What Is (and Is Not) a Sport Felix Wong

Lisa and I were watching the Winter Olympics when she made a comment that would launch an intellectual discussion that had world implications almost as profound as the “do you prefer toilet paper over or under” debate.

“Figure skating is not a sport,” she asserted, citing a fairly compelling news article stating as such.

I reviewed images in my mind of lean, lithe figures executing perfect triple axles after being dangerously tossed in the air, and tried to reconcile how, somehow, this was not a sport.

Which brings us to an age-old question. What is a sport? And what isn’t?

Determining the answer sounds simple enough. Just look up the word in a dictionary!


For a proper definition, I looked up the Online Edition of the Merriam-Webster Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary, which is clearly an authoritative source because it has such a long name:

sport[2, noun]: 1 a : a source of diversion : RECREATION b : sexual play c (1) : physical activity engaged in for pleasure (2) : a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in

Okay! I am pleased to see that kissing and frolicking around in the sack with your bed buddy is now considered a bona fide sport, as defined by the above in 1a and 1b. Please remind your significant other of this when he or she suggests that “it’s sports time.”

Kidding aside, perhaps we can gain some more insight by looking at some activities that, at one time or another, have been proclaimed as sports.

Baseball, Basketball, and Football

For whatever the reason, no one seems to argue that these three games are sports. Never mind that nothing of practical value (for example, going from Point A to Point B, as in bicycling) is actually accomplished. They do, however, entail sweating, high heart rates, and heavy breathing. (So does sex.) Running back and forth or around in circles is also involved. In baseball (as with the catcher), sometimes this involves making obscene hand gestures right behind someone’s back (e.g., the hitter’s), or in the case of basketball and football, sometimes right in front of another person’s face.

They also require the use of leather-covered balloons referred to as “balls” (not to be confused with the Pittsburgh Steeler’s and former Colorado State University alumnus Joey Porter’s many claims that the opposing players, in essence, “do not have any balls.”) In the case of football, the balls used are shaped just like Ernie and Bert’s heads. Which preceded the other, I am not sure.

Finally, these games are played either on a court or on a field. In basketball, professional games are always played indoors, because basketball players are afraid of getting their pants wet for fear that if the shorts were any baggier, they’d drop down to the knees. Baseball and football are most often played outdoors on real grass even in rain or snow because they are “tough,” unless you are the Indianapolis Colts, who never seem to be able to get past their first game in the playoffs.

What definite conclusions we can ascertain from these observations, I am not sure yet.


As a die-hard cyclist, I am certain that bicycling is the greatest sport in the world. With quadriceps pumping like pistons, lanky upper bodies rocking away while standing out of the saddle, and cresting a 15% climb followed by bombing down a wily, death-defying descent only to nip a competitor at the line by .00359 seconds, cycling is as much as a thrill to participate in as it is to watch.

Shockingly, not everyone seems to agree with my sentiment. In fact, every time an American (there have only been two) wins the Tour de France, some “expert” sports writer has to remind us about how “cycling is not a sport.” This first happened when Greg LeMond won the TdF and Sports Illustrated 1989 Sportsman of the Year award after being accidentally shot by his-brother law in a Dick Cheney-like hunting accident. More recently, this happened with Lance Armstrong, whose multiple TdF victories came after a bout with testicular cancer and lots of chemotherapy.

“Lance Armstrong’s great, but pedaling’s not a sport,” proclaimed John Kelso of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Attempting (quite unconvincingly) to explain himself, he asserts:

What the heck is Sports Illustrated doing picking pedaling, anyway? What’s next? Ping pong? How could bicycle riding be a real sport?

There are no U.S. Postal Cheerleaders. The Dallas Cowboys have cheerleaders. The U.S. Postal Service bicycle team does not have, say, the Stamp Sweeties, the Glue Gals or the Overnight Delivery Dolls. [Note: I’m afraid he’s correct here; cycling could definitely use some cheerleaders.]

Besides, this is America, where it’s not considered a real sport unless it comes with a beer ad. When famous bicycle riders start appearing in Coors commercials in a hot tub next to “the Twins,” I’ll know bicycling has become a sport. Now, I’ve got to go shave my legs.

Sadly, Killer Kelso—who evidently forgot about the Coors Classic Stage Race of the 1980s and Fort Collin’s Fat Tire Beer—is not alone in his feelings about cycling. His colleague Ron Borges, a boxing commentator who wrote for the Boston Globe and MSNBC, even went as far as claiming that Lance Armstrong is not even an athlete.

“Does the ability to sit on a skinny bicycle seat for hours on end and pump your legs like a madman,” he pondered, “make you a great athlete or merely a guy who does better without training wheels than most people?”

“For my money,” he continued, “being the greatest athlete in the world involves strength, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness and the ability to make your body do things that defy description. Chief among them is not pumping your legs up and down while your feet are strapped to bicycle pedals.” (Velonews editor-at-large Patrick O’Grady had a good rebuttal to this argument.)

Somehow, I think “pumping your legs up and down” is harder than the article makes it out to be, even for a madman.

Bridge and Chess

You have to be kidding about this, right? Who in the world ever tried to claim that bridge or chess was ever a sport?

Apparently, none other than the International Olympic Committee.

Click here for a full list of IOC recognized sports, and note that, indeed, bridge and chess are on there in addition to other activities such as ‘life saving.’ I can imagine such a scenario:

VICTIM: “Superman, thanks for saving my life!”

SUPERMAN: “No worries, chum. It’s all in good sport.”

What is unclear is whether bridge and chess players are subjected to the same anti-doping controls as the other athletes. Who knows, using EPO and marijuana simultaneously may give budding Gary Kasparovs an unfair advantage.

However, if bridge and chess are considered sports, then I am OUTRAGED that checkers is not on the list!


Before we begin our discussion about curling, you may ask what is curling, as in what are the rules, what is the objective, and how is it played. Well then, here is my answer: beats me.

A friend tried to explain this “sport” to me once, saying that it involves “some fat guys pushing a ball around on ice with their feet sliding out from under them.” “You mean like bowling or bocci ball?” I asked. “Well, sort of,” she replied. “Except that it requires a little more finesse.”

How did the game of curling acquire its name is another good question. After all, when I think of curling, I think of going down to the basement, picking up some hefty dumbells, and doing some arm curls. Somehow, however, I don’t think anything in curling requires this type of movement. By the look of them, it is arguable that some of the curling participants have never picked up anything but a few donuts in their lives.

My friend did admit, “The game is pretty retarded…”

That is not to say that curling does not have any redeeming features. As the DC Olympic Team website pointed out, “There’s usually beer at the end of the games. Plus, nobody really wanted to wear the tight outfits you need for luge. We’re pretty sure you didn’t want to see that either.”


Now, darts cannot possibly be a sport. After all, one does not even have to leave his house to play it. Then again, in this thread, some fairly persuasive arguments are made regarding how “it’s a lot like curling – which is a non-athlete sport that incorporates a shitload of drinking.”

Figure Skating

We now return to the sport that prompted this entire discussion between Lisa and me. Dan Wetzel’s article entitled “Why figure skating is not a sport” professes that an activity is not really a sport without a means to objectively determine the winner—e.g., a stopwatch, or how many times did a ball fall through a hoop—and instead relies on judges to declare who won.

Gauging by the response to that article, many Americans seem to agree with the logic that “it can’t be a sport if it requires a judge” The author did make an exception for boxing, but that was only because “if they keep on beating on each other, someone would die.”

Perhaps more compelling is this commentary about what it sometimes entails to win at figure skating:

As absurd as the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan drama that propelled skating into stratosphere was, it was based partially on the fact that it is a competition, not a sport. Harding was a powerful skater, possibly better at all aspects of skating than Kerrigan. But she was shorter, stockier and less feminine. Although Harding had defeated Kerrigan on occasion, she knew she was at a disadvantage against the taller, prettier, more graceful Kerrigan.

So she conspired with her boyfriend to have Kerrigan whacked in one of her skinny little knees.

In a real sport, this wouldn’t have been necessary. Ugly people can win in track, in skiing, in the NFL, in soccer.

I think he has a good point about this. After all, except for football, no one in “ball” sports whack their competitors in the knees. Instead, with two outs to go and the game tied at 5-5 in the 9th inning, some baseball players resort to throwing chairs at fans. Basketball players utilize similar tactics, except they 1) use their fists and 2) actually go into the stands to start attacking people.

Witness John Green, who was engaged in a brawl with Ron Artest, the former “good boy” of the Indiana Pacers: “Ron Artest went through the stadium punching people the whole night,” Green said. “He was being a thug.”

Thugs… sports… hey, maybe figure skating is a real sport after all!


No brainer, right? There is the word “sport” in the term “motorsports,” right? Well, let’s analyze this for a minute.

Men (and Danica Patrick) dress up in astronaut suits and then drop into the cockpit the size of a space capsule. In the case of NASCAR—i.e., America’s “Guns, God, and Guts” sport—we are talking only about big white men with funny accents and names like Bob, Rob, Junior, or Johnson. Then they start their engines and drive round and around in counterclockwise circles over and over again—that is, until one of them spins out or hits a wall and the yellow or red flag comes out. Most of these cars are adorned with cigarette logos. That explains the fire-retardant mechanics’ garb. Care for a smoke?

All I can say is if “pumping your legs up and down” is not considered a sport in some circles (bad pun intended), then pressing the accelerator pedal as hard as you can while keeping the steering wheel straight or slightly cocked to the left is also not a sport. At least the bicycle racers are actually going somewhere whereas, in contrast, the auto racers may have driven 500 miles but are still in the same place!

And (using John Kelso’s logic in his article), if you took away their cars, just how fast would the auto racers be?


Poker has skyrocketed in popularity in the last few years, although I have yet to discover how watching poker on TV is any more exciting than witnessing cows eat hay. It has become popular enough, however, that some people are promoting it as a “sport”.

I tend to agree with Erick Lindgren‘s retort to that: “Any game that you can drink while playing is not a sport.” However! As reported in my Mardi Gras Marathon writeup, there is a marathon in France where runners are slugging bottles of wine while they go. Less painful that way, I guess. Also, as mentioned above, curlers seem to drink all the time. Or so I hear. Again, I still have no idea what goes on in curling.

Rock, Paper, and Scissors

No lie, there is actually a “sports” league for the centuries old “game” (I always thought of it as more of a “bet-settler”) of ro-sham-bo. In addition, there is an entire world society of ro-sham-boers, which has been “serving the needs of decision makers since 1918.”

Now, before you throw up your hands and emphatically exclaim, “Rock, paper, and scissors is positively NOT a sport!,” please take a look at this article by Independent Sources. Unlike most cycling events, RPS even features good-looking women such as the Girls of RPS. Hmmm, compelling.


From the above analysis, we can see what are some of the common elements that may constitute a “real sport.” They are: agility, skill, fitness, quickness, purposefulness, beer, thugs, and hotties. We also then conclude that virtually none of the above activities meet all of these criteria.

Except for the one suggested by the oh-so-authoritative Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, that being: sexual play. Now, I’m not sure if/when that ever became a sport, but let’s face it, the players enjoy it, and there would be no brawls instigated with the fans. It is probably the world’s only “sport” that everyone would agree upon.

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2 comments on “What Is (and Is Not) a Sport

  1. Comment by Tom Erceg

    That’s funny stuff Felix. Here’s how I resolved the dilemma for myself: I separate out who qualifies as an “athlete” and what qualifies as a “sport.”

    To be a sport it must require athletic ability, and be decided on the field of play. Swimming counts. Diving doesn’t. Golf counts. Chess doesn’t. Boxing counts as long as the judges don’t pick the winner.

    The counter-argument goes “well, golfers aren’t athletes”. To which I say “in general, you’re correct.” Being an athlete is not a requirement to participate in a sport. Look at all the beer-league softball players out there. On the other hand there are many finely-honed athletic specimens out there whose endeavors are not “sports.” Look at ballroom dancers or fitness pagaent contestants. They are clearly quite athletic, but their activity is not a sport.

    So, anyway, fun debate. This works for me.

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