Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2024 Summer Olympics will feature breakdancing as an event. In light of this news, it’s time to once again examine the characteristics of a sport.
A Working Definition
In a previous article, “What Is a Sport?,” I proposed two essential characteristics of a sport:
- A sport requires physical activity in which the athlete’s body serves as the prime mover.
- A sport requires physical activity beyond that exerted in everyday life.
According to these criteria, automobile racing is not a sport because the car, not the driver, is the prime mover. The car provides the force necessary to generate movement. And racewalking is not a sport because the activity of walking is one that is common to everyday life. Walking faster and farther does not make walking a sport. The sport in which humans are tested by how fast they can move their bodies over land without additional tools is running.
Breakdancing and Sport
So does breakdancing have the characteristics of a sport? On one hand, a breakdancer’s body serves as the prime mover for the activity. In this sense, breakdancing is similar to gymnastics. Participants perform a routine of physical actions and receive scored judgments on the difficulty of the routine and their successful execution of the elements in that routine.
Yet is not clear that breakdancing requires physical activity beyond that exerted in everyday life. Dancing is a part of everyday life in a way that leaping, tumbling and swinging from various apparatuses are not. Almost everyone is capable of dancing to some degree and most do so at weddings and parties. Yet many people cannot perform a cartwheel or forward roll and might seriously injure themselves in the attempt.
Perhaps breakdancers will argue that breakdancing is a separate category from dancing. Yes, everyone can shuffle around and sway their hips, but the acrobatic elements essential to breakdancing set it apart from everyday activities. Breakdancing, one might argue, is closer to gymnastics than it is to ballroom dancing.
When a person engages in a sporting contest, she does so with the goal of winning the competition.
Sport vs. Art
To settle this debate, let us return to the dictionary definition of a sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill, [especially] one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.” In contrast, we have the definition of art: “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”*
The aim of sport is competition. The aim of art is “beauty or emotional power.” When a person engages in a sporting contest, she does so with the goal of winning the competition. This goal applies to sports at every level, whether there are 100,000 fans in attendance or none. But an artist does not practice art in order to win a competition. He does so to create something (a painting, a dance sequence) that provides some aesthetic appeal or emotional impact. Obviously, competitions exist for almost every artistic medium. But such competitions arose around the practice of art. In contrast, competition is integral to the definition of sport.
The Spirit of Breakdancing
The original breakdancers did not intend it as a sport. Instead, breakdancing is characterized as “a unique culture with its own history, lingo, culture and vast assortment of dance moves.” The practice originated in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Deejays created “breaks” between songs by mixing sounds from different records to create a continuous dance beat. Breakdancers used these interludes to showcase their improvisational, gymnastics movements.
Whether breakdancing evolved into a competition at a later date remains a separate matter. The spirit of the practice is as a culture, an art and a form of personal expression. Ballet, another athletic form of dance, has competitions and prizes, as do painting, drawing, sculpture and other forms of art. But none of these qualify as sports because they are not defined by these competitions.
The Characteristics of a Sport
Baseball would not be baseball if pitchers were not trying to get batters out, if batters were not trying to reach base and score runs, if each team was not concerned with exceeding its opponent’s run total. Breakdancing would still be breakdancing in the absence of judging and ranking the dancers. For this reason, baseball is a sport and breakdancing is not.
This analysis leads to the following definition of a sport: A contest involving activity beyond that exerted in everyday life in which the athlete provides the prime motive force and competes against one or more opposing athletes. And despite its future inclusion as an Olympic event, breakdancing fails to qualify.
*-Definitions retrieved from the online Oxford English Dictionary via the Chicago Public Library portal.