There’s all sorts of things that you can watch athletes do, if you are so inclined, but not all of them count as sports.
This is more difficult to grasp than the evidence would suggest, apparently. You would not imagine it to be so, but you would be wrong. Fortunately, I am here to provide the sort of guidance that the world so desperately needs in these troubled times.
It is a service I provide, good citizen. No payment is necessary.
There are three different kinds of athletic events, as far as I can tell: sports, contests, and activities. And the first thing you need to know about them is that athleticism is not part of their definition. The mere fact that something is or isn’t a sport doesn’t say anything about how much work goes into doing it, how long you have to train to get good at it, or what kind of physical shape you need to be in to perform at a world-class level. There are things that count as sports that anyone can do, really, even pudgy middle-aged historians such as yours truly. And there are things that count as contests that require a depth of athleticism that you won’t find in the most stringent sport. They’re independent variables.
That’s a science term, by the way. I live with a scientist, and such things tend to creep into my discourse as if by osmosis, along with graphs and charts. That’s why my discussion of Thomas Malthus in Western Civ contains graphs, much to the amusement of my students when they see my graphs. There is no graphing skills requirement for historians, which is just one of the reasons I went into this field, but I draw them anyway. Because, science.
In terms of athleticism, I find that activities tend to be in the middle of the range without the extremes of athleticism that one finds in both sports and contests. This is probably one of the reasons that many of the things I enjoy watching fall into this category, as well as nearly all of the things I enjoy doing.
The basic rule of thumb for activities is simple. Anything you can do without spilling your drink is an activity.
Softball, as I can attest from years of firehouse-league experience, is an activity rather than a sport. I have even been to softball games where there were no bases as such, only kegs of beer that you could tap into as you waited for the next batter to do something. Not my thing, really – I’m not sure why they let me live in Wisconsin at all, given my active dislike of beer – but I certainly appreciated the set-up. It made the later innings much more interesting.
Darts is also an activity. So are bowling, billiards, golf, and any form of cards up to and very much including the poker games that for some reason have colonized the sports networks these days. Curling looks like an activity but isn’t and curlers know that the real drinking happens after the match is over, which is why some of those matches tend to finish faster than you would think they would. Baseball just barely escapes this category, mostly because of the speed of the pitched balls, though it is entirely possible that I could reclassify it should the mood strike me. That’s the joy of being the one doing the classifying, after all.
The rule for contests is equally simple. Is any significant part of the final results dependent on style points awarded by a judge? If the answer is yes, then it isn’t a sport. It’s a contest.
I’ve been watching a lot of contests of late, now that the Olympics are on. Snowboarding is a contest. Figure skating is a contest. Slopestyle – which has the “style” right there in the name, for crying out loud – is a contest. So are diving, synchronized swimming, gymnastics, and competitive ballroom dancing.
There are people who get very upset when you note that what they call a sport is actually a contest, as if you are somehow belittling something they love. This is puzzling. Have you ever watched a figure skater train? Have you ever seen a snowboarder take a jump? Can you hold your breath like a synchronized swimmer? Folks, those are athletes on par with anything any sport has to offer. Contests are hard. Contests are fun to watch. But they’re not sports.
The thing that tends to confuse people most about the distinction between a contest and a sport, I find, is the role that interpreting the rules has in most sports. For example, in American football there is often controversy over whether a player is considered down – did his knee touch the ground? did an elbow? where did forward progress stop? – and such controversies do in fact have the potential to affect the outcomes of games. Similarly, in hockey it is up to the judgment of an official whether to call a penalty, which leads to a power play and possibly thence to a game-winning goal.
But to say that there is no distinction to be made between a sport where an official’s interpretation of a rule can occasionally affect the outcome of a game, on the one hand, and a contest where the only possible way to determine the order of finish is by relying on style points awarded for artistic merit according to the whimsy of judges, on the other, is clearly unsupportable and no further notice of such assertions need be taken.
And then there are sports. Sports do not rely on style points – you get no extra credit for curling a rock into the house artistically rather than bludgeoning it past the guards, nor do the referees in American football take points off a touchdown if a runner trips and falls on his face so long as the ball crosses the goal line. Nor can you consume beverages while participating in these things – see how long your whiskey lasts out on the ice in a hockey game sometime if you don’t believe me. Waste of good whiskey.
Soccer is a sport. American football is a sport. So are rugby, luge, lacrosse, hockey, swimming, and the 100-meter dash. Baseball, as noted, may or may not be a sport. Further research is needed, particularly regarding drinks. Further research of that sort is almost always a good idea anyway, just on general principle.
So now you may watch and participate in athletic events with the full confidence that they are all properly labeled, pigeon-holed, and filed away for future reference and you know exactly what you have in front of you, for whatever that might be worth to you.
The important part, of course, is to have fun. What else are these things for, really?
For my next trick, I will restart the peace process in the Middle East, likely with the same success rate I have enjoyed in convincing my doubters here.