Are The Olympics Really Sports?

Today, the world’s top athletes will descend on London for the 30th Summer Olympic Games. For sixteen days, much of the world will be glued to its television. NBC reportedly paid more than a billion dollars for the rights to air the event, which in the current media climate somehow seems like a reasonable (albeit staggering) price to pay for the world’s premier sporting event.

But, really, is that what they got?

I’m not sure about you, but when I think “sports,” my mind doesn’t immediately jump to synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, two of the categories in which medals will be awarded. Sure, the Olympics have the hurdles and cycling—but they also have something called team dressage, which in some way involves horses and which you’d never heard of until earlier in this sentence. At a cursory glance, you might find more sports at the X Games, a competition predominantly devoted to riding snowmobiles through fire.

And yet, we’ll all be watching, hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness from this year’s Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Which leads to this: If we’re going to sit down and watch these things, now’s as good a time as ever to finally tackle the question, “What exactly makes something a sport?”

No one seems to have come up with a definitive answer. Take a look at Merriam-Webster’s and you’ll find that a sport is “a source of diversion: a physical activity engaged in for pleasure.” This doesn’t exactly seem definitive. By that standard, drinking is a sport. So, for that matter, is cunnilingus.

There needs to be a better standard. Luckily, I’ve got one.

It seems to be a given that football, baseball, basketball and, yes, even hockey are sports. So let’s take a look at the people who participate in these activities. What links them together as athletes? Looking back at Merriam-Webster’s, we find that an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises … requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” That seems about right, with one key exception: The word or. If you think about it, the word and is infinitely more appropriate. The athletes in the aforementioned sports possess—in varying degrees—strength, agility and stamina. Having just one of these qualities simply isn’t enough. That is, unless we plan on bestowing the title of “athlete” on, respectively, construction workers, contortionists, and Sting.

That seems like a pretty good start: To play a sport, you must be an athlete. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work both ways. All sports must have athletes, but not all athletes play sports. Gymnasts and figure skaters are athletes, but neither gymnastics nor figure skating are sports. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

The other critical characteristic of sports is the way in which victories are decided. Throughout the four major sports, one thing is consistent: A quantifiable scoring system. You score more points than your opponent, you win. Whether it’s measured in goals, runs, or points, there’s always a clearly-defined winner. Soccer is a sport. Golf is a sport. Tennis is a sport. And, for the same reasons, ping-pong is a sport. Yes, ping-pong. Watch an Olympic table tennis match for about thirty seconds and you’ll soon realize that this isn’t the game you and the nerdy girl next door played in your basement.

So, now we’ve got rule #2: If an activity can be won according to subjective criteria, such as the scoring of judges, it’s not a sport. Gymnastics? Incredibly difficult, but not a sport. Figure skating? Not a sport. Synchronized swimming? Not even close. In a right-thinking world, none of these activities can be sports because if they are, then so are ballroom dancing, the Miss America Pageant, and dog shows.

Piggybacking off of this idea, some forms of racing qualify as sports because the winner is clearly determined by time, which is not subjective. Of course, this only works if the participants are athletes. The annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is a race of sorts, but it’s certainly not a sport.

Tour de France-style cycling is a sport because the folks involved are athletes. Soap box racing—the outcome for which is far more dependant on the design of the car than the athleticism of the driver—is not. For the purposes of clear classification, we can call this sort of activity a competition.

This term basically covers all activities pitting sides against one another that don’t qualify as sports. Downhill skiing’s a sport. The Marathon is a sport. Speed-skating is a sport. However—and here’s the point where I’m going to piss a whole lot of people off—car racing is a competition. You don’t need to be an athlete to be a race car driver. It’s really freaking hard but at the end of the day, you’re sitting in a car. Sorry, NASCAR fans—deal with it.

Now, it should be mentioned that there are events that seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Shooting provides a pretty good example. Target shooting on its own is not a sport, yet the biathlon (of which shooting comprises half) is. The athlete clause comes into play again here. You can be a fat expert marksman (ever watch hunting on television?) but biathletes are, as the name implies, indisputably athletes.

So, there you have it. If you’ve got yourself some athletes and an objective method of determining a winner, then you, dear patient reader, are looking at a sport.

I should take a moment to address the logical criticism of this whole setup. Someone is surely going to contend that I’ve set up a definition of ‘sport’ that simply excludes activities I don’t particularly like. Not true. Case in point: Boxing.

I like boxing. Somewhere, subconsciously, I wanted to call boxing a sport. But it’s not. All too often, the fight goes to the judges, a spectacularly imperfect system that has the potential to produce results that are at best absurd and at worst outwardly corrupt (see: The outright theft of Roy Jones Jr.’s gold medal in 1988, the recent Pacquiao/Bradley decision). If every fight ended in a knockout, we’d be fine (and boxing’s television ratings would be significantly higher). Boxers are unquestionably athletes and with nothing but knockouts, there would be a clear, decisive winner (the guy still standing). Now, I don’t doubt that famed HBO boxing commentator and former judge Harold Lederman knows more about boxing than I ever will, but if the winner of a fight can be determined by how pretty some guy with a clipboard thought one fighter’s left-cross was, boxing simply can’t be a sport.

Under this rubric, The Summer Games end up faring decently, with slightly under eighty percent of the events qualifying as sports (omissions include archery and diving, among others). Sure, it’s a slightly semantic argument, but it’s something the world’s foremost athletic competition should want to be correct about and, at least a fifth of the time, it seems they’re not. That is, of course, if you buy into this system.

In truth, I don’t expect this to go by without exception. Someone, I’m sure, will find an activity that they believe cannot be classified under this paradigm. It’s bound to happen. So, there’s one final rule: In the event of disagreement over whether or not something is a sport, the debate is to be settled in the manner of the ultimate athletes — the gladiators. Grab a sword and some armor and fight to the death, which, in case you’re wondering, would be a sport. TC Mark


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  • Kate

    Shut the hell up.

  • Hill

    That’s why they are called the Olympic Games, not the Olympic Sports.

    • K

      Exactly what I was going to say! Nice!

  • Michelle

    I completely agree with this. 100%. If scoring is subjective, it is not a sport.

    I’m a dancer. I’m absolutely an athlete. But I’m not participating in a sport when I compete in dance.

    However, I definitely heard of team dressage before I read that sentence.

  • Hules

    Who gives a fuck, it’s all incredible. The athletes, from table tennis to the marathon to basketball, are all extraordinary and deserve this recognition. Personally, I’m pumped for the Race Walk. Love those hips swaggin’.

    • M.-K.

      agreed for the racewalk. i love it. it’s like seeing who can whisper the loudest.

  • Greg

    Read your bio again:

    “Joe Ippolito is a techy, writer, and aspiring cook living in New York. He hopes one day to be able to grow a full beard.”

    Go on, derogate the life-long endeavours and international achievements of others again.

  • tiff

    what Hill said. and…
    you seem to be confused as to the definition of the word ‘sports.’
    scoring systems have nothing to do with the word ‘sports’
    the Olympics are games, competitions of sorts between people who are “trained or skilled in exercises … requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” <>> it’s a sport. So is car racing.

    you mention basketball as being “objective.”
    have you watched NBA games lately? almost 9 out of 10 wins have been up to the referees indirectly. how do you measure objectivity in that case? same thing with football. one bad ref call changes the outcome of the game, you can no longer consider points and touchdowns your sole decider of who wins.

    • Jamie

      The NBS is bullsh*t anyway, but football seems to challenge the subjective power of the refs by requiring that refs agree (or at least not disagree) and by allowing challenges for further review. A subjective element is definitely present, but the game makes a conscious effort to make the judging as objective as possible.

  • tiff

    I mentioned Chess in my above comment.. somehow it got deleted.
    Chess requires tremendous mental agility + stamina >>> it’s a sport even though your so-called “fat-asses can be good at it.
    your definition of Athlete is very limited. have an open mind.

    • Mandy

      Chess is a game. Period.

  • Sab

    It took me a few paragraphs to warm up to it, but overall I found this pretty funny and interesting.

  • Michelle Garcia

    Last time I checked, “The Olympic Games give us the chance to celebrate our shared humanity, and the object of the competitors should be to express this humanity by performing fairly and honestly to the best of their natural ability”.

    This is the purpose for the Games. It was the purpose in Ancient Greece and the purpose it was reinstated 100 years ago.

    The Games are not about what SPORT you compete in or if you are really an athlete. It’s a chance for the entire human race to be as one, to agree on something, to celebrate something together.

    If this article was simply a rage against “sports” that aren’t really sports, then ok. I agree with the fact that many “sports” that participate in the games don’t live up to that name. But bring up the Olympics, then you are just downright naive.

    Look at the whole picture next time you decide to write such a ridiculous article.

  • Hill

    Tiff, I’m going to have to disagree with your comments regarding chess and car racing as sports (although some people feel very strongly that car racing is a sport, I do not). There is a big difference between the definitions of “sport” and “game,” mainly that “sport” requires athletic and/or physical skill or prowess, while a “game” is simply a competitive activity performed to a set of rules or standards. That being said, a sport may not be a game and may not even be competitive; many people run and work out without score or competition, but does that make what they are doing any less of a sport? Am I any less of an athlete because I am not competing with anyone during my morning run? Just as well, not all games are sports, as in the instance of activities like board games (chess), and perhaps some of the games included in the Olympics.
    REGARDLESS, I found this article very disrespectful of the Olympic Games as a whole and everyone involved. Do your research before you write such a scathing and critical piece. The competitors in the Games go through years of vigorous and strenuous training, both mental and physical, in preparation to represent their country and deserve the utmost respect and admiration for what they do.

    Go World.

    • Kate

      Car racing requires immense physical training. Refer to Jenson Button who runs marathons in his spare time in order to train for the strenuous demands of each Formula 1 race. I guess that makes it a sport?

      • Hill

        I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about car racing, but I wouldn’t base my opinion on what one particular racer does, as I highly doubt that the majority of drivers could run a marathon. I do agree that drivers are extremely skilled and the ability to drive a vehicle as they do requires an immense amount of training. I guess I would agree that racing may well be a sport, but I would argue the case against drivers being athletes. I don’t believe that the ability to withstand high temperatures while turning a wheel quickly qualifies someone as an athlete. Many people who play sports wouldn’t qualify as athletes, in my opinion anyway (let’s be honest, would you regard the late Babe Ruth as an athlete? Skilled baseball player? YES. Athletic? Meh).

        But, I digress. Much of this discussion/argument(?) is based on opinion and personal connotations. To each their own.


      • Kate

        I guessed from your first comment that you don’t know much about Motorsport, which is why I gave one specific more famous example. But you can check any of the Formula 1 drivers’ training regimes and find that they are all very strenuous. All of the drivers restarts drivers train 7 days a week. It’s not about turning the wheel in high temperatures, it’s about endurance and the ability to withstand the g-force that is placed upon the body at such high speeds, particularly around such tight corners. I’m sure NASCAR drivers aren’t that fit because all they do is drive in large, loose circles. I don’t include that in Motorsport.

      • Hill

        I don’t know why I’m not being allowed to reply to your last comment, but I literally know nothing about Motorsport outside of NASCAR, which is unfair to the rest of the genre. Lesson learned :)

      • Hill

        Nevermind the beginning of that comment, it worked :)

  • Jk

    They sure are Joe, they sure are.

  • Meredith


    • Meredith

      and by no, i mean you in general. no. no no no.

  • Anya

    Why does this article exist?

  • watts

    this is one of the dumbest things i’ve ever read. just because you say something doesn’t mean it is automatically true. so, when you say a sport must have a winner that is decided objectively, it doesn’t just become so.

    you’re definition of a sport is really the definition of a game. games have objective rules that decide who wins and who doesn’t, sports dont necessarily. things like gymnastics and figure skating may not be games, but they almost certainly are sports.

    there’s a lot of other dumb stuff here that you got wrong, but i’ll spare you the details.

  • Crzesk8dad

    Those who can do…write internet articles.

  • Crzesk8dad

    Those who can’t to your article…you got the idea, Joe.

    I’m a lousy typist and your just plain ignorant.

  • Shannon

    Dressage, sport of my heart, dragged down and insulted by people left and right. Maybe if the networks decided to show at some time that wasn’t the middle of the night…I do enjoy your blog so I won’t argue with you over the validity of dressage. Participation in the sport practically requires a signed agreement you will forever be explaining to people what it is you do, to blank looks. And I accept it. I like the format you took for this post, too. I suppose, logically, many sports don’t qualify. But logic doesn’t account for everything.

  • jemmehlee

    thanks, just ruined the olympics for me… FACK

  • Heather

    Both Gymnastics and Ice Skating are hardly subjective. There’s differences in judging patterns but there are still strict rules that don’t make the judging entirely subjective or even moderately so. Athletes start out with a degree of difficulty, which is the predetermined amount of points the organizing body awards for each skill in their routines. There are then predetermined deductions that come from mistakes the gymnasts make in their routines i.e. falling off the beam, going out of bounds, or not sticking a landing. There is a certain, very specific way that gymnasts are supposed to complete skill and if they make even a minor mistake they will get marked off. Judges take notice of all the mistakes throughout the routine combined with the degree of difficulty in order to give scores. It’s not like they’re sitting there, watching the routine and randomly giving out numbers to athletes, it’s much more precise. Sure, gymnastics judges can get it wrong sometimes, but so do referees in all the “real sports.”


      Thank you thank you thank you!! I’m a figure skater and I was just about to post almost this exact point. The figure skating judging system is less subjective than any refereed sport.

  • Danielle @ Collegiate Feminist

    Figure skating is 100% a sport. Have you ever tried it?! Obviously, not. It takes incredible discipline, athleticism, and graceful artistry.

  • Devin McDonnell

    actually, joe, you have no fucking idea what you’re talking about if you think that gymnastics is not a sport and therefore your opinion means nothing. cheerio.

  • Cc

    no x2

  • Bree

    i have never hated an article posted on thought catalog.. congrats on popping that cherry for me.

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  • Joseph Marshall

    The question itself remind me of this fine remark of W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee:

    Poker-playing Sucker: “Is this a game of chance?”

    Fields: “Not the way I play it, no.”

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