question of legitimacy:

“It’s not about sport, so much as it is about legitimacy. Playing a sport is more legitimate than playing a game when you’re trying to convince people who are judging you to take you seriously.

“But this is a problem with any new industry. People were saying the same thing to people who were programmers or web developers. When you don’t understand what someone does, or the potential market that exists, then it’s easy to judge.

“Which, from a mental standpoint, suggests that any athlete looking for validation from others has a weakness in their confidence. Something like: They need others to approve of what they’re doing in order to feel good about it themselves.

“People want to know what a ‘real sport’ is so they know who to consider to be legitimate professionals and who to consider lazy, unemployable, or degenerates.”

In conclusion

Overall, it is clear that the dictionary definition of what constitutes a sport is largely irrelevant, as is the whole argument, in actual fact. For a sport to considered a sport it only needs to be considered as a sport by one person – if I think speed boat racing is a sport then yes, speed boat racing is a sport, no matter the opinion of others. For a sport to be considered as a ‘legitimate sport’ by an international governing body, then that is pretty irrelevant too, there are many different governing bodies that regard different activities as sports, some may regard one activity as a sport whilst others would not. Although, if the IOC considers a sport to be a sport then it will usually be regarded as so by the public. However, from a scientific point of view, for a sport to be considered a sport it is largely recognized that it has to involve some physical exertion, whilst the debate is still largely out on whether or not a mental or ‘mind sport’ is considered a legitimate sport. But in conclusion, however, for an activity to be a sport, it should involve some level of physical exertion (whether that be running, reflexes, dexterity) or mental exertion on behalf of a human being and there should be a winner and loser (barring ties) at the outcome. For a sport to be popular it merely needs to be fun and have easy access and for a sport to be able to be used as a money-making scheme it must have an entertainment value to an audience.

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