What makes a sport a sport?
The debate about what qualifies as a sport is one that has raged around countless TV screens and bar tables across the years. Does a sport have to involve physical exertion? Does it need to follow rules? Does it require direct competition with others? Can it only be done as part of a team?
With every set of criteria activities are shuffled in and hustled out. Does golf count? What about snooker? Motor racing? Aerobics? Bridge? Computer games?
The history of the word offers some interesting insights into the debate. The word sport developed as a shortening of disport, a now archaic term meaning ‘diversion from work or serious matters; recreation or amusement’. In Middle English, when the noun sport first emerged, it had the same meaning: any sort of entertainment or activity done for fun. The current earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin glossary dating from around 1425, and refers to the ‘sporte of redynge’ (the ‘sport of reading’).
Flicking through a book is not something we’d usually consider to be a sport nowadays. By the end of the 15th century, however, we see the first example of sport being used in the more familiar sense of ‘an activity involving physical exertion or skill’. The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, published in 1491, makes rather scornful reference to: ‘fut bawis gouff or vthir sic vnproffitable sportis’ (‘football, golf, or other such unprofitable sports’).
Despite this, and several other similar examples, the association of sport with physical activity did not become dominant until the 18th and 19th centuries. By this point the term was often used to refer to hunting, shooting, and fishing – giving rise to the compounds blood sport and field sport. But even these activities do not really fulfil the criteria now commonly associated with sports: the necessity of competition and physical exertion, in particular. However, the idea that such activities were the only ‘true sports’ and that all other candidates were mere ‘games’ or ‘recreations’ is a tenacious one, expressed repeatedly throughout the 20th century, and still heard today.
The 19th century saw a surge in the popularity of athletics and team games such as football, rugby, and cricket, with the emergence of organized leagues and major events. This cultural movement strengthened the notion of sport as physical competition – an association which remains dominant to this day. The importance of the concept of physical competition is reflected in the compounds which were coined in the 20th century, including racket sport (1937), spectator sport (1943), contact sport (1949), and team sport (1964).
History, therefore, is not conclusive in helping us to define what a sport really is, perhaps raising more questions than it answers. Originally, sport was just as likely to refer to a trip to the theatre as it was to a game of football, and across the centuries the emphasis has shifted from playful recreation, to hunting, to team games. In the modern world, the status of sports is often decided by official bodies, all of which have their own sets of rules and criteria. Inclusion in the all-important Olympic Games is often considered a defining factor, with new events ushered in and others excluded every four years. The debate, it seems, is destined to rage on, and the definition of sport set to be rewritten time and again, as it has been for nearly 600 years.