What is sport? An examination of the key factors

The question raged during the last Olympics what is sport? We runners, swimmers and cyclists can smugly argue the point, since no one can argue that our athletic competitions are anything but the purest form of sport.

While the answer to "what is sport" will depend on a person's point of view, it may be possible to change a person's subjective opinion by examining the factors that create a sport.

The first thing we can do is throw out most dictionary definitions, since they would include everything from tiddlywinks to making whoopee.

I had always thought that if you had some degree of athleticism combined with a competition, that you have the essence of sport. Athleticism consists of endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, agility and eye-hand or eye-foot coordination.

This is why auto-racing is a sport: It requires a high degree of eye-hand and eye-foot coordination for an extended period of time. So what if the machine counts for as much or more than the driver? A bicyclist could hardly argue that point.

But ballroom dancing as a judged event then becomes a sport. It is athletic and it is competition; ergo, it is sport. But that just does not feel right. And it is not just the judging that causes the dissonance. Boxing is clearly a sport even though judges often decide the winner (and often enough provide the wrong answer!).

One friend, who is as much an expert on Olympism as one can find in these parts, explained that there are four kinds of sports: races, measured events, contests and judged events. This can help us get to a satisfactory answer.

Runners, swimmers and bicyclists all race. High-jumpers, shooters (guns and archers), and weightlifters engage in measured events. Team sports such as volleyball, soccer and baseball, and individual sports such as tennis, boxing and wrestling, are contests. Then there are purely judged events such as figure skating, gymnastics, aerial skiing, and synchronized swimming. Did anyone reflexively cringe at most of those last sports?

This type of view would suggest a continuum, going from pure sport (the most objective) to less pure sport, to least pure sport (completely subjective). This would be a nice compromise of sorts since it would admit that figure skating is a sport, just not a very pure sport.

Before I get too far into this thing, let me just say that figure skating requires the utmost in athleticism endurance, speed, strength, flexibility, agility and all kinds of coordination that escapes most mortals (and to a greater or lesser extent the same can be said for most judged events). I like to watch good figure skating.

And in my job, I have happily signed many a check to support talented figure skaters. There is no way in our lifetimes that we will see it leave the Olympic agenda. Beyond that, it is a great activity for kids and adults.

There is no doubt that Olympic figure skaters are great athletes. The doubt is whether they compete in a sport. Figure-skating competition, like ballet, just does not seem to belong in the same genus as running. In fact, it does not seem to belong in the same category as classic gymnastics, another judged event.

What are some clues? Could it be that if you need music to perform, or, if the design of your costume influences where you place, you might be engaged in something more rightly called performance art than sport?

And there is where I think we have found the answer that makes so many people roll their eyes at figure skating, when it is a supremely athletic activity. It is not the subjective nature of the scoring, though that will always be a source of aggravation, whether it be figure skating or boxing or gymnastics. It is that figure skating is performance art, first and foremost. It can be completely enjoyed without any competition (perhaps more so), as the many prime-time television specials attest to.

Indeed, skaters are judged specifically on artistic merit, including how well-choreographed the performance is. Judges get tired of the same music and routine, just like audiences, so skaters have to change their performance to keep their interest.

Somehow I don't think audience boredom ever influenced how Pete Sampras was going to play the next point.

Let's face it, while many athletes competing in sport have been described as "poetry in motion" or some such other artistic term, the best we can hope for is to be graceful while performing our brutish best.

The sine qua non of running, swimming or biking at a high level is to compete. The same can be said of many activities that are judged sports, like boxing and classic gymnastics. In contrast, the essence of athletic activities like figure skating, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, aerial skiing, and half-pipe snowboarding is performance art, just like it is for ballet and ballroom dancing; competition is an add-on in attempt to turn something that is art into sport.

Another expert in sport can come along and say I am full of rubbish, that art can be sport. But that just makes the point. Purists want sport, and sport alone, when they watch sports. This is why certain Olympic events will never find favor with the hard-core sports fan, no matter what the ratings might be.

Greg Hitchcock is a running columnist for Slowtwitch.com. Now an attorney, he holds many course and school records and was a member of the University of Oregon's cross-country team.

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