Be a sport, tell me what is a sport

There is an argument for recognising pursuits involving physical activity, specialised skill and competition as “sports”, and those that do not as “games”. Soccer, tennis, cricket are thus sports, while snakes-and-ladders and monopoly are games.

Illustration:   -  Mihir Ranganathan

We know what sport is, but can we define it so there is no confusion? Definitions of sport — from those provided by philosophers to favourites of casual fans — tend to be incomplete and open to debate. There is an element of the blind men from Hindustan describing an elephant in the descriptions of sports. Then there is the matter of games. Are the two the same?

The title of ‘The Oxford Companion to Sports & Games’, a handsome encyclopedia edited by John Arlott, suggests there is a difference. Published in 1975, it is 1,152 pages of superb material. Arlott laments such publications tend to become out of date quickly.

The reverse also happens. Games become sports. Chess, bridge, snooker are missing from the tome.

It’s a game

There is an argument for recognising pursuits involving physical activity, specialised skill, and competition as “sports”, and those that do not as “games”. Soccer, tennis, cricket are thus sports, while snakes-and-ladders and monopoly are games. That lands us neatly into the chess/bridge problem. Are they sports? Yes. But is it enough if they meet only two out of three criteria?

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in ‘Homo Ludens: A Study of Play Element in Culture’ declared: “Play is older than culture.” Then he goes on to say, “Play is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the spheres of necessity or material utility.” That was written 80 years ago.

Game theory

The philosopher Bernard Suits provided a more stylish and pithy definition of games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” His book, ‘The Grasshopper’, was a riposte to Wittgenstein’s theory that games could not be defined.

But as a later philosopher with a serious interest in competitive sport, David Papineau, pointed out, Suits’s definition, while being elegant, made the mistake of confusing games with sports. All sports, says Papineau, are not a subspecies of games. In any case, he says, Suits fails us where windsurfing or hang gliding is concerned.

Is competitive dancing a sport? Well, rhythmic gymnastics is. When synchronised swimming was introduced in the Olympics, there was an outcry, but it has been anointed as a sport. There is “dance sport” awaiting entry; the usual opposition and, I daresay, the expected acceptance awaits.

Keeping pace with time

Which is why I like the Australian Sports Commission’s definition. Sport is “what is generally accepted as being a sport.”

If we decide that balloon-bursting or knife-throwing is a sport, then these become sports. Arlott might not have considered snooker or darts proper sports, but four decades later, events have overtaken that view. It is a matter of time. Definitions will have to keep pace with acceptance.