What Is a Sport?

In June, Robert Morris University in Chicago became the first school to offer athletic scholarships to e-gamers when it extended such offers to students who excel at the video game “League of Legends.”

“It’s a team sport,” said RMU associate athletic director Kurt Melcher. “There’s strategy involved. You have to know your role in the game. Obviously it’s not cardiovascular in any way, but it’s mental. There are elements that go into it that are just like any other sport.” [1]

The idea that a game that involves no more physical activity than manipulating one’s fingers could qualify as a sport is dubious, but RMU’s decision raises the question of what constitutes a sport in comparison to other games. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sport” as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other” or “a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment.” [2] In contrast, the dictionary defines “game” as “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” or “a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.” [3]

These definitions portray sports as a subset of games, where sports are games that are competitive and involve physical activity. A further definition may help to elucidate the contrast. An “athlete” is “a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength” or “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” [4] Basically, an athlete is one who engages in sports. By this definition, e-gamers do not qualify as athletes and they do not play a sport since their activity does not require significant physical strength, agility or stamina.

What about quasi-physical activities, such as golf, horseback riding or automobile racing often accepted as sports? ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” asked a panel consisting of United States Olympic Committee sports scientists, academicians who study the science of muscles and movement, sports journalists and a star two-sport athlete to assign a number value from 1 to 10 to the demands 60 putative sports make on 10 athletic skills: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude. The panelists’ responses for each skill were averaged and then added together, and the resulting totals were used to rate each sport by degree of difficulty. [5]

I find it hard to argue that any of the top 31 activities in ESPN’s list does not qualify as a sport. Number 32, auto racing, raises the first question mark. How does sitting and pushing pedals and turning a steering wheel qualify as a sport any more so than performing the exact same motions in a video arcade? Breaking down the ESPN panel’s scores by skill, auto racing receives a score of 6 or higher in three of ten categories: nerve (“the ability to overcome fear”), hand-eye coordination (“the ability to react quickly to sensory perception”) and analytic aptitude (“the ability to evaluate and react appropriately to strategic situations” [6]). However, these three abilities are not physical skills. Russian roulette requires nerve, video games require hand-eye coordination and playing the stock market requires analytic aptitude. Yet none of these other activities qualify as a sport. The next highest score for auto racing is a 5.88 in endurance (“the ability to continue to perform a skill or action for long periods of time” [7]). Presumably, this value relates to a driver’s ability to maintain nerve, hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude over the course of a few hours, yet this endurance seems more mental or psychological than physical. A physical endurance component likely comes into play as far as the driver’s ability to maintain control over the steering wheel and pedals, but this endurance pales in comparison to the physical endurance required of long-distance runners, swimmers, rowers and cyclists.

Similar exclusions apply to horse racing and equestrian, two activities that score highest in nerve and analytic aptitude and have low values in the other eight categories. The division here seems to be that while traveling at high velocities and negotiating tricky obstacles in general requires certain non-physical skills, physical ability comes into play only when the athlete herself supplies the requisite motive force. Hence, running, cycling, swimming, rowing and even bobsledding and luge qualify as sports, while auto racing, horse racing and equestrian, despite their high-skill demands, do not. A sport requires an athlete to serve as the prime mover of his body through space.

Nearer to the bottom of the ESPN list appear activities such as golf, archery, curling, bowling, shooting, billiards and fishing. Golf, ranked by the ESPN panel as the most difficult of the group, receives average scores above 6 in three categories: power (“the ability to produce strength in the shortest possible time” [8]), hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude. I have already argued against hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude as criteria for sport. In golf, power is required for driving the ball off the tee and chipping out of a sand trap. But are these specific skills enough to qualify golf as a sport? The website ProCon.org recently took a break from more weighty debates to discuss this question. The site offers 12 arguments in support of golf being a sport, two of which stand out in particular:

“2. Like all sports, golf requires physical exertion. Golfers who play a nine-hole course (2-2.5 miles) without a cart while carrying their own clubs burn 721 calories (613 calories if a caddie carries the bag of clubs which weighs 30-50 pounds on average). Professional tournaments have four rounds of 18 holes, which would be 4,904 calories burned over four days. Golfing without a cart burns an average of 360 calories per hour (306 with a caddie), compared to about 364 per hour spent curling, 345 doing gymnastics, and 273 bowling.

“8. In golf, like in other sports, there is a correlation between physical training and improved performance. A 2009 peer-reviewed study found that golfers who focus on balance, flexibility, posture, core stability, strength, power, and cardiovascular training have better results. Rory McIlroy, World No.1 as of May 23, 2012, credits his training regimen with helping him reach the top spot. Tiger Woods has reportedly bench pressed as much as 315 pounds.” [9]

I will first consider argument 2. Walking a golf course and hitting difficult shots does require some measure of endurance, albeit not nearly as much as many other sports. Of the three activities compared by ProCon, both curling and bowling appear to share golf’s position astride the game-sport fence. On the other hand, it would be hard to claim gymnastics is not a sport or gymnasts are not athletes. Total caloric expenditure does not seem the best criteria for sport since sports like gymnastics, baseball, softball and cricket involve periods of stasis punctuated by bursts of physical, athletic activity. Furthermore, as ProCon points out in its con arguments:

“7. Nearly half of the maximum calories burned while playing golf are from walking the course and carrying the clubs, but the US Supreme Court ruled that walking is not an essential aspect of golf. In PGA Tour v. Martin (2001), the justices ruled 7-2 that the pro tour had to allow a golfer with a disability to use a golf cart because it would not ‘fundamentally alter the nature’ of the activity. Using a cart while playing golf reduces the number of calories burned by 42% percent (from 721 to 411 for nine holes).” [10]

What Is a Sport?

The Supreme Court verdict makes sense. Players who drive golf carts between holes or have caddies carry their clubs are still playing golf. The activity of golf consists in hitting a ball toward a hole for 18 holes, not in walking between holes with one’s clubs. And as argument 8 points out, improving one’s physical capabilities leads to improved performance. Golfers with better balance, flexibility, posture, core stability, strength, power, and cardiovascular training are likely better able to drive balls farther and with more control, putt and chip more accurately and sustain their level of play over the duration of a round. This activity, not walking, is the essence of golf.

Detractors might ask if standing in place while driving or putting really counts as athletic activity. However, few will argue that standing in place and heaving a shot put or batting and bunting in baseball or softball serve to disqualify those activities as sports. Golf may not require as much power, mobility or skill as other sports, but these physical capabilities are still necessary for success. So despite my initial desire to do so, I find myself unable to disqualify golf as a sport.

However, I do believe golf stands at the boundary between sport and game. Archery, curling, bowling, shooting, billiards and fishing are not sports because they are not sufficiently physical in nature. The ESPN panel does not give any of these activities a score of 5 or higher in any skill besides hand-eye coordination and analytic ability. So golf is a sport, while auto racing, horse racing, equestrian, archery, curling, bowling, shooting, billiards and fishing are not.

This division may seem arbitrary, and in some respects it is. Further examination of such borderline activities will help shed some light on a more specific definition of sport. First off, sports require physical activity in which the athlete’s body serves as the prime mover. Moreover, this physical activity must express itself in an above normal display of endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility or durability. In other words, sport requires physical activity beyond that exerted in everyday life. Auto racing is not a sport because the athlete does not act as the prime mover, but also because driving a car is a normal level of exertion for everyday life. Driving faster and farther does not make auto racing a sport. (I apply the same argument to racewalking.) On the other hand, golf requires a level of power and control which (barely?) exceeds that applied in everyday life. Golfers apply their bodies as the prime mover to strike a golf ball and exert displays of power, flexibility and control beyond the minimum required for contemporary day-to-day life.

While the standards of sport remain open to interpretation, the distinction between sport and game defined in this piece dovetails nicely with the values espoused by the KineSophy project. The physical virtues I have previously described in other articles are abilities that exceed the requirements of mere everyday modern life. Human beings are physically capable of far more than they exert in routine, day-to-day tasks. Sports should be held to a similar standard, not reduced to the level of non-physical or marginally physical games, whatever demands these games place on other aspects of human performance.


  1. Keilman, John. “College recruiting gamers as athletes.” Chicago Tribune. 23 June 2014. Online. 14 July 2014. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-video-game-scholarship-20140623,0,4334654.story.
  2. “Sport.” Merriam-Webster, 2014. Online. 3 July 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sport.
  3. Game.” Merriam-Webster, 2014. Online. 3 July 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/game.
  4. “Athlete.” Merriam-Webster, 2014. Online. 3 July 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/athlete.
  5.  “Page 2 – Sport Skills Difficulty Rankings.” ESPN.com. Online. 2 July 2014. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/sportSkills.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Is Golf a Sport? Pros and Cons.” ProCon.org. 2014. Online. 22 July 2014. http://golf.procon.org.
  10. Ibid.