Defining ‘Sports’

Jordan Ellenberg’s Slate article, Is Math a Sport? tries to solve an age old riddle: distinguishing sports from mere games. Clearly, some have rather broad definitions. For example, ESPN broadcasts “sports” as diverse as celebrity poker, spelling bees, and dog shows. While most people would agree that those events don’t make the cut, there is more disagreement about such things as auto racing and golf. Looking at an upcoming “Math Olympiad,” Ellenberg looks for some critieria:

Can math really be a sport? That depends how you define “sport,” something the IOC has carefully declined to do. It’s not easy—try it yourself. Must a sport require physical exertion? If so, does target shooting count? And if you do count it—presumably because non-exertive physical skills like accuracy are athletic, too—then aren’t you bound to include billiards, darts, and Skee-Ball? By what means do you distinguish between elemental physical trials like weightlifting and the marathon, and elemental physical trials like standing on one foot, or urinating for distance, or holding your breath as long as you can? (Bonus trivia question: Which of the latter three actually is recognized as a sport by the IOC? Scroll to the end for the answer.)

The philosopher Bernard Suits defines a sport as a game that meets the following four criteria: “(1) that the game be a game of skill; (2) that the skill be physical; (3) that the game have a wide following; and (4) that the following achieve a certain level of stability.”


Quantifying such things, even approximately, is a bit of a mess. Boxing columnist R. Michael Onello says “boxing is 70 percent mental”—if so, then the physical component of chess boxing makes up 30 percent of half of the enterprise, or 15 percent, leaving 85 percent on the mental side. That makes chess boxing a more physical activity than, say, tennis (90 percent mental according to Jimmy Connors) or the positively cerebral art of wrestling—99 percent mental, says Olympian Melvin Douglas.


That doesn’t mean there are no right answers. It is a fact that basketball is a sport, and it is a fact that sautéing zucchini isn’t. And I think it’s a fact that the math Olympiad isn’t a sport either. Sports have goals—to score touchdowns, to pin the opponent, to strike a distant target. On the surface, a math contest has the same nature—you’re supposed to solve a set of problems within a certain time span. But that doesn’t reflect my experience. Working on a math problem is a solitary, contemplative act. That’s true whether you’re in a room full of precocious teens in Athens or at home in bed before getting up for breakfast; whether the problem is the Riemann hypothesis or something you solve in nine hours at the Olympiad.

I’m not sure this gets us anywhere closer to ending the debate, but it’s an entertaining piece.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tim Worstall says:

    Eh? This is easy. Rugby, cricket and croquet are sports, everything else, including life, is a game.
    Or is that a little too Anglocentric ?

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    This was, I think, satisfactorily answered, by Ludwig Wittgenstein before the middle of the last century: both “sports” and “games” are “open-textured concepts” and no universal defining property exist for every member of either concept, only “family resemblences” to other “sports” or “games” we already accept as belonging to the concept. Any new “sport” we wish to add could equally be a “game” as well.