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It may be an Olympic event, but is ice dancing really a sport? JoAnna Haugen considers how we make the distinction.

WHEN I WAS IN high school, there was a school-wide debate about whether cheerleaders and members of the dance team should be allowed to earn letterman jackets. The hardcore jocks were quick to denounce the squads as non-athletic, while the cheerleaders and dancers produced their bruises and bandaged ankles as proof of how tough their activities were.

Photo By:AbbyNormy

My Random House Webster’s Dictionary says that a sport is “an often competitive athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess.” Wikipedia adds that a sport is “an organized, competitive, and skillful physical activity requiring commitment and fair play.”

Based on these definitions, I think it’s safe to say that competition, skill and physical exertion are all required components of a sport. Still, I’m not sure I can get behind things like the Krystal Square Off Hamburger Eating Championship as being legitimate sporting activities, even if they do meet the definition’s requirements.

Sports vs. Leisure

For what it’s worth, I think there is a difference between a “sport” and a “leisure activity.” Running a marathon, playing soccer, or participating in a dog sledding race? I think those all qualify as sports. But playing poker or going ice fishing? I’m tempted to say those are leisure activities.

Photo By:Brain Child VN

In addition to considering the dictionary definition, I also believe that an activity that can be judged objectively has more validity as a sport than those that require subjective judging.

There is no question about which speed skater crosses the finish line first, but when style plays a part in a judge’s consideration, as it does in snowboarding or ice dancing, it makes me question whether it isn’t simply a pretty display of athleticism rather than a sport.

I suppose I could let the ice dancers hang out in the name of Olympic competition. But what about after the games, when Apollo Anton Ohno is taking a lazy lap around the rink for the fun of it or Bode Miller is testing out a new pair of skis? If they’re not in competition at that moment, have they crossed the line into leisure activity territory?

All through the Olympics, we’ve been arguing at home about what defines a sport. I think the answer I’ve come to is that it all depends. Maybe it’s the atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a named competition that awards medals.

For the cheerleading and dance squads in my high school, it was the long hours of practice and the shin splints.

Feature Image by: Vvramak

Community Connection:

What defines a sport for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Sports + Adventure


About The Author

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a freelance writer, former Peace Corps volunteer, globetrotter planning her next great adventure. Journey with her on her travel blog and follow her on Twitter.

  • Megan Hill

    Thanks for this piece. It’s an interesting conversation, one that I’ve had many times since the Olympics started. Especially when curling is on. :)

  • Amiee Maxwell

    Nice piece JoAnna – I am still slightly bent out of shape about the women’s ski jumping issue and have really been wondering why some “pretty displays” are considered Olympic sports while an obvious real sport gets left out.

  • Hal Amen


  • Carlo

    Have you tried curling? It’s much harder than it looks. You’ll be sore the next day.

    I don’t agree with the bit about subjectivity. Subjectivity is apparent in many sports…calling strikes in baseball, fouls in basketball, penalties in hockey, etc.

    It’s an interesting debate! But no doubt about it, the Olympic athletes have put in phenomenal amounts of time into getting where they are. Imagine training daily for hours for many years for a 30 second shot during the Games? I think whether or not an event should be a sport or not, all of the participants are inspirational.

    • Megan Hill

      Dude, totally hear you on the curling thing. I didn’t mean to posit that it’s not tough, or doesn’t take skill. I watched it for about half a day on Monday and was impressed. It took me a while to understand some of the rules and strategies, and I’m not sure I’d want to watch a whole lot more of it, but those guys had my respect. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s a sport.

  • Dan

    @Carlo. While there is subjectivity in calling penalties, fouls, and strikes there is an objective way to score points and to win the competition. That same can not be said of many Olympic events.

    • JoAnna

      @Carlo and @Dan ~

      Thanks for stopping by to comment.

      I agree that there is subjectivity from referees’ points of view, but at the end of the baseball game, the team with the most points wins. For the most part, a winner and loser are decided based by the clock, the points, the score.

      My point is that when an entire sport is based on opinions – who did the nicest triple toe loop or which balance beam routine was more difficult – then who is to say the better “athlete” wins?

  • JoAnna

    About that curling thing … I’ve also played and it definitely takes some muscle work. But it’s also a game of strategy.

    There’s an event in July every year for the world championship of chess boxing. Yep … chess boxing. It’s 3 minutes of boxing followed by 4 minutes of speed chess for 11 rounds. Champions are decided by checkmate, exceeding the time limit, retirement of an opponent or the referee’s decision. So what’s that? Sport or leisure activity … or just confusion?

    • Eva

      “But it’s also a game of strategy.”

      So is the marathon…

  • Eva

    Figure skating tends to get all the attention when we talk about whether judged sports belong in the Games, but think about what else that theory could be applied to: If we cut judged sports, we’d lose all the gymnastics, equestrian and diving events, boxing, all the martial arts, and several skiing and snowboarding events along with the figure skating. That’s a huge number of events that a) most people can agree qualify as sports, and b) most people want to see in the Games. (When I was in Beijing, gymnastics and diving were far and away the most popular tickets.)

    I also think the line between objective and subjective judging isn’t as clear as it might seem. JoAnna wrote:

    “I also believe that an activity that can be judged objectively has more validity as a sport than those that require subjective judging. There is no question about which speed skater crosses the finish line first…”

    But speed skating judges have played a huge role in the medal results in these games, and the South Korean short track team, that got DQ’d after a gold medal win last night, would certainly argue that it was a subjective call that got them eliminated.

    I guess I think there’s no clear way to define these things – and I’m just as happy not to worry about. Sport or pretty display of athleticism, either way I look forward to watching it every two years.

    • JoAnna

      Hi Eva ~

      Thank you for your comments.

      I certainly don’t deny anything you’ve said, especially this part:

      “I guess I think there’s no clear way to define these things – and I’m just as happy not to worry about. Sport or pretty display of athleticism, either way I look forward to watching it every two years.”

      I don’t really think it matters how we define sports. I just think it’s an interesting discussion because of the incredible variety of activities that *may* be considered sport-related. I also think it’s interesting to note how riled up become over the topic. Let me tell you, those cheerleaders and dance team members at my high school could have taken those football jocks out flat the day the guys claimed the girls didn’t participate in a sport. Heck, they may have been able to take them down any day for that matter. :)

  • Megan Hill

    I’m fascinated that people take offense to something being defined as “not a sport.” Just because something isn’t a sport doesn’t mean it’s devalued. Figure skating may not be a sport to some, but it’s freaking cool.

    Thanks for starting this convo, JoAnna!

    • Eva

      I think it’s because, though JoAnna hasn’t done that here, the follow-up to “X isn’t really a sport…” is usually “…and so it has no business being in the Olympics.” Most of the discussions I’ve seen on this topic over the years have been an effort to exclude some events/athletes – that’s why people get touchy, I think.

  • Adam Roy

    Wow, had no idea this was going to be such a heated discussion!

    For me, the issue has always seemed to be how to define what kinds of competitions are sports. Track and field is definitely a sport, and competitive concert piano playing is definitely not a sport. But what about everything in between? What makes us more willing to accept ice dancing as a sport than, say, ballroom dancing? It’s an interesting question, and one that I certainly can’t answer.

  • Matty

    In sports such as snowbarding and ice skating (Yes, I’m calling them sports), there is not so much subjectivity, contrary to what you may think. There are a great many strict standards for the types of tricks which must be completed during the run and the level of complexity in the combinations is gauged. Also, judges should have a keen eye for ‘style’, which is really just technical prowess and how well (graceful) a person can land. This is how points are rewarded.

    Regardless, I think you’re thinking about it too much. Sport is sport, and when you break it down, it’s all highly organized, competitive, and athletic.

  • TimR

    One rule I have is: if you can smoke or chew tobacco while doing it, it’s not a sport. So neither golf nor baseball are “real” sports, while ice dancing and the half pipe 100% certainly are (that’s major cardio involved for those). Think about it: some overweight guy in left field with a wad in his mouth is playing a sport because there’s a score, while Shawn White isn’t? No way. I don’t think so.

    • Sportsfactor

      are you stupid, you can smoke and chew tobacco in many sports outdoors, get yout facts straight before giving out stupid opinion. Doesnt matter who or what you put out there, you can chew tobacco while running track, snowboarding skiing dancing and other

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