Soccer forward Alex Munns’ grandfather offers a tongue-in-cheek definition of the term “sport.”
“My grandfather used to say that something was considered a sport if you couldn’t smoke while you were doing it,” Munns ’07 said. “Paradoxically, my grandfather believes he plays the sport of billiards.”
The grandson’s explanation is more dramatic.
“Sport is the physical and mental conflict between competitors themselves and other competitors,” Munns said. “Just about anything can be sport, so long as it challenges and invigorates people.”
The differences in defining “sport” are not limited to the generation gap. A handful of Yale athletes were asked to comment on the characteristics of sports and their answers range from specific to all-encompassing. In this transition week, when the winter season is winding down and the spring season is just getting the ball rolling, it seems appropriate to pause and examine the definition of “sport.” Even the Oxford English Dictionary is vague regarding the term, characterizing it as participation in games or exercises, especially those of an athletic character or pursued in the open air, for entertainment or amusement.
Earlier this year, anthropology professor William Kelly instructed students in his class “Sports, Society and Culture” to investigate how people delineate between sports and non-sports.
His own explanation outlines two essential elements of sports.
“Sports are organized physical competitions, and anything that seriously conjoins the physical and the competitive is a sport,” he said. “This does not include chess, which is intensely competitive and can be strenuous and exhausting but which makes mental combat rather than physical combat its primary aim. And sport does not include pro wrestling, which requires extremely strenuous and highly risky physical action but which is loosely choreographed contact ballet with a predetermined outcome.”
Many definitions by Yale athletes shared Kelly’s themes, especially the importance of physical exertion.
Kieran Locke ’06, a member of the men’s swimming team, said she identifies a sport as “a competition of physical power, endurance, and skill.”
Christie Yang ’05, next year’s captain of the cheerleading squad, emphasizes the training component.
“Sport involves pushing yourself, conditioning your body to the max, being conscious of how you treat your body — physically and mentally,” she said.
Bulldog athletes also recognized the role of competition.
Almost any physical activity can be considered a sport as long as someone makes up a set of rules for its execution and puts together a competition, Jordan Chapman ’05, a member of the men’s track and field team, said. Chapman said, according to his definition, competitive eating is a sport. He also stressed that the physical activity involved must be relevant to the competition.
“Even though chess players physically move pieces around a board, removing that physical activity (as by playing computer chess, for example) doesn’t really change the outcome of the competition,” Chapman said. “Similarly, even though competitors in dog shows have to prance around with their dogs, it is the dogs and not the owners who are evaluated, and thus the owners should probably not be called athletes or sportspersons.”
While it seems well-established that sports need both a physical and a competitive element, these criteria are not sufficient to categorize borderline activities. Competitive pursuits involving physical activity require greatly varying degrees of skill, endurance, and dexterity. One borderline activity, ballroom dancing, is not widely considered a sport.
“It is important that swimming be labeled a sport because [the label] — puts it at a different athletic level than something like ballroom dancing,” Locke said.
However, examining the essentials of the two activities reveals that they are more similar than one would think. Both involve training, physical skill and organized competition between teams. There are strict rules of form for swimming strokes and for ballroom dances. It seems unfair to dismiss ballroom dancing, which clearly involves a distinct type of athleticism, from the sports realm with a cursory glance.
Even so, it could be said that in a racing sport like swimming, the outcome is more concrete. The result of the 50-yard freestyle comes from the time it takes each swimmer to complete two laps of the pool, whereas the result of a tango competition comes from the number of votes earned from a panel of judges. Some protest the application of “sport” to competitive cheerleading and synchronized swimming due to the subjective nature of judging. For example, field hockey goalie Elizabeth Friedlander ’07 lists objective scoring as one of the requirements of sport.
But the sport label should not be removed by the presence of judges. Such a stipulation would deny the sports status of two of Yale’s varsity sports — gymnastics and diving — in which the opinions of a handful of professional judges determine the points awarded. This demonstrates that activities popularly seen as sports can hinge on the opinions of judges, and there is no logical basis for excluding ballroom dancing from the sports sphere.
In his article in the Nov. 11, 2003, edition of Sports Illustrated On Campus, journalist John Walters presented a definition of sports that helps clarify the issue, although he places ballroom dancing and swimming in the same category. Walters said a sport is “an athletic competition in which defense is directly deployed.” Neither ballroom dancing nor swimming meet his criteria due to their lack of defense.
Many athletic activities (such as cycling) and many games that demand opposing forces (such as chess) exist, but there are relatively few pursuits that are both, according to Walters. At the intersection of these domains lie the true sports.
The majority of strenuous physical activities do not fit this limited definition of sport. However, it is not surprising that the athletic competitions that do meet Walters’ definition are those that are most popular in our culture.
“I have great appreciation for offensive/defensive athletic sports,” women’s water polo player Acacia Clark ’04 said
There are highly visible professional leagues in the United States for football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer. Walters would call all these contests sports. In an unofficial survey of athletes’ favorite sports to watch, 16 out of the 20 named were activities that fit Walters’ definition.
Although Walters’ view excludes many college sports from the category of “sport”, he does not imply that true sports are more demanding or should be more esteemed than other athletic contests.
No one would deny that all athletic activities, from cheerleading to marathon running, demand practice and dedication in the pursuit of excellence.
“[Cheerleading] requires immense flexibility, stamina, and strength to be able to flip around, catapult your own leg past your head, pick up a girl of your own body weight, and then shake it like you mean it to the fastest dance mix you’ve ever heard in your life,” Yang said.
In his article, Walters said crew is not a sport, but that does not mean that rowers are not among the most impressive athletes on the Yale campus.
Munns has the right attitude.
“It doesn’t really matter what soccer is labeled, or anything else for that matter,” Munns said.Ê”You can call it anything you want, it’s still soccer.”
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