Needed relief found on the fringes of sport

This has been a tough year for Yale. In trying times, sports are enjoyable entertainment and valuable diversions. And the lighter side of sports is even more refreshing when relief is so welcome.

This year alone has seen death threats that forced a student off campus, several tragic car accidents, multiple instances of offensive graffiti on campus and an art project that may also be a biology project, blurring art and ethics to make national headlines. Less traumatizing but still momentous was the University’s decision to permanently expand the college.

Heavy stuff, from a lot of sources.

Luckily we always have entertainment to distract us. Sports are helpful in that way, providing fun breaks for athletes and spectators. Sometimes, though, real sports don’t do the trick.

At those times, we need to lower our standards.

Defining ‘sports’

About two years ago I got into a debate with my family about the meaning of sports. It was a semantic argument, not a philosophical one. We tried to determine what makes something a sport, rather than merely a game or a contest. I maintained that to be a sport, an activity must be both physical — involving some degree of athleticism — and competitive, involving a goal and competition against other people or one’s past performance.

The first claim is relatively straightforward. Despite ESPN’s programming (and a column I wrote earlier this year), few people believe poker, chess or dominoes to be true sports. Some cynics argue golf requires so little athleticism that it should not be called a sport, but they forget that success and failure in golf are determined by how well one executes the game’s physical motions, which require full-body coordination, strength and control. Although many golfers are not athletic, their sport certainly is.

Sports must also be competitive. Throwing a pigskin becomes football with the addition of end zones and opponents. Bouncing a ball becomes basketball when someone else is trying to strip the ball away. Athletics become sports when your physical activity takes on a goal opposite someone else’s, or when you must surpass your own previous accomplishments. Scoring or timing is necessary for sports in general.

There is murky territory, however, in activities like racecar driving. On one hand, the action of the event is not a human’s, but a machine’s. The object is speed, and athleticism does not makes cars move more quickly. On the other hand, good drivers are true athletes whose physical fortitude is required for success. Navigating a car at 200 miles per hour is athletic, even if propelling it forward is not.

Similarly, does an activity cease being a sport when it is no longer competitive? Is shooting a basketball still a sport on an empty court? Is jogging less of a sport than running for speed? I believe the answer to these questions is yes. Jogging is exercise and shooting for fun is practice. Add a ticking clock, a personal record or an opponent, and sport returns. Athletics alone does not make sport; the drive to achieve something athletic does.

The lighter side

Just outside this realm, though, is an area of activity that borders on sport but falls short. It’s the lighter side of sports — not the real thing, but close enough to remind us. And it should be celebrated.

In a column a few years ago, Bill Simmons, a sportswriter for ESPN.com, answered a reader’s question about “non-sports athletic achievements,” as he named them. The reader wrote in, saying his best non-sports athletic achievement involved catching his cell phone as it fell out of his pocket and toward a toilet bowl he was using at the time. With a couple of poorly choreographed grabs, he managed to save his phone before it hit the water. Simmons responded his greatest such accomplishment was a drive he made from Massachusetts to New Jersey in two hours. The trip usually takes four.

My best non-sports athletic feat came the other day in my dorm room. My phone slipped from my hand and I grabbed at it in the air. I missed repeatedly, and, as it fell to the floor, I instinctively kicked at it and the phone popped back up, landing safely on the bed next to me. The stakes weren’t high, but I almost convinced myself I had played a sport for that moment.

These near sports are all around us. My cat jumps at toys thrown above her head, reaching astonishing heights. Is she athletic? Sure. Is she playing a sport? I doubt it. And what about Japanese TV game shows in which screaming nuts negotiate ridiculous obstacle courses with even crazier names? Their athleticism is obvious, their goal is baffling but clear, and yet I cannot admit they are playing a sport.

But maybe the best example of near sports comes from the machines we play with. Whether it’s DDR or Wii, our videogames are getting us moving, and making us compete, but for what?

Not for sport, but for fun.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Thursday.

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