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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Are there any defining characteristics of ‘sport’?

What makes a sport? It would be easy to list a series of bullet points to which sports should adhere. It would be easy but without reasoning or explanation as to the reason why each possible criteria was selected it would not make much sense. In fact it would be tantamount to someone winning a pub argument by saying ‘because I said so!’ which of course may end an argument but should not be allowed to win one.

A logical argument to put forward when first considering sport is what is the difference between a game and a sport? Of course this raises the larger question of what makes a game and not just play. Play is universal amongst mammals as any animal behaviorist or nature documentary will tell you. It is a process by which animals can learn about their environment and skills that they require to survive in the wild. In humans this is not strictly true. A group of friends out playing on their bicycles are not developing skills that will aid them later in life, or are they? Firstly there is the social growth of children interacting with peers and the world around them, secondly riding a bicycle requires tremendous initial skill to learn, skill which as the old adage points out is never lost. It may sound ridiculous but the amount of balance and co-ordination required to peddle and remain on a bicycle is incredible. Added to this the multitasking that often occurs (talking, no hands etc) while ridding and play, even in such a simple example involves a series of learnt skills that a drawn in from other aspects of life. Another factor of play is that it is fun. The enjoyment factor of play means children wish to play, wanting to participate in activities that from a natural perspective (play-fighting, play-hunting etc) are built upon a need to learn and adapt. Of course there one major difference between play and a game and that is the inclusion of rules.

Rules change the criteria, now there is no longer just idle fun and doing things how you want to, now there is a set-up a structure which by participating in the game you have agreed to abide by. In play there is more a guideline by which everyone follows, normally imposed by parent, teachers and other authority figures. In a game the competitors each have a responsibility to uphold the rules of the game themselves. Of course in a game the rules are loose and open to interpretation and as such the games either omit certain rules for easy of play even if some rules cause the game to briefly halt while postulation and normally arguments occur to decide the best course of action to continue the game. A good example of this is a playground game of football. The offside rule for instance is normally ignored as, without a linesman it is a difficult rule to apply (although professionally it seems difficult to apply correctly) the handball rule however is not ignored. If an outfield player is struck in the arm by the ball though it will always result in calls of handball. This player has not actively played the ball with his hand nor did he pick the ball up and run with it in a Webb-Ellis fashion. However the player would in most cases be subjected to a kangaroo court style trial until a decision on how the game would proceed had been made. This is around where the distinction between sports and games begins to emerge.

A sport has a pre-determined goal or aim that is obtainable through the display of physical skill or abilities with the participants agreeing to abide by the rules. That is not to say that games do not possess these. For example chess is a game of skill, with a clear goal at the end of it. Nor could you say chess is not serious as even a fun game of chess gets people thinking longer and harder than say playing a quick game of tennis with a friend in the street where the only goal is to have a few successful rallies. The difference is that say three friends A, B and C are together, A and B are playing chess however C is moving the pieces for B. The game is between A and B but to an outsider it is A and C who are playing. In a sport however a coach may advise/instruct a player on what to do but it is still that player who must display their skill and ability in order to carry out the instructions. In short, sport is personal. Again this is not to say that a game is not but the personal aspect of a game can, in some instances be deferred. The majority of cases where deferral of personal ability is not possible the game being played is a variation of a sport. For instance going down a basketball court and taking free throws and seeing who can score the most, is not a sport. It is a game based upon a skill from within a sport. There is a goal, there are rules, there is skill and ability on display, but something key is missing. There is something else, which combines with all these other factors to elevate physical games above the level of recreational fun and into the realms of being a sport.

Firstly all sports do not just have a goal. The goal is more specific than that; it is the defeat of opponents. By overcoming the opposition and obtaining first place you win. At all sports the aim is to win. A game may have a goal but the competitors generally are playing more because they enjoy the game, they want a bit of fun, they want some exercise etc. in a sport however the reason for playing is to go against other people and win. It may sound a very elitist and questionable statement but it holds true. Yes there are tied games and yes people can draw or finish level but this doesn’t diminish from the original aim. It just means that on the day the competitors were able to finish equally, it doesn’t mean that given another replay or another set of conditions they would have drawn. It is possible to argue that some football managers play for draws. To that I would counter that professional football, at a club level, is moving away from sport and more into entertainment based business. After all surely that would explain all the rule changes, changes that are only made to increase crowds to increase revenue so clubs get richer. As such a manager playing for a draw may actually end up winning if their team is able to stay in a higher division for another season allowing inflated gate prices and television coverage money. I say club football because competitive international matches (world cup etc) are still play to win affairs. Yes of course there will always be teams that are there to ‘make up numbers’ but who would accuse those players stepping out on the biggest stage in world football of not wanting to win the game in front of them? The second big difference is that an overriding organization or association, which oversees it, runs a sport. For examples see the ARA, FIFA, NFL etc. yes again there are associations, which run games but primarily games such as chess etc., which have already been discounted as sports above. The difference between an organization deciding the rules and a group of friends making up ‘local’ rules is that the organization is independent and impartial to the competitors. In this sense the organization is running the game for the good and development of the game not because they want to make it a bit more fun for the participants. Of course most sports are fun because that is how they gained popularity as games, and by gaining popularity as a game someone tried to tell other people how to play the game so they could play it with them. In order to avoid local rules a set of universal rules had to be created that could not be altered. Unfortunately in many sports cases this then moved on to the next stage where someone decided to try to sell the sport to the general public and as such alterations to make it more spectator friendly were made, changes, which in some cases detract from the initial appeal of the game. 

In summary then sports are physical displays of skill and ability, which are played in a competitive manner where the aim is victory over opponents, whilst adhering to a set of rules that have been decided by organization independent of the players. This description of the characteristics of sport set it aside from games and play; although there is always a chance that someone will create some hybrid activity (see extreme sports, adventure sports and leisure sports) and the ideas will need reviewing and revamping.

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