Trying To Define What Is A Sport

Bronze medalist Clarissa Kyoko Mei Ling Chun of the United States (far right) at the awards ceremony for 48-kg women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2012 Summer Olympics Aug. 8 in London. AP photo

I consider it a little lame, lazy and what comedians might call “hack” to open a speech or presentation by defining a word. You’ve seen it before, something like:

“Webster’s Dictionary defines courage as ‘mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger.’ I define it as (fill in person being complimented unoriginally).”

That said, as the Olympics rolled on (a quick aside to congratulate Hawaii’s Kyla Ross, Lindsey Berg and Clarissa Chun on their medal performances for Team USA!), a question that I often struggle with came creeping back into my brain:

What, exactly, is a “sport”? In this case, I’d love to be able to provide a cookie-cutter definition and be done with it, but I often have conversations with people where we try to decide what is a sport and what isn’t.

I think the Olympic equestrian competition took many by surprise as people were being awarded medals when it seemed like the horses were the real athletes. Is that a sport?

Calling it “table tennis” may make it seem more dignified than “pingpong,” but if I was able to do it in my basement as an 8-year-old, should it really be considered a sport, much less an Olympic event?

There’s even a growing sentiment that poker should be included in the upcoming Olympics.

Merriam-Webster really gives us nothing in terms of gaining any sort of direction. Its first definition is simply “a source of diversion.” By that logic, you should win a gold medal for being able to very convincingly yell, “Hey, look over there!”

It does go on to add “physical activity engaged in for pleasure,” but for some, that could include tripping people at the grocery store — not something that would seem to be in the Olympic spirit.

I usually define sports as a competitive physical activity that has some sort of game element to it. I guess I’m a little bit old school and very American with my idea of sports, because the clearest forms are baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer and tennis, while anything that might be featured in the X-Games is much more dubious. Boxing? MMA? Definitely. Auto racing? Sorry, not in my book.

Poker? No way. If you can talk to a waitress and casually drink a beverage while engaged in the activity, then it is disqualified from consideration.

That may put golf in a gray area. I believe that professional golf is a sport, while I know some do not. But I think it’s fair to say that golf, the way I and most people experience it, is just a leisure activity. Riding a golf cart and having a few drinks, while occasionally stopping to swing a piece of metal 100 times is not a sport and has very little in common with what Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy do every weekend.

Another key point is that being an athlete does not mean you play a sport. For instance, I don’t think that running is a sport. I think that competitive distance running is a sport, as are most elements of track and field, but simply going for runs and being in great shape is not engaging in a sport any more than using a rowing machine or taking a yoga class.

I have a harder time, however, being as definitive with surfing. I’d say free surfing, outside of any sort of competition, is much closer to a sport than running.

Maybe that has something to do with nature and battling against the elements of the ocean. But then again, I can’t say that I’d consider non-competitive ocean swimming, hiking, skiing or even mountain climbing as sports.

It’s a little bit disheartening for me that I can’t really come up with a coherent definition that I can stand behind and not second guess. Anyone who works in finance can probably tell you what finance is without feeling like a fraud. (At least not a fraud for that reason.)

My profession for the past seven years has been sports journalism, yet I’m not even sure what that first word means. Except that it doesn’t mean poker. I’m sure of that.