Photo: Dokshin Vlad/Shutterstock

What Defines a Sport?

by JoAnna Haugen Feb 23, 2010
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.

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.

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.

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

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