What Is A Sport – Who Is An Athlete?

If you listen to sports radio or if you read certain sports columnists, you have heard or seen these kinds of questions asked and debated and re-hashed. One of the problems I have is that when either of these questions comes up, the other one rears its head. People find it difficult to focus on just one topic and so they always cloud one issue with the other. I think these are two distinct questions and need to be considered that way.

If you ever studied differential equations – and that should not be wished on anyone who did not have to study it as a requirement for their major in college – you know what it means to try to “separate the variables”. It makes life simpler; it makes problems solvable. That is what we need to do here; we need to separate “athletes” from “sports”.

I’ll offer as a definition that a sport is a competitive event where the outcome of the event is unambiguous. When the players have finished a football game and the referee has declared the game to be over, all one needs to do is to look at the scoreboard to see who won. All of the events that led to the elements of the scoring are clear to anyone who watched the game or to anyone who looks at the videotape the next day or sometime in the next century. It is common to have an umpire/referee/official in sporting events because there needs to be a neutral arbiter of the rules. Officials will make mistakes and some of those mistakes may involve scoring events but the score of the event is recorded as total of the scores declared by the officials. The winner is the one with the most advantageous score.

I’ll offer as a definition that a competition is not a sport if the outcome is based on – or can be based on – some subjective judgments of a panel of experts. Calling the experts on the panel “judges” does not make them objective; forcing them to use numbers to grade performances does not make them objective. These trappings are merely attempts to make it look as if someone could actually determine how close to “ideal” a specific activity was. In gymnastics, it matters not how far one jumped in the vault over the horse; that would be an objective measure and would make that event a sport. In gymnastics, a panel decides on the value of a vault over the horse based on their subjective estimate of how closely the contestant held her feet and how straight her legs were when she landed and etc. These kinds of competitive events are not sports; they are closer to artistic expression.

So sports – by my definition – include things like baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, horse racing, swimming, billiards/pool, chess, bridge, poker, NASCAR, archery, track and field, volleyball, tennis and – well you get the idea.

Conversely competitions that are closer to artistic expressions – by my definition – include things like gymnastics, figure skating, ice dancing, ballroom dancing, ballet, diving, synchronized swimming, synchronized diving, surfing, trampoline tumbling, boxing and – you get the idea.

Now we need to define “athlete”. If I suggest that an athlete is someone who through physical exertion and coordination and speed and strength and reflexes undergoes some kind of aerobic activity that leads to success in some kind of endeavor, then you can see that athletes compete in both sports and competitions and that not all sports participants are athletes.

One can play the “sport” of poker and have no athleticism at all. One can perform in a ballet company and exhibit extraordinary athletic skills and no one is even keeping score. One can train for years to compete in synchronized swimming and have a resting heart rate of 40 and only 5% body fat, but it still ain’t a sport.

So when people ask you if Jerry Bailey is an athlete when he rides six winners on a race card at Churchill Downs in a given day, the answer is yes. And coincidentally, he competed in a sport while he was being an athlete.

Is Steve Mizerak an athlete when he wins a pool tournament? If you look at him, your first guess would probably be, “Hell, no!” But this is a borderline judgment since his competition does require coordination and very minor physical exertion. Personally, I would rule him out as an athlete on the basis of the lack of any real aerobic activity; I admit this is debatable even under my definitions. But he competes in a sport under any circumstances.

Is Dale Earnhardt an athlete? Another close call but I believe the constant use of strength and reflexes and coordination overcomes the minimal aerobic activity and makes him a borderline athlete. Given the prodigious degree of bladder control necessary, I’ll cite that as the thing that puts him over the top here. And he definitely competes in a sport.

Is any random golfer on the PGA Tour an athlete? Given the popularity of golf, this is where I probably get myself in trouble, but my answer is no. Yes, there is some physical exertion; and yes, there is coordination and some small amount of reflexes involved, but not enough to convince me that a golfer is an athlete. When the governing body of the sport – the PGA – argues in a court that walking is an integral part of the game, then I get suspicious. Walking is mastered by the average two year old. I would argue that it as integral a part of golf as is respiration. Golf is undeniably a sport, but when one of the world class golfers can go through a career known as “The Walrus” – and it is not because he likes to say “goo goo ka joob” – it might give you a hint that athleticism is not a key to the game. Interestingly, many great athletes from other sports try to play golf in addition to the athletic activity at which they excelled and most of them do not master the game. But golf is undeniably a sport.

If you look at all the examples of things I listed that are more like artistic expressions than they are sports, you will see that most of the participants are indeed athletes. Gymnasts are athletes; boxers are athletes; ice skaters are athletes. But they are not dripping their sweat while participating in sports.

Not convinced? I’m not surprised. This is not a view I’ve found to be widely held. But think about the activities that I contend are not sports. Now imagine that someone in the “Olympic Movement” conned everyone and got poetry writing added to the Games for 2004. (Forget the language barriers and imagine for a moment that everyone in the competition is fluent in English.) You would have a competition where contestants wrote compulsory rhymes and compulsory free verse couplets which would be judged/scored/graded by a panel of professors from major universities. In the second round, poems would need to be composed based on meters and phonic feet that are drawn randomly and presented to the competitor. Finally, there would be the free program where the aspiring poets would present an original sonnet and an epic poem based on Greek Mythology (that is the tie-in that gets this in the Olympics). Now tell me just how different that is from figure skating and ice dancing and ballroom dancing and the like – other than poetry writing can be done in a sedentary fashion.

The next time you hear the argument start about what is an athlete or what is a sport, think about what people are saying in these terms and you may have a way to inject something different into the discussion instead of saying the same thing that has been said before except you will try to say it louder than anyone else.

And when this argument tries to turn into another famous argument – if someone is a superior athlete in one sport, then he/she can be a superior athlete in any sport – all you have to do is mention Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was obviously a great basketball player; he was a track champion at Kansas; he claims to have scored 20,000 women in his life making him a mattress athlete. But all you have to do is to imagine Wilt trying to replace Jerry Bailey on a mount in the fourth race at Churchill Downs on any given day. At 350 lbs, Wilt might have broken the horse’s back; his feet may have dragged on the track; and there is no handicapper in the world that would not take into account the “overweight” on that animal. I’ve been going to racetracks for more than a few years now and have heard announcements that some horse would be carrying “3 pounds over” or even “5 pounds over” in rare circumstances. For Wilt the announcement would be that “the number seven horse is carrying 235 lb over – or 2 jockeys over – whichever you prefer.”

Remember, separate the variables to make these arguments understandable.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………