The Tokyo Olympics begin tomorrow, and while the Games this year have become a messy political boondoggle thanks to COVID (among other things), the likes of which is beyond the scope of this blog, I thought it was time to ask the
perennial quadrennial question lurking just beneath the surface of the Olympic tradition:
What exactly is a “sport,” anyway?
Okay, maybe you weren’t asking that, but I think it’s a legitimate question because although the issue doesn’t get talked about as much as the sports people like, there are certain events in the Olympics that people frequently criticize as not being “real sports” at all. The most infamous of these is probably dressage, a competition to see who is the best at training a horse to dance, a skill that was probably impressive in the 19th century, but sounds like a headline from The Onion today.
But that raises the question: what qualifies an event as a “real sport” to begin with? Now, there’s no fixed definition of a sport—or, if you try to make one, it’s probably not going to be very useful. This is sort of like my “definition of a planet” essay. It’s less about official definitions and more about what our cultural concept of a sport is and why it is the way it is.
So, what is our cultural concept of a sport? Let’s start with a working guess that a sport is a competitive, primarily physical activity. (Although there is usually an important mental component, the physical part is essential.) E-sports (competitive video games) are a thing—a thing that’s tried to get into the Olympics, even—but video games don’t match our concept of sports because they’re primarily mental. Needing dexterity and good reaction time isn’t enough. Likewise, chess has an actual sports federation, which is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, but it doesn’t match our concept of a sport because all the real work is done in your head.
But this is only half of the question because the criticism isn’t always that “X isn’t a real sport.” Sometimes, it’s, “X shouldn’t be in the Olympics.” The problem people have with equestrian (other than being perceived as a sport for “rich people”) tends to be that it involves horses more than that it involves dancing (although dancing also draws its critics).
Thus, we need to ask a second question: What is our cultural concept of the Olympics? And I think that one is easier to answer: The Olympics are a competition of human athletic ability. That’s kind of obvious, really; the IOC’s own marketing is centered around that premise. And this is why many people regard equestrian as being unworthy of the Olympics. Even though riders need to be fairly fit and skilled animal trainers, it’s not a competition of human athletic ability. It’s still the horse doing most of the physical work.
Only, if you go down that road, you start to run into problems. If equestrian isn’t a sport, what about sailing? Or (the much more popular)
bobsled bobsleigh? Well, those are at least human-controlled, but you do have to wonder when vehicles get involved, even unpowered ones.
Let’s back up a bit because I’m mostly relying on my own intuitions here. What sports do people in general criticize as “not a real sport”? Googling “olympics” together with “not a real sport” turns up a decent list. Some highlights: figure skating (or more specifically ice dancing), equestrian, badminton, curling, this year’s new events of sport climbing (rock climbing) and skateboarding, and finally, “Any sport that relies on a judge to give you a score.”
I wasn’t sure this was the best way of going about it, so I also tried Googling “shouldn’t be in the Olympics,” which turned up a few more examples including rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, race walking, BMX, shooting, archery, and breakdancing.
Looking at this list, I think we can identify several categories of “problem” sports:
1. Sports that are less about athletics (to the untrained eye) and more about dancing.
2. Sports that are less about athletics and more about mental skills. (This can go many different ways, including shooting, archery, equestrian, curling, and chess.)
3. Sports that rely on subjective judging rather than objective scoring.
4. Newer sports that suffer from a “prestige gap” like skateboarding.
I think we can discard Categories 3 and 4 as cultural biases. Gymnastics is a judged sport, but it’s one of the most popular sports at the Olympics, and even laypeople can easily recognize excellence there. Most people don’t seem to have a problem with judging in general. And few people would dispute that doing skateboarding tricks requires a lot of athletic ability. It’s just that it’s better known as a pastime of rowdy teenagers with nothing better to do, so it has a bit of an image problem.
But what about the first two categories? For Category 1, I think there’s a dividing line—in terms of concepts—in many people’s minds between a sport and a dance. Even though competitive dancing is a thing, people don’t generally regard it as a sport.
And you can see this divide in the gymnastics events. Ironically, the “standard” gymnastics that everybody watches is the one that’s called “artistic gymnastics.” Meanwhile, rhythmic gymnastics is seen as a “dance sport,” and people question whether it should even be there. Why is this? Well, like I said, artistic gymnastics requires obvious, in-your-face physical prowess. Only the best athletes in the world could pull off a double backflip with a triple twist or whatever the top move is this year. But rhythmic gymnastics? That just looks like a dance to the untrained eye. It takes some athletic ability—more athletic ability than the average person possesses, even. But it mostly takes coordination. You certainly don’t see people doing backflips there.
But you may ask, “If it takes more athletic ability than the average person possesses, isn’t that enough to be a sport?”
Look, here’s the thing: at the Olympic level, tying your shoes would probably take more athletic ability than the average person possesses. I don’t know how it would work, but I bet it would. That doesn’t mean shoe-tying should be an Olympic sport—or even a sport at all.
Although…on the other hand…it doesn’t not mean it should be a sport, either. If it takes real athletic ability, it can be a sport if we say it is.
Rhythmic gymnasts aren’t doing backflips, but they are doing some pretty fancy tricks—tricks that are indeed based around physical skills—and tricks that literally no one else in the world can do as well as they can. If the Olympics are meant to be a competition of human athletic ability, I personally don’t have much of a problem with casting that net broadly. Why shouldn’t competitive dancing be a sport if we not only allow but enjoy other artistic events like artistic gymnastics, figure skating, or (artistic) diving?
Okay, so “dance” events can reasonably be sports. But what about events that are more mental than physical—events that are not about human athletic ability? For my money, I think equestrian should definitely be out. It’s not easy to make a thousand-pound animal dance (or jump, or race; I shouldn’t just be ragging on dressage). It may even qualify as a sport, but it’s not showing off your own athletic ability. In other words, it’s not in the Olympic spirit.
By this standard, sailing probably ought to go too, and I might also add surfing (another new event in
2020 2021)—not because it doesn’t require athletic skill, but because it’s so dependent on the weather. I’ll need to see it to be convinced it can be scored fairly.
What about shooting and archery? Those mostly only take good aim. But…those are still physical skills, so I can let those slide. (Plus archery takes some serious arm strength, too.)
On the other hand, I think the hardest sport (or “sport”) to make the call on is curling. Curling challenges our concept of what is a sport and what is a game. Now, that’s ambiguous in itself; baseball is both a game and a sport, but the words aren’t synonymous. Running is a sport, but not a game, and it’s a staple of the Olympics. Chess is a game, but not a sport because it’s entirely mental, and most people would probably say it doesn’t deserve to be in the Olympics, even though it’s recognized by the IOC.
What about curling? Curling looks a lot more like a game than a sport to me. It’s a game that involves slinging around 20-kg rocks on an ice rink and requires the physical strength and coordination to do that, but it’s still a game. It requires top-notch coordination and strategy moreso than exceptional physical ability. It’s even called “chess on ice.” And yet, curling is actually very popular as an Olympic sport.
And I’m not so sure the problem stops with curling. What about table tennis? That’s mostly physical, but I think people don’t generally think of something you can play in your basement as a sport. This reveals a divide that didn’t show up earlier: field games or court games are seen as sports, but tabletop games (even when based on physical skill) are not. Yet table tennis is the exception that proves the rule here, and it opens up a whole new category of sports. Darts (thought not an Olympic sport) is described by Wikipedia as both a “pub game” and a “shooting sport.” Wikipedia also describes billiard games as “cue sports.”
And yet, to put it more clearly, I think most people would agree that ping pong may be a sport, but beer pong is not. What’s the difference? (Other than that prestige gap I mentioned earlier.) I…don’t know on this one. If we’re to be consistent about it, then table tennis should probably be out. Or maybe we should open up the Olympics to billiards, which is, after all, recognized by the IOC.
So, I guess that’s the question: What do you consider a sport? Do you agree with the current Olympic line-up? Am I totally off the mark with this whole thing? Leave a comment below with your own thoughts.
 In the Olympics, the word “equestrian” is used as a noun.
 No, this is not The Onion. The IOC is adding breakdancing to the lineup in 2024.