All right, I’ll be honest. This column has always been most appropriately described as a “soapbox.” Providing — and, to a lesser extent, settling — arguments is my job, so here comes the big one.


Outlining what falls under the definition of the word “sport” always results in arguments about the relative merits of things like golf and bowling. People are always quick to make some poorly thought-out assertion about the athleticism that dance, rock climbing or even band requires, as if carting around a tuba in between AV Club meetings somehow makes you a ninth grade Clinton Portis.

I’m sick of having this discussion; hence, I plan to settle it in the only way I know how — by unilaterally producing an articulation of the word “sport” so perfect that only an idiot would dispute it.

First of all, before I get a barrage of e-mails berating me about the physical stresses involved in synchronized swimming and cheerleading: Whether an activity is a sport is independent of the level of physical difficulty involved.

Cheerleading is not a non-sport because it’s typically for neurotic blondes with disorders of both the eating and attention deficit variety (although it is); it’s a nonsport because there’s no on-the-fly competition.

Athleticism, preparation, and fitness, while commendable, do not a sport make. Saying that physical difficulty defines sport means that I could make climbing the stairs while drunk a sport, since that requires a far more taxing effort than table tennis — which is, of course, a sport.

In order to be a sport, an activity must fulfill only two major criteria. First, it must be, on some level, physically active. Second, and more importantly, it must be the immediate, reactive physical implementation of a strategy designed to beat an opponent.

This eliminates a lot of the pastimes that we typically refer to as sports. Golf, for one, is a turn-based competition where your play is independent of your opponent’s. While your strategy might be tailored to your opponent’s score — perhaps taking necessary risks to close a deficit, or playing conservatively with a large lead — there is no active, direct response to an opponent’s action that must be translated into a physical performance. This makes it a game, on equal footing with bowling, billiards, archery, etc.

This is also why the sports that are highest on the food chain are those that involve two competitors acting directly against one another simultaneously. Football, boxing, basketball and Ultimate Frisbee all fall into this category; hence, they are all sports.

The caveat of direct competition against a specific opponent aims to eliminate the possibility of judges determining the outcome of the contest. While arbiters in most sports exist solely to make objective judgments (who arrived at the bag first; where was the ball when the knee was down), the authorities in activities like figure skating and gymnastics serve to quantify a performance based largely on aesthetics, rather than concrete information.

Gymnastics is not a sport because, although the competitor may strive to conform to some objective standard of perfection, that individual’s success in doing so is measured in a subjective sense. The athlete is attempting to reach a personal standard of perfection, rather than reacting to an opponent’s performance. A quick rule to live by dictates that if “style points” are ever awarded, under any circumstances, the activity in question is a non-sport.

A qualifier on the physically active rule is that the action must be done on the part of a human being. Activities within the “race” category (track, swimming, downhill skiing) are sports, because they involve an individual battling the clock as a representation of another racer who could, theoretically, be competing at the same time, on the same playing field. However, once a car, horse, kangaroo or lawnmower is added, it ceases to be a sport.

Finally, what angers me more than anything is the idea that some activities can become sports simply by popular consent (poker), or that things like ballet are somehow less worthy or difficult due to their exclusion from the Sports Club.

Furthermore, anyone who uses the argument, “But it’s in the Olympics!” should be taken behind the woodshed and shot. The all-inclusive Olympics are as relevant an authority on sport as Sean Penn is on foreign policy.

All of this provides a fairly broad spectrum of behavior that could be classified as sport. However, the physical stress involved is still important. Let’s not go overboard and say that poker players are somehow athletes because the game requires “stamina.” I know people hooked to dialysis machines that are more athletic than most professional card players.

So, to clarify: Unless you are making an immediate, athletic response to your opponent’s physical action — not a sport. Out: golf, sailing, synchronized swimming, billiards, chess, poker, weightlifting, cheerleading, gymnastics.

Your outrage is appreciated.

Dan McCarthy is a junior who appreciates your poorly written commentary. If you think he is incorrect or forgot something, e-mail him at dmcc23@stanford.edu.