Crio’s Q: What is sport?

by Chris Riordan

When I was a kid we reckoned it involved either a ball +/or a bet!

The oldest definition of sport, apparently (1300), is of anything humans find amusing or entertaining.

There’s the rub.

Generally speaking, sport seems to be defined as some sort of competitive physical activity.

What, then, are the boundaries?

There are those who, with some justification, question jumps racing’s validity.

Where’s the “line in the sand” regarding a sport?

Is fishing a sport? Bull-fighting? Boxing? Rally driving? Base jumping?

Is it cruelty, danger or skill that makes a sport valid or not?

The word “sporting” carries so many connotations.

How’s this, according to the FreeDictionary?

“Sporting”, means (amongst other refs)

-Characterized by sportsmanship.

-Of or associated with gambling.



  1. Sport……… the current, and ongoing, joust with Pies supporters on the Knacker blog.

    However it is slightly unfair like fishing in a heavily burleyed sea with the salmon running.They bite in a frenzied fashion.

  2. John Butler says


    I grew up in a ballroom dancing studio (my parents ran it).

    Despite the ambitions of many in the game, and despite the obvious physical attributes required for top line competitive dancing, I’d still draw the line there.

    Anything that requires you to smile, which probably excludes synchronised swimming as well.

  3. I was going to say the requirements are that it has to be potentially fun, competitive and physical. But then I read JB’s comment above and thought, “no, there has to be something else as well”. The smile aspect could be it. No smiling until AFTER you’ve done something good, or won.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    As some of you know I teach Sport studies (basically history and sociology) In the first tute of the semester I ask each of the students to introduce themselves and tell the group which team they support (usually, but not exclusively AFL) and the main sports they play/watch.

    Ten years ago I has a student who had immigrated from Russia as an 11 year old. He nominated soccer and chess as his sports. Most of the other students who had grown up in Australia (but were not all Anglos, quite a few were Greek, Italian or Lebanese) were incredulous when Alex described chess as a sport. However the more I read about chess, particularly as played in the former countries of the USSR, the more it does seem to me to be a sport. It is competitive, played at all levels from amateur to professional (and in Russia it would include gambling on results) and at the top level it would even require a level of physical fitness, albeit a somewhat lower one than that required by any code of football.

    When I was at High School in the 60s our school (Heidelberg High) had an annual sports exchange with an Adelaide High School (Marion High). One year our boys went to Marion while the Marion girls teams visited Heidelberg and the next year Heidelberg boys hosted their South Australians while our girls went to Adelaide. The year I went to Marion (1964), Heidelberg sent ten boys sporting teams. The football team was the most prestigious but there was also baseball, tennis, hockey, basketball, table tennis, soccer, golf etc. I went with the debating team.

    Now while I am extremely grateful Heidelberg counted debating as a sport in 1964, I don’t and I didn’t then. What used to happen on these trips is that visiting students would travel on the Overland train on Friday night, get no sleep, be picked up by our Adelaide hosts and taken to the footy on the Saturday afternoon (I saw West Torrens play Norwood) and then party on Saturday night. By the time the first matches started on Monday the visiting boys were exhausted and the home teams won most of the games. However we had a dream run in debating because we could do all our preparations before we left Melbourne, party over the weekend, secure that we had our material back at our host houses, and so long as we were not to exhausted to think on our feet, start at no disadvantage against out hosts.

    The point of this story is that in debating the result can be decided before the actual event by the level of preparation (OK you still need to show skill on the night, but it is very difficult to win without material) No matter how hard you train or work out prepared tactics, sports (including chess) are decided by live performance on the day of the contest. Which is an argument for including chess (and ballroom dancing although I’m not comfortable with it) and excluding debating.

  5. Interesting Dave.
    I wasn’t out to denigrate any specific activities…
    the genesis of this was really me wondering about cruelty – mostly to animals – and its role in sports.
    What’s right?

  6. johnharms says

    JB, that childhood must provide you with a rather rich vein of yarns. Surprised it has taken this long to emerge. Can we expect something illuminating in the near future? Were your parents consulted by the writers of Strictly Ballroom?

  7. John Butler says


    Not consulted, but we were absolutely positive one of my god fathers was the model for one of the characters. Its a carbon copy (appearance wise).

    The Strictly Ballroom people spent a lot of time investigating the dancing scene.

    What most took as a fictional film, my family regarded as a documentary.

  8. johnharms says

    IT is one of my all-time favourite films. I have studied the script closely – and boy, oh boy, is it a good piece of writing. The themes are triumphant. Magnificent attack on cringing mainstream Aust culture. Ironic that so many people liked the film. In that sense it’s like the work of B. Humphries.

    btw, which character? My favourite character in the whole piece is the true artist: the father in the long socks.

  9. Following up JB’s last comment (and off topic – sorry Crio). I’ve found that most teachers that I’ve asked see the British TV show “Teachers” as documentary also.

  10. johnharms says

    At the North Fitzroy Arms the discussion of What is a sport? comes up from time to time. Two definitions there:

    1. You have to get changed for it.
    2. If it squeaks it ain’t a sport – squash, basketball, volleyball etc

  11. Why would a teacher want to go home and watch something called “Teachers”?
    No wonder I’m over it!

  12. Mulcaster says

    If sport is “anything humans find amusing or entertaining”…

    Schadenfreude … has to be a sport …

    At last I have found a home!!!

  13. A friend of mine put it crudely but succinctly – he said a sport is where you have your balls on the line. If your balls aren’t on the line its not sport, its a game.

  14. that reminds me, Dips, of watching a Skins game once where Shark and co. were putting and cajoling for tens of thousands. A commentator alluded that it would have more relevance for a couple of battlers playing for their mortgage.
    I guess the promotion/relegation games in England have that edge. So, too, qualifiers for golf’s tours.

  15. Dave Nadel says

    I still think Chess fits your friend’s definition. In both the Fischer/ Spassky matches and the Kasparov/Karpov matches both players certainly had their balls on the line.

  16. Dave, I used to love reading the match reports of those chess battles…akin to boxing or fencing. Dynamic.

  17. Rick Kane says

    Dave Nadal, I reckon you put your nads on the line saying you were in the debating team on the interstate trip. Debating team – that’s not very Animal House of you. And def not the archetypical Pies supporter. You could have just said a good friend or even “this guy”.

    A friend on mine was on It’s Academic way back when. He was a smart, bright, intelligent nerd. Our school throught we had it in the bag because Julian was on the team. When the questions started Julian froze. And stayed frozen for the duration of the taping. Didn’t answer a question. All the prep in the work didn’t help him come game time.


  18. Thanks Jules…err, Rick.

  19. Alovesupreme says

    your anecdote about the “skins” game reminded me of the tale about Vijay Singh, who really was playing for his financial life during his early career.
    His wiki entry is a reminder of some of his travails:
    I suppose if we’re thinking of activities with a lot on the line, those golf tournaments where there’s only a handful of player cards available for the next year on the circuit (American, perhaps especially) are analogous to soccer play-offs.

  20. Some useful thoughts here, but we need to apply them scientifically. What we have is an overlapping matrix of positive (qualifying) and negative (disqualifying) criteria. (Why did I give up a public policy career again – or rather it gave up on me??)
    1. “Must have your balls on the line” – ignoring the gender discrimination, certainly implies some competitive element. Rules out theatre, light entertainment and general performance. But politics still qualifies.
    2. “Cannot be required to smile during performance” – gets rid of politics and synchronised swimming. Tick. But having the rent money on the last at the Dapto dogs still qualifies. Hmm.
    3. “Requires some element of physical or mental exertion by the participants.” That leaves the dogs in but excludes the punters as this is clearly a mindless pursuit that can be undertaken by the morbidly obese.

    Think that just about covers it. Everything that qualifies under the 3 rules is a sport. Dammit – what about masturbation? 1 is covered – for males anyway. 2 OK – narrow eyed grimace suffices. 3 – definitely. Bloody hell – pollies and Fev have snuck in again via the back door. Hence…..
    4. “Some audience participation is usually appreciated” – that should just about do it. Cuts Fev and Tony out. But what about that DVD my mate has with the redhead and the hairbrush???? Oh well, back to the drawing board.

    Seriously though. I remember the controversy when Bart Cummings was awarded the ABC Sportsman of the Year in 1975. Bart is clearly a National Treasure, but ‘sportsman’ was stretching it even in his heyday. Is horseracing a sport? For the horse – yes. Qualifies on all criteria. Why didn’t ‘Think Big’ get the prize? After all it was his second Cup that got Bart over the line. Maybe it was his ownership. He probably won the Malaysian Sportsman of the Year.

    Jockeys as sportsman?? The exertion is certainly there, but that is true for politicians and property developers also. And horse trainers clearly stretches the boundaries too far. Fat, money stealing bastards in suits. That would qualify corporate CEO’s and the BRW Rich List as sportsmen!!

    Enough already.
    5. “Watched appreciatively in front bars without pint glasses being thrown at the screen.” That disqualifies trainers, jockeys, politicians and corporate types. But lets the horses and dogs stay in.

    Justice at last.

  21. Easy question. Definition of a sport is any ball game played in a round/circular (not straight sided) arena. That qualifies just 2. All of the other ‘games’ are just ways to pass time.

  22. AlanM,
    Bit worried for Lord’s?!

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