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Sports, Games, and Activities

July 15, 2004

In honor of the upcoming Olympics in Athens, I figured it fitting to lay down a philosophy I’ve been working on since at least high school. What, exactly, makes something a sport? In my more ignorant days, I suggested that a sport had to carry the possibility of non-self-inflicted injury or death. Since then, I’ve grown only somewhat more nuanced. Nevertheless.

Matt, what is a sport?

A sport, by my definition, is a struggle between two sides (be they individuals or teams) to score points, take ground, what have you. There are two key qualifiers. First, it must be direct competition. A sport CANNOT be played alone. Second, your opponent must be able to actively prevent your from scoring or gaining ground by foiling your plans. It must be stressed that this does not mean simply outscoring you. This means preventing you from gaining.

By such a definition, baseball, football, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, tennis, basketball, and war may be considered sports. There are others. Ping-pong, for example, can be considered a sport. Or rollerball.

That’s idiotic. Ping-pong? So, what about games?

Games are often mistaken for sports, but alas, they are not. In sports, direct competition with an opponent is required. In games, though they often require multiple participants, the sole opponent is yourself. Your opponents cannot, save by accident, PREVENT you from scoring. You can even play a “game” by yourself.

However, unlike activities, games have specific rules. And they are competitive, even when played alone. Golf is a game. Bowling is a game. Fishing, competitively at least, is a game. Auto racing is a game. The Tour de France is a game. The bobsled is a game. See where I’m going with this?

No, but I’m not paying attention anyway. What’s an activity?

Activities, like games, can be pursued alone or in the company of other participants. They are not, however, bound by rules. Nor are they competitive.

Take cycling, for example. Riding your bike is an activity. Riding your bike with your local riding club is an activity. Yet a bike race such as the Tour de France, hemmed in by rules and of a competitive nature, is a game.

Driving is an activity. So is running. Or playing catch. Or firing your compound bow at hay targets. Or skiing. All (okay, maybe not driving), are non-scoring, non-rule bound (well, there are traffic laws, but pretend you’re in Montana), and non-competitive. But when all can be turned into games with the application of rules and competition.

So there you have it. Most will likely not care, though I am willing to bet Mark will be pleased that, in my wisdom, I have declared tennis a sport.

And please note that, under my definitions, yes, chess is a sport.

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