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August 26, 2004


Arthur D. Hlavaty

To me there are three things that disqualify a game from being a sport:

1) Nonathleticism: One needn't run or hit anything that's moving (golf, chess, bridge)

2) No goal except grievous bodily harm (boxing)

3) Being judged, rather than scoring in some definable way (gymnastics, skating)

Des von Bladet

I long ago switched to a "family resemblance" theory of sport, but if there's going to be a pile-on on judged events, I would submit ski jumping (which I take to be self-evidentally the world's second best sport after cricket) as a partial counter-example.

Marks are allocated based on a combination of distance and style, and the style component is there to make sure competitors don't take undue risks with their safety in the quest for distance. (Which they certainly would otherwise - they're ski jumpers, after all.)

Although the judging criteria have changed over time, they are very repeatable (I can watch along in a bar in, ideally Lithuania, with the sound off and know with some accuracy what the marks will be) and it is clear that they are a good thing. (Except to the more spectacularly principled Libertoonian, possibly.)

ben wolfson

How does he commit himself to that position? All he says is that certain competitive activities in which the winner is determined based on subjective judging aren't sports, not that all competitive activities with a clear and determinate winner are.


Ben Wolfson stole my comment - perhaps neither are sports, but they're both competitions. I worry about this on my bike: am I participating in a sport when I'm just going for a ride? It's not easy to try to beat a personal best, but with whom am I competing? What about when I'm commuting? Am I "sporting" or just transporting myself around town?

If competition is what makes a sport a sport, then I'm not sporting at all on my bike, while the hot dog contest winner is the superior sportsperson. Naturally, I bow to my superiors in all cases, so that little Japanese guy who always wins and was in that cool God Lives Underwater video gets all my respect.

So is Lennox Lewis a sportsperson? Sure, he KO'd Tyson. But if it went to a decision, I suppose by Dan Drezner's definition, Lewis has nothing on me as a cyclist or that little Japanese guy who can eat a million hotdogs in one sitting. Which is pretty fucking cool, if you think about it.

ben wolfson

Maybe a sport is any activity in which one can attain the status of pretty fucking cool.

Daniel Drezner

I was articulating a necessary condition for an activity to be defined as a sport -- not a sufficiency condition.

William S

What about ultimate fighting or whatever it's called now where you only lose if you either die, pass out, or judge yourself to be unable to continue (tap out)? This it seems would be more in line with the original spirit of the Olympics. The whole problem is the ridiculous idea of sportsmanship. Really though, what sort of case is such a sport where the criteria of victory are not objective (who knows if you really weren't able to continue) but neither are they subject to any judgement other than the participant's? (in most cases people tap out). What WOULD be the suffeciency condition, since death would be an objective criterion of victory for any combat sport. I think the suffeciency condition will be seen to conflict somewhat with the treatment of necessity conditions as a discussion of fairness based in rules, since death would not be allowed as the final decision criterion becasue it is inhumane, unsportsmanlike, or whatever. Or, what would happen if a participant overuled a judge's decision, would that be sportsmanlike? Would Hamm offering the medal to the South Korean make the latter the winner? If it wouldn't, what is the meaning of his conduct with respect to the sport and its integrity? Or is only his integroty at issue? But the issue of his integrity is one of accurate judgement of the performance, which he as much as any judge is qualified by virtue of ability to make. Whether he has the authority to do so is another matter. The authority of any judge is only valid insofar as there are clear criterion of judgement available to all, seems to be what is being claimed. But the performance of any sport and its required skill is never contained entirely in those rules, otherwise the esteem atheletes accord each other would have no meaning when it did not match rankings. There seems to be here, as perhaps not elsewhere, a real issue of desert.


Ultimate fighting used to be in the Olympics - but they called it "Pankration," as far as I remember. Anything was OK bar eye-gouging and biting.
Also, they used to have javelin scored on accuracy, not range - which makes more sense if you think of it as a military skill like rifle shooting is today. I'd bring that back just to see how accurately you could throw a javelin if you really worked at it. I think the results would be worryingly impressive.

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