When is a Sport Not a Sport?

An in-depth look at the complexities of what constitutes a sport and why.
Wednesday 9 January 2019
The Finns might have peculiar taste in sports, but at least they are strong. Photo: Getty Images

I was very disappointed to have missed this year’s Wife Carrying World Championships. They were held in Finland in July, and I had my tickets – front row, close to the action – but my flight booking seemed to have vanished into Finnair, and I didn’t make it.

Nevertheless, I congratulate Lithuania’s Vytautas Kirkliauskas and his wife, Neringa Kirkliauskiene, for their stunning performance in securing the title, especially as they defeated the heavily-favoured, six-time world champion and local hero, Taisto Miettinen (and partner). Perhaps the burden of expectations for Taisto in such a high profile international event was too much for him. Or did he refuse, in the traditions of a beta male, to ask for directions at a critical juncture?

The event is fairly self-explanatory. A man carries his wife/female partner over a course that contains a series of obstacles and physical challenges, and the quickest to negotiate them, without shedding his load, is the winner. It sounds simple, and indeed it is, but aficionados of the ‘sport’ will suggest that different techniques can be employed and honed, and really, honestly, it’s highly skilled, a great spectacle, and the epitome of sporting endeavour.

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World Wife Carrying Championships 2018 Wife Carrying (or #Eukonkanto, to give it its full name) is a tradition that ‘Ronkainen the Robber’ unwittingly started after his strict gang selection criteria became legend. To join his band of merry men the applicant had to navigate a course whilst carrying a load of suitable heft, a live pig, or one’s spouse, for example. The modern variation, for understandable reasons, permits only the latter. – #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephotography #crazy #eukonkannonmm #eukonkannonmmkisat #eukonkanto #eukonkanto2018 #eukonkantoparty #eurodance #finals #finland #finnish #finnishboy #finnishgirl #leica #liveyourlife #monochrome #Sonkajärvi #summer #sweat #weirdgames #wifecarrying #wifecarrying2018 #wifecarryingworldchampionship #worldchampionships

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People take it very seriously, and so they should, when the accolade of ‘world champion’ awaits the first couple to break the tape. The event makes the sports newswires and has done so every year since its inception in 1992, and most readers raise a smile because it’s silly, amusing to watch and probably fun to take part in. But is it actually a sport?

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) is fondly known as the ‘father of modern taxonomy’. Born in Sweden, he was a prominent botanist, zoologist and physician, and almost single-handedly came up with the nomenclature to differentiate organisms and species thereof through a system of hierarchical classification. It’s still in use today, and explains to us all why a whale is a mammal and not a fish (despite its fish-like tendencies, habits and overall lifestyle).

Applying the same principles to sport – phylum, class, order, genus – it’s clear that a number of criteria have to be assessed and met in order to qualify, but it seems as though there are only a few areas of common taxonomical agreement. Following in Linnaeus’ footsteps, my assertion is that a metric has to be established in order for something to qualify as a bona fide sport.

Winners and Losers, Defence and Offence

One is almost a given: there has to be an element of competition. While it pains me to write this in an age of political correctness, there have to be winners and… others. I just can’t bring myself to use the word ‘losers’. Most will also agree that athleticism has to play a part, in some degree or other, and also that there has to be some sort of codified system of measurement so that everyone involved knows what they’re working towards and striving to achieve. There must be ‘goals’, therefore, and comparisons with other competitors. Rankings, gradings and hierarchy are all crucial.

It then becomes a question of fine-tuning and personal opinion, and perhaps the most controversial inclusion in the prerequisites of being a sport is the concept of ‘defence’. That is, there has to be someone or something trying to prevent you (or your team) from being successful in your stated intentions – more often than not with the aim of doing it themselves; better, or more quickly. This points to football, the most popular game on the planet – ie. played by the most number of people at all levels – as the ‘poster child’. It meets all the criteria, and has everything that could possibly be required to be classed as a sport – competition, physical exertion, skill and athleticism, the defence dynamic, a set of rules and a system of scoring that is unambiguous.

100m-sprint-usain-bolt-getty-images - sport
A great show of athleticism, but is the 100m sprint necessarily a sport? Photo: Getty Images

This would also mean that, for example, the blue riband event at the Olympic Games – the 100 metres sprint – would not qualify as a sport, and some people might think that this is ridiculous. But think about it. The athletes line up, and the objective is for each one to run a very short distance in a straight line as fast as possible and faster than anyone else. There is no contact; there is nothing adversarial in the encounter. In fact, it’s reasonably safe to say that the winning athlete will not so much as see any of his/her opponents (except out of the corner of an eye) until the finishing line has been crossed.

This completely excludes the element of ‘defence’ in which an athlete has to overcome another athlete with a certain skill, device or stratagem. There’s nothing intrinsically confrontational about a sprint, and therefore, tactics are minimal. Put your head down, get those legs pumping, and hope that you can breast ‘the tape’ in less time than it takes the others. Usain Bolt would, no doubt, take major exception to my assertion, and I would only be prepared to enter into a debate with him at a safe distance (Skype would be fine) but I would still suggest that strategy and a degree of tactical acumen are essential when qualifying something as a proper sport.

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Usain Bolt scores his first… and second goal in professional soccer ⚡️ @usainbolt @ccmariners @thealeague #sportsconn

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In 2010, at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards night in the UK, Phil Taylor confounded the critics and shocked the hell out of the bookmakers by coming in second. Not many people will have heard of Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in this part of the world, but he was one of, if not the greatest exponents of his chosen profession that the world has ever seen.

His popularity among the voters back in 2010 was due to the fact that he had just secured his 15th world championship title – an extraordinary feat in any field – establishing himself as the best that has ever been in the world of… wait for it… darts.

Is darts a sport? Of course it isn’t. Athleticism? Give me a break. Defence? Not really. Although the game has tried to change its image in recent years, the association with pubs, bars, beer-swilling, zeppelin-gutted men crammed into satin train wrecks of shirts with more signage than a Singapore public department is pervasive and all-encompassing.

Darts therefore, falls short, taxonomically, as there is bugger-all athleticism involved, while the element of ‘defence’ extends to no more than possibly slowing down or speeding up the pace of the game in order to upset an opponent. Darts is a ‘game’. No more and no less.

A few months ago, ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” broadcast the Indy 500 and the Scripps Spelling Bee. The following month, it produced extensive coverage of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and the World Series of Poker. They were all compelling events – competitive and thoroughly engaging – redolent of the human spirit and everything that has, in many ways, elevated homo sapiens as a species to the top of the food chain – ie. a degree of passive determination combined with absurd luck and a commitment to survival.

Poker as a sport… anyone? Once again, of course not. It’s a game, possibly a pastime, and a spelling bee is a competition for which no athleticism is required. Deliberately tripping a fellow competitor on his or her way down to the dais, by the way, does not count as impedance or defence, although it can be hilarious to watch and does add drama. Having said that, and let’s get all controversial once again, a spelling bee and even a hot dog eating contest have more right to be termed a sport than say, gymnastics or figure skating.

A sport, in my opinion, cannot be ‘judged’. That is to say that the results and the ultimate outcome cannot be down to the opinions of people, however experienced and erudite they may be. In gymnastics, marks are given for execution – how well the gymnast performs the relevant skills – as well as difficulty – the complexity of the programme – and… this is the killer… artistry.

How on earth can the outcome of a sporting event be determined by opinion and that level of subjectivity? It can’t. Or at least it shouldn’t be. At least wife carrying has a conclusive conclusion and one that cannot be disputed. For anything that involves judges, there will always be human error, bias and controversy.

I am sure we all remember the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, when the Russian skating pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze beat out the Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier to gold, only for it to be revealed that the results had been fixed – the French judge had been pressured to favour the Russian judge’s compatriots in return for a similar consideration. This particular incident changed the entire nature of the judging process in competitive skating, and a further step could be taken for the gymnastics events at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

There is a possibility that artificial intelligence could be entering the judges’ enclosure for the first time, thereby marginalising the human element. This may be no bad thing.

Ultimately, taking the taxonomical approach to defining what is and isn’t a sport has as much chance of success as persuading me that a whale is not a fish. Perhaps we should simply accept the Australian Sports Commission’s assertion that “it is a sport if it is generally accepted as being a sport.” That’s the kind of rigour we’re looking for.

But I prefer that of Gary Belsky, the co-author of On the Origin of Sports. His assessment: “You don’t need a definition of sports. It’s more like quantum physics, like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. There are simply too many variables.” Thanks for that, Gary.

Indoor rock climbing, judo, karate, NASCAR, Formula 1, bog swimming, cheerleading, chess boxing, underwater tiddlywinks, bunnock, horse racing, cheese rolling, musical canine freestyle… darts; make up your own metrics and decide for yourselves. There will be many opinions, and most of them will be wrong, except mine.

Carl Linnaeus would be turning in his grave at the lack of meticulousness, perhaps, but that wouldn’t be a sport either, unless he was breaking a sweat in the process; his gyrations were exemplary, some other grave turner was trying to impede his rotations, and the results were ratified by the World Grave Turning Federation.

Once again, I commend the performance of the Wife Carrying World Champions Vytautas and Neringa – why shouldn’t we be on first name terms at this point? It’s not as though their surnames are difficult to spell or anything. They deserve their moment in the spotlight, and the fact that Neringa spent the entire race in startlingly close proximity to her husband’s intergluteal cleft wins her many plaudits. But it isn’t a sport. Is it?

Related: Why Golf is Actually One of the Hardest Sports On the Planet