Sep 20, 2019

Defining a sport

Tegan Marie competes at Craig Campbell's 6th Annual Celebrity Cornhole Challenge. Photo: Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images

The emergence of esports and breakdancing's Olympics debut in 2024 got me thinking: What is a "sport" exactly?

I wondered: Is any competition considered a sport? Does someone need to be keeping score? Is physical exertion required?

Sport, defined:

  • Oxford: "An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team competes against another or others for entertainment."
  • Dictionary.com: "An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature."
  • Merriam-Webster: "A source of diversion," or "physical activity engaged in for pleasure or exercise."

Some thoughts:

  • By the first two definitions, non-competitive fishing wouldn't qualify as a sport, but Merriam-Webster accepts it with open arms — and many weekend fishermen likely consider themselves "sportsmen."
  • If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing, that's not a sport. But if I challenge my friend to a race down the mountain, are we now engaged in a sport? If not, what would make it one? A set of rules? A trophy? Stephen A. Smith's expert analysis?
  • Board games like Monopoly are clearly not sports, but many consider chess to be one. In fact, former SI writer Tim Crothers said "chess is as pure a sport as there is."
  • In 2015, former ESPN president John Skipper famously said of esports: "It's not a sport — it's a competition." Ya know, just to introduce another word into the mix: competitions, sports, activities, games, the list goes on.
  • "Competition is the basis of all hip-hop culture," says longtime breakdancer Michael Holman, per NYT. "The DJ's compete … The MC's and rappers battle … the breakers battle." Absolutely true, but isn't that art?

The bottom line: There will always be activities that exist on the fringe of sports. In that case, perhaps the best definition comes from the Australian Sports Commission: A sport is a sport if it is ... "generally accepted as being a sport."

Go deeper: Check out Kendall's Axios Sports newsletter for coverage of fringe sports in "The Ocho"

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