November 24, 2009


My friend Chris and I have had some fun debating the word "sport". Well, it's not so much debating since we basically agree.

I don't know about the rest of the world, but there is an interesting thing going on with this word in America. I kinda of starts in High School, where cheerleaders attempt to refer to what they do as a sport, in an attempt to legitimatize its funding I think, and jocks, in umbrage, claim that it isn't. This extends into adult life, and for many sports fans, there is a strong desire to properly define the concept of sport. Personally, I don't find this a need. Rather, I just find it fun to define and categorize things. So, here are my playful attempts.


Technically, a sport is any activity done for fun, but we are looking at a more precise definition here. Within human society there have been particular competitions of physical endurance, strategy, and ability which have developed a sociological niche. This niche forms the foundation of much of male social interaction and is thus a source of great interest, development, time, and money.

However, how do we differentiate the competitions that truly fall under this niche and other forms of competitions and recreation? I think these definitions found at wikipedia are quite good attempts. The more offical one that it gives is "Sport is commonly defined as an organized, competitive and skillful physical activity requiring commitment and fair play." However, I also liked this point that the article also made: "Sports commonly refer to activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determinant of the outcome." I believe it is this second point that marks the primary difference between sports and other kinds of games.
Primarily a sport is about physical competition and ability. It is not simply a physical activity, nor is it simply a competition, but it is precisely a competition of a physical activity, and for a men, a test of masculinity. We men derive our sense of worth often by our usefulness and ability. This isn't bad in small doses, just masculine. This is why sports find such a level of importance within the male world. Team camaraderie also demonstrates the primary social structure within which men naturally think.

In light of this, my friend Chris and I identified 4 major factors required for something to be a sport in the above sense of the word:
  1. Athleticism: It must require actual feats of athletic ability.
  2. Objective evaluation: By this it means that points, credit, or victory is awarded by the accomplishment of tasks, rather than a judges opinion of "how well" a task was performed. For instance, synchronized swimming is not a sport: its a dance competition. It is a valid competition and worthy of attention... I guess, but it is not really a sport. The reason is because it is not the actual physical ability that is being judged but the beauty of movement. Compare this to boxing, where it is not how interestingly one punches, but whether one connects and where that matters.
  3. Competition: Yes, it must actually be a competition where there is a winner and a loser.
  4. The human body as the motor of the action: There is a difference between motorized sports, and true sports. Nascar fans often point out that in order to drive at those speeds one must have acute senses, and athletic strength to move the steering wheel. Well, that may be true, but from mere observation of the difference between Nascar fans, and how Nascar is followed when compared to other sports, one can tell that it doesn't quite fit the same niche. The reason is, fundamentally, those athletic abilities are not really the thing that is being tested. It is the motor of the car. Compare that to a bike race, where it is actually the person's body propelling the bike forward. It is the human endurance and leg strength that is being tested, and it is treated like other sports.
Considering these requirements we can define a sport as an objective recreational competition of human physical ability.


Now, just for kicks and giggles, I took the time to divide all sports into neat categories. That's right, this is what I call fun. I am a dork. Anyway, here's my list:
  1. Club Sports: Club Sports are the primary games that most think of when they think of "sports" as a category. In each Club Sport there is an area of play, usually called a field, but not always. This area is divided literally or implicitly into two halves with a goal on either side. There are then two teams, and each team is assigned one of the two goals. There is then an object. The objective of the game is to put this object into the opposing side's goal as often as possible, while preventing the other team from doing likewise. The variations are usually based upon what this object is, and the rules for moving this object around. Sometimes the goal itself is modified.

    Examples of these sports include Hockey, Basketball, Polo, Rugby, Ultimate Frisbee, Lacross, and the exemplar of the category: Soccer (Football to those of you in Britain). The oddest example though is American Football. Football actually has two goals on each side, and the amount of rules for moving the football around are massive, especially with it's stop and start format. However, it still fits within the same category.
  2. Volley Sports: This is the second largest category. In each Volley Sport there is an area of play, usually called a court, but not always. There is a object that is in play, as well as two teams (sometimes consisting of one person each). The objective of the game is to essentially hit the object back and forth between you, each hit being called a volley. A side is awarded a 'point' if the other side fails to return the volley. There are certain rules which determines whether or not a volley is legal, consisting of how many times the object can be hit, how the object is hit, how many times the object bounces before or after being hit, and whether or not it stays in bounds.

    Beyond this, it is important to mention two subcategories. First is Net Volley Sports, where the court is divided in two with a net running down this division and either team needing to remain on either side of it. In this category, for a volley to be legal it must be hit over the net to the other side of the court and remain in bounds. Examples of this include Volleyball, Badmitton, Four Square/Two Square (which uses lines instead of a net), and, of course, Tennis.

    The second subcategory is Wall Volley Sports, where the court remains intact, both teams sharing the same area, with a large wall on one side of the court. In this category, for a volley to be legal it must be hit against the wall and then remain in bounds. Examples of this includes Handball, Squash, and Racketball.

  3. Bat-and-Ball Sports: This one is most easily described by its examples, namely Cricket, Baseball, and Baseball's derivatives (kickball, softball, etc...). B&B sports have some rather special features. First of all, the defense has control of the ball (it's always a ball here). At any given point, one side is completely on the offense, while the other the defense since both are doing completely different activities.

    As for the rules, at designated locations on the field, one member of the defense, throws the ball to one member of the offense. The offensive player then hits the ball into the field. The defense then must fetch the ball, and bring it back to where the offensive player is, as the offensive player attempts to reach a base, which is a designated location where the player is 'safe'. If the defense brings the ball back to the offensive player before the offensive player is at the base, that player is out of play. Points are scored by how successfully the player reaches the bases (in Baseball it is one point if all four bases are reached; in Cricket it is one point each time a base is reached). After a certain number of outs, the two teams switch sides. Variations can be defined by comparing Baseball and Cricket.

  4. Target Sports: Target Sports are very simple. You have an object and a target. Players take turns projecting the object towards the target and is then awarded points based off of the quality of the hit (or the number of attempts to reach the target). Whoever has the better score after a certain number of attempts wins.

    However, the variety here is tremendous. How the points are tallied will vary due to the how different some of the targets are, and how differently one projects the object. For instance, the most basic style is like darts, curling or archery, where the target is a bullseye, and points are awarded based off of zones which show how close you get to the middle. However, in golf or croquet, points are negative and are based on how many tries it takes you to reach the target. Then there are bowling and nine-pins, where the target is a set of precariously placed pins that you try to knock-over. Then there's bocce, where you get points pased on how many balls you get closest to the pauline. The possibilities are endless.
  5. Track and Field: All these sports come down to a basic contest of how well one can accomplish one particular task. In other words, who can run the fastest, throw the farthest, or jump the highest. All races fall under this, as well is the pole-vault, shotput, long jump, etc...

    Once could place Target Sports within this category, especially archery and its ilk, but the primary difference between Track and Field and Target Sports is that Target Sports tend to be scored with discrete numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc...) , while Track and Field tend to be scored with analog numbers (measured with a decimal points). Another way of saying this is that one's accomplishments in Field and Track Sports are measured, while in Target Sports, they are counted. This creates a very real difference, especially in terms of the feel of the sport.
    (One could argue that you could design a target sport where one measures how far the projectile is from the center of a target. Well, fine. That would essentially be a hybrid. I have no problem with that. )
  6. Combat: Ok, I think this is easy. This is where two people fight, and points are awarded by whether or not the person made contact and other objective standards. Absolute incapacitation of an opponent usually is considered an automatic win. This includes, boxing, wrestling, fencing, and pretty much any martial arts style one can think of.

1 comment:

Jc_Freak: said...

I should probably mention one other thing Chris and I talked about: minisports. There are certain games that are very simular to sports but are much simpler, smaller, and less atheletic. Most of these are really simulations of sports, such as air hockey, darts, ping pong and fuzzball. This said, some of these, including ping pong and fuzzball, really have become their own game and are distinct from the sport they are simulating (the most extreme of this is pool, which isn't simulating anything, but is a mini-target sport).

All this said, I think because of the scale, these lack the same kind of atheticism that one expects in sports and as such, are distinct from them, though clearly similar.