Defining Sport

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As promised: a longer consideration of the nature of ‘Sport’. This is by my colleague, Dr Emily Ryall, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy over at the Faculty of Sport, Health and Social Care at Oxstalls Campus (University of Gloucestershire).

In the piece below she considers: what is a sport?

Defining Sport

In philosophy we are encouraged to define our concepts with relation to necessary and sufficient conditions. In the case of sport, the Analytical approach has attempted to do this. A fairly accessible definition of sport is given by Coakley:

Sports are institutionalized competitive activities that involve rigorous physical exertion or the use of relatively complex physical skills by participants motivated by personal enjoyment and external rewards. (Coakley, 2001; p.20)

However, a more thorough place to start is with Bernard Suits’ exploration of this issue. In particular, Suits considers, what seems to be, the significant relationship between games and sport. His seminal work, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, spends considerable time dissecting what it is for something to be a game. He concludes that the four essential elements are the goal, rules, means and lusory attitude.

The (Pre-lusory) Goal

Suits dismisses the goals of participating and winning to maintain that the goal of a game is “a specific achievable state of affairs… that can be described before, or independently of, any game of which it may be or become a part.” (1978; p36-37) Examples of this are, gaining three noughts or crosses in a row in the case of noughts and crosses, scoring more goals than your opponent in the case of football or hockey, or completing an approved set of actions to a particular standard in the case of high board diving.

The (Lusory) Means

Game playing is the selection of inefficient means. That is, to make a particular goal harder to achieve than is necessary. It would be easy to win at Monopoly if one had unlimited money and could continue to roll the dice until one achieved the number desired. Likewise, one could achieve the specific state of affairs in golf by walking to the hole and placing the ball in the cup. This aspect of selecting inefficient means is what distinguishes games from work.

The Rules

(Arbitrary) rules (that are the selection of inefficient means) are accepted for the sake of the activity. In this sense then, the rules and ends are inseparable in games as the achievement of the goal is limited by the rules prescribing the means of achieving it. If a player were to have limitless money and roll the dice until they rolled the number they wished they would not be playing the game of Monopoly at all. Conversely, the player that places by hand her ball in the cup is not playing the game of golf.

The Lusory Attitude

This is the attitude held by players that they knowingly accept the rules to allow the game to be played. As Suits says, “in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do, whereas in games it appears to be an absolutely essential thing to do.” (1995; p.10)

So what does Suits say about sport? On this he changes position. He first said that sports are a special class of games but with added elements, namely: they must be games of skill, the skill must be physical, they must have a wide following, and achieve a certain level of stability. This would rule out games of chance, such as roulette, and games of mental skill such as poker. However, Suits later changes his claim that all sports are games as it doesn’t account for performance sports, such as gymnastics, which would not be classified as games.

As to whether darts is a sport, to a certain degree it fulfils both Suits’ and Coakley’s criteria. It is a game of skill to throw a dart at a target; it undoubtedly has a large following and has achieved a level of stability. The most problematic criteria seems to be the one requiring the skill to be physical. One could argue that it is physically demanding to be standing for long periods of time throwing darts at a board but this is not the same kind of physical skill that is involved in playing rugby or even in archery. Even if we focus upon Coakley’s requirement that it is necessary to be at least a relatively complex physical skill, though perhaps not rigorous, we might be able to argue that there are other activities that fulfil this criteria but that which we would not want to call a sport. The games of ‘snap’ or ‘scissors, paper, stone’ for instance, are probably more physically demanding than darts and fulfil the other criteria, yet we would probably not want to label these as sports. For this reason, it seems that the analytical approach is useful but inadequate as there may be some instances which fulfil the necessary and sufficient conditions but which we would not want to label as sport, and others that don’t fulfil these conditions that we do want to call sport.

The other approach that is taken towards a definition of sport is one that specifies that sport can only be defined in context. Any definition is grounded in society, culture and history and is dependent on who is being asked and to what instance is being referred. One might argue that an unequivocal example of sport is football and point to an officiated match played according to FIFA rules. However, would a five-a-side friendly in a local sports hall still be the same sport, or even an impromptu kick around in the park that consisted of three players using their jumpers as goal posts? If the rules of this kick around were changed to such an extent that players could only score if they volleyed the ball in, or headed the ball in, or had made six consecutive passes would it be football at all? In such an instance, we might argue that they are not playing the sport of football at all nor even the game of football but simply another game that resembles the sport of football. It is perhaps here that we can turn to Wittgenstein. First, his notion of family resemblance acknowledges the fact that we are able to trace common links between various instances of things we would call sport though there may not be any resemblance between one particular instance and another. Second and ultimately, that which we call sport and that which we dismiss as a game or other activity, is dependent on agreement in language. This, in itself, he calls a ‘language-game’ (…or is it a sport?!).


Coakley, J. (2001). Sport in Society: issues and controversies. New York: McGraw Hill.

Suits, B. (1978). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. London: University of Toronto Press.

Suits, B. (1995). ‘The elements of sport’ in Morgan, W. P. & Meier, K. V. (eds.) Philosophic Inquiry in Sport, Leeds: Human Kinetics, pp.8-15.

Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical Investigations. (Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe) Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dr Emily Ryall
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Faculty of Sport, Health & Social Care
University of Gloucestershire, UK


David W... says:

An e-mailed comment – thanks Tom:


Dont know if this is useful, but I once saw it said that if a fat guy could do it well drunk, it isnt a sport. This was initially directed at bowling, but seems to find a curious resonance with darts as well.


David W... says:

I think there is a level of physical skill in darts (and bowling) that is quite distinct from mental skill games (like poker). In poker, it does not matter how scrappily you throw your cards down – as long as you have the winning hand.

THe skill to throw the dart requires hand-eye control which is sophisticated. It reminds me of snooker/pool. Even if you are a great mathetician – who can see the exact angle which would lead to the ideal shot – having the physical skill to make that shot is another thing altogether.

While it may be true that “The games of ‘snap’ or ‘scissors, paper, stone’ for instance, are probably more physically demanding than darts “ – the differene is in this physical skill…

I think…

David W... says:

Mike S of Bristol writes (by e-mail):

My two penneth…

You have to be fit to play any sport at the highest level

Darts is a game of skill – that is all.

Bloody obvious if you ask me.

David W... says:

Another comment sent to me by e-mail (from Mohan Matthen of Toronto University) :

I am not sure Suits has it exactly right.

First, “completing an approved set of actions to a particular standard in the case of high board diving” doesn’t strike me as ““a specific achievable state of affairs… that can be described before, or independently of, any game
of which it may be or become a part.” Describe
a dive — Eg.: no splash, most graceful, even “best” — it may lose. Winning a diving contest is a matter of being judged to have done the best
— judged rather than determined or
measured. (Contrast this with races, where there really is an achievable state of affairs that can be described in advance, though it is often hard to determine whether someone has achieved it). I would classify diving as a sport, but not a game.

Nor, I think, is “game playing . . the selection of inefficient means.” Here’s why:

1. I have selected inefficient means to type this message — I am typing over a pile of books because I can’t be bothered to move them off my
table. But it’s no game. Nor are arbitrary
inefficiencies needed — golf isn’t more of a game if you refuse to use titanium clubs.

2. And in golf, it isn’t that anybody SELECTS the
means: the game restricts them to those means. It isn’t as if I WANT to put a ball in a hole (dumb), and select clubs as a way to do this (dumber). No, I want to play golf, and putting a ball in a hole is a part of that.

This the goal should properly be specified as getting-around-the-course-in-fewest-strokes-following-the-rules-of-golf.
Once it is specified in this way, you see that players actually select the most efficient means
— titanium clubs, kinetically advantageous swings etc.

very best,

Mohan Matthen,
Canada Research Chair in Philosophy, Perception, and Communication University of Toronto

jasonrpe says:

The brain is a physical thing, an organ, suseptible to nutrition and drugs like any other part of the body. Unless we are making a clear distinction between the brain and ‘ the mind’, I find it difficult to accept an activity is a sport rather than a game because of physical exertion, when in my mind mental activities are physcial exertion also just in a different way.
To sum up, I would make no distinciton between sports/games based solely upon one using physical muscles such as biceps, and one using physcial musles such as the brain.

David W... says:

An e-mailed comment from Sarah Honeychurch:

Who encourages you to define your concepts in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions? Certainly not Wittgenstein. And Suits is just wrong, isn’t he? Game playing is the selection of inefficient means? Surely the whole point of strategic games (chess, go) is not that the goals are harder to acheive than is necessary, but that there is a certain amount of skill involved, and that such games are only enjoyable because of this. It is not this that distinguishes games from work, either. Often work is done by what Suits would call a very inefficient way (often I choose a way of completing my work that is harder than is necessary – I read stuff I am going to use in the original and provide specific page references – I don’t refer to …erm … Wittgenstein vaguely ..) My point, I guess, is that the rules of a game do not pose unnecessary obstacles, they are part of that game. That’s what stops golf being a race to put the ball in the hole in the green and turns it into a skill. In fact, both games and work turn out to have a similarity when compared thus – those who care about the end and not the means will cheat, and the rest of us don’t.

David W... says:

An e-mailer who wanted to remain anonymous writes:

I do not think it is (large quantities of) physical exercise that is necessary- sports vary from the purely physical (varying from power to cardiovascular)to mainly skill sports with varying degrees of fitness but always muscular control (darts, snooker, curling, shooting etc) to the purely mentally skillfull (bridge, chess). then of course there is varying aspects of teamwork.

I think the most important reason (apart from things as rules and wining or losing) to qualify as a sport is its institutionalisations and (international) recognition. which is why chess may be a sport, but other games not, and why the orignin of most sports are undoubltedly heavily first world dominated. so there may be an important social aspect to it, which may make it impossible to give a necessary/sufficient conditions analysis that does not include a social component.

I think physical exercise is neither necessary nor sufficient.

David W... says:

Another e-mailed comment, this times from Paul J (of Cornwall):

Are there any games competed in at the Olympic Games, or is it rather a collection of sporting events?
Maybe this definition is difficult to achieve because so many activities have been mis-defined, and the terms used in the wrong manner in the first
place- ie darts/pool/hunting foxes as ‘sports’ (not sure if killing defenceless animals is game or sport??!) and ‘a game of’ football, cricket, tennis etc.

Generally if i refer to big team events i call it ‘a football match’, if 3 of us are kicking a ball around its ‘a game of football’.

Where oh where does skateboarding fit in? all I know is its not a crime…
Is there such a thing as an ‘X-treme Game’? (Chicken with a truck?)

And where does video gaming fit into these definitions? It demands physical skill (hand-eye co-ordination), a definate set of goals utterly inefficiently
achieved, as well as practice, officiated competition and institutional organisation
(rankings, sponsership etc) – does this make sitting hunched over a keyboard eating cold pizza and zapping hell-spawned demons a sport? Well if darts is then I should think so..

Maybe computer games are a sport if you’re playing Pro Evo Soccer!
I think the drunk fat bloke definition could be the answer we’re all looking for……

Facetious but in deference to the seriousness of the debate, pj

d.warburton says:

I thought this was very interesting, and personally feel that the answer resides in our definitions of 'games' and 'sports'.

It is commonly announced that when people wish to play football they say, “would you like to play a GAME of football?”… and then in another instance could say “would you like to play football?”.

Now the first instance suggests that the level of football here will be played within the written rules with self-officiating players. If I was asked this way I would reply with “is it a proper game?” indicating the need to clarify that it is as per the rules, or is a variation of the game. The second appears to be less formal, and in being this way portrays an image of variation. Therefore we could say that the SPORT is the pure and original form of the GAME, whilst the latter is a Variation. If this is the case I would suggest that a game of headers and volleys is simply a game within the game of football. It's almost a micro-coaching differentiation tool to focus on particular aspects of the sport.

So you could say that 'Football' is the SPORT- of which is termed, 'The purest/original form of the GAME of football – and that GAMES of Football should be representative of the SPORT in all of its rules and so forth.

Annnndddddd I think I have confused myself!…..

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