I have a much more restrictive definition of “sport” than most people. So restrictive, in fact, that four MIT varsity teams and six summer Olympic events don’t qualify.
Diving, gymnastics, pistol, and rifle should not be labeled as sports because they fail to meet one of the following four requirements:
1) A sport must require cardiovascular fitness, which is a generally accepted principle. For example, chess and poker are not sports because they only require the fitness of a chain smoker who can lift a bishop or a few chips.
Pistol and rifle fail here as well. Since aiming a rifle doesn’t exactly strain your heart or lungs, it fails to meet this requirement.
2) A sport must not require participants to use an internal combustion engine. Boat racing, dirt-bike jumping, and NASCAR are out. This is a bit more controversial, particularly since NASCAR is America’s fastest growing “sport,” but this is basically a special case of Rule One. I realize that NASCAR drivers a) sweat in the car and b) need some strength to turn the wheel, so I’m clarifying this point with a separate rule.
3) A sport must be competitive, and there must be an outcome that ranks the participants. If a group of joggers go for a run, that’s not a sport. Only during a race does running become a sport. This seems intuitive, but many martial arts groups will meet with other clubs, practice together, and call it a sport. Competition is the essence of sport; everything else is just an activity.
4) The outcome must be determined by the participants instead of an observer. Referees, officials, and judges must enforce the rules, but they can’t decide the outcome.
This is where gymnastics and diving drop out, and it’s also where most people stop agreeing with me. Think about this, though: without Rule Four, the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” qualifies as a sport. Dancing is hard work, doesn’t use any motors, and the show has a clear winner.
Even with Rule Four, some people may think “So You Think You Can Dance” is a sport. If that’s the case, what about “American Idol”? They sweat on that show too. Why not “America’s Got Talent” or “America’s Next Top Model”? A line must be drawn, and I draw it where judges tell me who won.
Furthermore, Rule Four explains why everyone gets upset when a football referee or baseball umpire’s blown call decides the outcome of the game (see: Reggie Bush illegally pushing Matt Leinart across the end zone). On those days, football and baseball are not sports.
I came up with these rules by trying to capture the feelings I experience when I watch or play a sport. Competition and physicality demand are key. The thrill of victory. The sting of defeat. Sacrificing the body to win.
The fourth rule resulted from climactic athletic experiences: when someone hits a walk-off home run, hits a jumper with time running out, or pulls away in the last 10 meters. That dramatic conclusion instantaneously tells me which team claimed victory. I didn’t wait 15 minutes to hear a judge tell me who won.
That feeling, the excitement and agony, is the best thing about sports. It doesn’t have to happen every game for something to be a sport. God knows April baseball doesn’t make my skin crawl, but the potential has to be there. With judges, it is not.
Games like diving, which can’t easily remove judges from the equation, can become sports in my eyes (clearly, this is every game’s dream) by adopting a publicly known scoring system. Dive X is worth Y points with a clean vertical entry and Z points with a slanted entry. Spectators should be able to say, “That was a 9.1,” before the score flashes on the screen.
I know gymnastics, diving, and figure skating are moving in this direction. However, there are still judging scandals and major disagreements about scores, so Rule Four is still violated.
Further improvement will make these games, already more enjoyable to watch than sports like long-distance running, certifiable and entertaining sports.