Olympic sports: naming the game

As we endure the barrage of Winter Olympics hype, there is no more appropriate time to pause and reflect on the nature of sport itself. When we use the word “sport” to pick out certain activities and not others, where are the lines drawn? Can we even define the boundaries accurately? I believe that we can, but sadly we have allowed our language to become sloppy. Not that English was ever the most pure of languages, but we should at least hope to be able to accurately define a word.
The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that we, as a linguistic community, play a language game when we speak to each other. Communal consent determines how we properly use our words. When we use a word incorrectly, we become incomprehensible to the other players of the game. Definition is fixed within the rules, not prior to them, giving meaning to our utterances only when we speak to someone playing the same language game.
This democratic view of language may be appealing, but before we dive in head first and become the masters of our language, we should consider all of the consequences. Without the firm boundaries of rigid definition, our words lose much of their power. What good is a dictionary if the meaning of a word is as variant as the whims of public usage? Even the precision of scientific description becomes portrayed as an overbearing ogre that makes language the master and us its servants. This cost is too high. Let language be our master. We should honor our words for the history they embody. Let us not flagrantly defile them, but show reverence for all that they do for us.
The utter lack of respect for the word “sport” is a paradigm example. Once only the noblest of activities earned this appellation. Today so many events are called sports that it diminishes them all. In the hope of restoring some measure of esteem to that which is truly sport, I propose four simple necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a sport. Watch for dictionaries to adopt these as the official definition soon, bringing us that much closer to a rigorous instead of a messy language.
1. Something is a sport if and only if it is a competition that can be participated in recreationally using the same rules as are used professionally. The fundamental component of any sport is competition, the opportunity to test our skills against others. The winner will stand tall and proud, the loser will suffer the proverbial agony of defeat. But not all competitions are sports. A war, for example, may share many things in common with sports, but it is not sport. We cannot pursue war recreationally following the same rules as a professional soldier. Part of the professional war is killing, destroying and maiming. With the rare psychotic exception, these are not fun, recreational activities. We amateur sportsmen (and sportswomen) must be able to follow the exact same rules as the pros. In doing this we can aspire to reach the same perfection, excelling, if only for a moment, reaching levels normally beyond our ability. If we must alter the rules to accommodate our lack of ability, the joy is lost.
2. Something is a sport if and only if successful participation in it requires some significant measure of more than one of the following: strength, stamina and dexterity. Sports are athletic events. We compete in them not just to win, but to stretch our physical abilities to their limits. There is certainly a mental aspect to many sports, the well-planned strategy of a football game for example, but the winner is finally determined by physical performance. Not just some minor manifestation of strength, dexterity or stamina, but an extraordinary display of more than one of these. Board games are not sports. Darts and pool are not sports. There must be an exhibition of physical prowess in a sport.
3. Something is a sport if and only if the primary source of motive energy is not the result of mechanical power. Sports are meant to test us, not our machines. The winner of a NASCAR race is the automobile, even if the driver gets the trophy. The triumph of engineers is not the same as the victory of an athlete. Engineering may enhance the performance of the athlete in some cases, bicycling or bobsledding for example, but in those cases, the real work is being performed by the human, perhaps with the aid of gravity. The internal combustion engine does not test our strength, stamina or dexterity. Snowmobiles, automobiles and speedboats are for leisure activity, not instruments of sport.
You may have noticed that no Olympic sport has yet been threatened. These first three criteria have merely set the framework, coinciding with general consent toward sports. The final part of the definition, however, will do much more than that. It will return the integrity to a bastardized word.
4. Something is a sport if and only if it is in principle objectively scored, leading to a winner and loser(s), or in some cases a tie, after a finite predetermined period of time has elapsed or some finite target score is reached. In the final analysis, there is a fact of the matter in sporting events. There is a winner and a loser, and we all know who it was and why. Maybe one side scored more runs, crossed the finish line first or made more baskets. The whims of human interpretation do not affect the end result. Sadly, the Olympic Committee has allowed the insidious inclusion of many subjectively judged events into the once proud family of sport.
Figure skating is not a sport. Neither is gymnastics, freestyle skiing, diving, nor any other event that determines its winner based exclusively on the often arbitrary nature of human judgements. Some might say that there are rules that even the judges follow; that the judges look for specific well-defined parts of a routine. But let’s face it, how objective can something like “artistic merit” be? A quick look to the East German judges of the Cold War and their treatment of American competitors should convince anyone how biased judgements can be.
While I might dream that the Olympics could purge itself of the pretenders, I know this will not happen. There will never be a summer when fencing is televised because synchronized swimming has been removed from the program. I can only hope that we, in our linguistic community, might agree to be a little more precise in using the word sport. Don’t put coverage of figure skating on the front page of the sports section. Don’t show me rhythmic gymnastics on ESPN. Move them to the entertainment pages and to channels where they belong.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing that these competitions are not difficult, impressive and worthy of our respect. (I certainly can’t do a standing back-flip.) They are all of these things and more. Whether or not I want to watch them on television is irrelevant. Apparently there are enough people drawn in by the spectacle, despite its lack of sportsmanship. What I ask is that we watch our words a little more carefully. We should not assume that an event is a sport just because there is competition or physical activity. It may be a leisure activity, it may be fun, it may be entertaining, it may be part of the Olympic program, but that doesn’t make it a sport.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]