Are The Olympics Really Sports?


Today, the world’s top athletes will descend on London for the 30th Summer Olympic Games. For sixteen days, much of the world will be glued to its television. NBC reportedly paid more than a billion dollars for the rights to air the event, which in the current media climate somehow seems like a reasonable (albeit staggering) price to pay for the world’s premier sporting event.

But, really, is that what they got?

I’m not sure about you, but when I think “sports,” my mind doesn’t immediately jump to synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, two of the categories in which medals will be awarded. Sure, the Olympics have the hurdles and cycling—but they also have something called team dressage, which in some way involves horses and which you’d never heard of until earlier in this sentence. At a cursory glance, you might find more sports at the X Games, a competition predominantly devoted to riding snowmobiles through fire.

And yet, we’ll all be watching, hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness from this year’s Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Which leads to this: If we’re going to sit down and watch these things, now’s as good a time as ever to finally tackle the question, “What exactly makes something a sport?”

No one seems to have come up with a definitive answer. Take a look at Merriam-Webster’s and you’ll find that a sport is “a source of diversion: a physical activity engaged in for pleasure.” This doesn’t exactly seem definitive. By that standard, drinking is a sport. So, for that matter, is cunnilingus.

There needs to be a better standard. Luckily, I’ve got one.

It seems to be a given that football, baseball, basketball and, yes, even hockey are sports. So let’s take a look at the people who participate in these activities. What links them together as athletes? Looking back at Merriam-Webster’s, we find that an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises … requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” That seems about right, with one key exception: The word or. If you think about it, the word and is infinitely more appropriate. The athletes in the aforementioned sports possess—in varying degrees—strength, agility and stamina. Having just one of these qualities simply isn’t enough. That is, unless we plan on bestowing the title of “athlete” on, respectively, construction workers, contortionists, and Sting.

That seems like a pretty good start: To play a sport, you must be an athlete. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work both ways. All sports must have athletes, but not all athletes play sports. Gymnasts and figure skaters are athletes, but neither gymnastics nor figure skating are sports. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

The other critical characteristic of sports is the way in which victories are decided. Throughout the four major sports, one thing is consistent: A quantifiable scoring system. You score more points than your opponent, you win. Whether it’s measured in goals, runs, or points, there’s always a clearly-defined winner. Soccer is a sport. Golf is a sport. Tennis is a sport. And, for the same reasons, ping-pong is a sport. Yes, ping-pong. Watch an Olympic table tennis match for about thirty seconds and you’ll soon realize that this isn’t the game you and the nerdy girl next door played in your basement.

So, now we’ve got rule #2: If an activity can be won according to subjective criteria, such as the scoring of judges, it’s not a sport. Gymnastics? Incredibly difficult, but not a sport. Figure skating? Not a sport. Synchronized swimming? Not even close. In a right-thinking world, none of these activities can be sports because if they are, then so are ballroom dancing, the Miss America Pageant, and dog shows.

Piggybacking off of this idea, some forms of racing qualify as sports because the winner is clearly determined by time, which is not subjective. Of course, this only works if the participants are athletes. The annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is a race of sorts, but it’s certainly not a sport.

Tour de France-style cycling is a sport because the folks involved are athletes. Soap box racing—the outcome for which is far more dependant on the design of the car than the athleticism of the driver—is not. For the purposes of clear classification, we can call this sort of activity a competition.

This term basically covers all activities pitting sides against one another that don’t qualify as sports. Downhill skiing’s a sport. The Marathon is a sport. Speed-skating is a sport. However—and here’s the point where I’m going to piss a whole lot of people off—car racing is a competition. You don’t need to be an athlete to be a race car driver. It’s really freaking hard but at the end of the day, you’re sitting in a car. Sorry, NASCAR fans—deal with it.

Now, it should be mentioned that there are events that seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Shooting provides a pretty good example. Target shooting on its own is not a sport, yet the biathlon (of which shooting comprises half) is. The athlete clause comes into play again here. You can be a fat expert marksman (ever watch hunting on television?) but biathletes are, as the name implies, indisputably athletes.

So, there you have it. If you’ve got yourself some athletes and an objective method of determining a winner, then you, dear patient reader, are looking at a sport.

I should take a moment to address the logical criticism of this whole setup. Someone is surely going to contend that I’ve set up a definition of ‘sport’ that simply excludes activities I don’t particularly like. Not true. Case in point: Boxing.

I like boxing. Somewhere, subconsciously, I wanted to call boxing a sport. But it’s not. All too often, the fight goes to the judges, a spectacularly imperfect system that has the potential to produce results that are at best absurd and at worst outwardly corrupt (see: The outright theft of Roy Jones Jr.’s gold medal in 1988, the recent Pacquiao/Bradley decision). If every fight ended in a knockout, we’d be fine (and boxing’s television ratings would be significantly higher). Boxers are unquestionably athletes and with nothing but knockouts, there would be a clear, decisive winner (the guy still standing). Now, I don’t doubt that famed HBO boxing commentator and former judge Harold Lederman knows more about boxing than I ever will, but if the winner of a fight can be determined by how pretty some guy with a clipboard thought one fighter’s left-cross was, boxing simply can’t be a sport.

Under this rubric, The Summer Games end up faring decently, with slightly under eighty percent of the events qualifying as sports (omissions include archery and diving, among others). Sure, it’s a slightly semantic argument, but it’s something the world’s foremost athletic competition should want to be correct about and, at least a fifth of the time, it seems they’re not. That is, of course, if you buy into this system.

In truth, I don’t expect this to go by without exception. Someone, I’m sure, will find an activity that they believe cannot be classified under this paradigm. It’s bound to happen. So, there’s one final rule: In the event of disagreement over whether or not something is a sport, the debate is to be settled in the manner of the ultimate athletes — the gladiators. Grab a sword and some armor and fight to the death, which, in case you’re wondering, would be a sport. 

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