January 21, 1998

Rob and Va Ask: What's in a sport?

By Robin Davidson
and Vanessa Nygaard

When is a sport a sport? With the coming of the 1998 Winter Olympics and the addition of numerous new sports to this year's winter games, Vanessa and I decided to discuss just what makes something a sport.

Robin: Vanessa, I've had this discussion with many other people, some athletes and others not: What criteria do you place on something before you consider it a sport?

Va: Everything is defined by the eye of the beholder. Who am I to say what is and what isn't? Wait, this is my column. A sport requires sweat, an adversary, preferably physical contact, a coach, a ref, and at some point either Wayne Newton or Tom Jones singing the National Anthem before one of its contests.

Robin: That excludes a lot of things most people think of as sports. What do you say to those people?

Va: No matter how much you want it, Magic the Gathering will never be an Olympic event.

Robin: Well, what about sports that meet some, but not all of the criteria? What about a sport like billiards where the competitor has an opponent, coaches or what have you, but no Wayne Newton.

Va: That's a classic example. Which brings up another very important point. Any so-called sport which can be made into a drinking game or in which your skill actually improves with intoxication is not a sport, including bowling, darts, shuffle board, foosball, horse shoes and strangely - and this is just for me - Monopoly.

Robin: One thing that I think qualifies as a sport is the way in which the score is kept. Figure skating, a competition where the score is qualitative rather than quantitative, is what I consider a pseudo-sport. It definitely requires skill, but is it really a sport?

Va: No, both male and female competitors wear makeup. Sure millions of Americans enjoy watching it, but millions of Americans watch a stupid sitcom about a tool man. That doesn't mean it is quality. The sport overall is too subjective. Can you imagine how many games we'd lose if points were given for style and grace?

Robin: Come on Vanessa, you're like Richard Simmons. He's the pinnacle of style and grace.

Va: Thanks, Robin, you're the wind beneath my wings.

Robin: That's great. Well looking at your qualifications, you said preferably physical contact. What do you think about sports without the contact?

Va: Sports that test the physical limitations of the body such as track and field, long distance running and swimming might not be the most crowd-pleasing, but they definitely qualify as sports because of the training and mental and physical strain placed on the competitor. Now, I wouldn't go as far to say that sports without contact are not sports, but wouldn't volleyball be improved if they punched each other under the net? It would at least be a little more entertaining.

Robin: Well what about lower-division horse racing where the jockeys sometimes kick each other - that's contact.

Va: Sports involve PEOPLE. That means humans. If there is an animal involved such as horse racing, dog racing, equestrian, frog jumping, polo, dog-sled racing, fishing, hunting, donkey basketball and that dolphin crap from Hawaii, then it is not a real sport in my book.

Robin: Wow, you're awful particular and set in your ways.

Va: Yes, I have often been called Miss Havisham.

Robin: OK, that's a bizarre reference. But if they're not sports, why do so many people get entranced by watching Battle of the Network Stars?

Va: I agree. Who can resist Jonathan Taylor Thomas hucking lawn darts at the Olsen twins? Even I have been entranced for hours on end watching rodeo and lumberjack contests. And I have an unquenchable addiction to the bizarre phenomenon known as World's Strongest Man. I'll sit for hours on end watching WSM from 1978 and actually be on the edge of my seat even though I know Magnus wins every time.

Robin: You didn't really answer my question.

Va: I would say it's human nature. As Americans, we want to see winners and losers. Why do you think Jerry Springer gets such good ratings, all they have on the show are losers talking to each other's hands and tossing chairs.

Robin: Hey, my roommate was on Jerry Springer.

Va: So was mine. What's your point?

Robin: I don't know, but I'm definitely clearer on what's a sport and what isn't. This has been very enlightening.

Robin and Vanessa warn students that if they don't attend tomorrow night's game against Washington State, they will be turned into pita.