What is a sport? Chess? Figure skating? Modern dance?

Via Susan Polgar’s blog and featuring her Webster University chess team:

Based on a dictionary definition, the filmmakers boil it down to three aspects:

1. Athleticism

2. Skill

3. Competition

Chess fits the last two with ease. The “athleticism” argument is weaker. They argue that it’s draining — elite players lose weight in world championship competition.

But is that essential?

Other Olympic sports have all three elements. Figure skating is perhaps the most questionable, with the “competition” aspect only coming into the mix through judging that is still partially subjective.

Modern dance, like figure skating, requires athleticism and skill. Just watch Pilobolus sometime. But it’s not competitive, and no one’s seriously lobbying for it to be in the Olympics.

So we could say the Olympics require all three. The media, on the other hand, do not. ESPN televises poker and spelling bees. SI used to cover chess, along with many European sports departments. At USA TODAY, we used to cover the Westminster Dog Show through sports.

The media, though, don’t need to be exclusive. ESPN has a lot of hours to fill, and most Myriad readers would likely vote for chess, poker, dogs and quiz bowls instead of Skip Bayless yelling at people.

Does the “chess as a sport” movement go beyond that? There’s a practical reason we won’t see chess in the Olympics. Chess players can argue for months about their playing conditions. They’re not likely to hang out with the hard-partying swimmers in the Athletes Village.

And the Olympics don’t want to get bigger right now, even if the facility needs are cheap. Hosting is already far too expensive.

So is it a sport? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.

Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

4 thoughts on “What is a sport? Chess? Figure skating? Modern dance?”

  1. (1) Figure skating – with its turn-taking and subjective scoring – is no different than gymnastics. In neither sport is a competitor ever on the playing field at the same time as an opponent. The only “competition” is in the judge’s minds…. and yet, does anyone doubt that gymnastics is a “sport”?

    (2) I know it’s tongue-in-cheek, but chess players would get along just fine in the Olympic Village. Many other Olympians obsess about every detail in preparation to compete, then party afterward. Chess players would be no different.

    (3) “The Olympics don’t want to get bigger right now” is, of course, true, but it’s a generic argument against ANY new sport being included in the program.

    No, chess’s problem doesn’t have to do with any of this. Chess’s problem is: it’s not a sport. And it’s not a sport because there is no athleticism. It is purely a mind-sport, like doing a crossword puzzle.

    (The only current Olympic sport I can think of that comes close to this is shooting, but even there you need to have a slow heart rate and nerves of steel.)

    Think of it this way. Could Steven Hawking participate in your “sport”? If so, it has no place in the Olympics.

    Athleticism is, indeed, essential for a sport to be Olympic.

  2. Chess is a game not a sport. If Chess is a sport eligible for the Olympics so is poker. How about horse shoe tossing?

    My criteria for “what is a sport?”: Can a competitor be physically injured participating during the competition? If the answer is yes, then it is a sport. If the answer is no, then it isn’t a sport.

    Can a competitor can be injured competing in a chess game? Maybe if the opposing player decides to physically attack him or her. But that probably would lead to a disqualification…

  3. Of course, in motor sports drivers and racers can be injured and even get killed. Should autoracing and other motor sports be Olympic sports? I think not.

    No Olympic horse races either.

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