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The Three Categories of Sports

/ 5 min read

I’ve had some spirited discussions over the years about what is and isn’t a sport. And you aren’t going to believe this, but I have an opinion on the matter.

The dictionary has a definition:

Now this is a pretty good definition, but there is, of course, some wiggle room. It says “often” undertaken competitively, but I’d argue that it must be undertaken as a competition to be a sport. No winner at the end? It’s not a sport.

Most of these discussions circle around what is and isn’t a sport, with me taking the position that anything involving an external power source is not a sport, that horse-racing is a sport where the horses are the athletes, and that anything involving music and a costume and not a uniform is highly suspect.

So I’ve actually taken a bit of time to refine my definition of sport by coming up with four sports categories. So without further ado…

Category 1: Pure Sports

Falling into this category are things like Track and Field, Swimming, and, yes, Horse Racing. These sports have a clear winner, very few rules, and any judges, referees, or umpires are only peripherally involved and generally after the fact. The rulebook is thin, and rule violations are relatively rare.

In Category 1 sports, the winner is obvious and clearly determined, even with a photo finish. Either you crossed the finish line first, or you didn’t. Either you made it over the bar or you didn’t. Controversies are few and far between. The outcome is determined almost purely by the athletes themselves. It is very, very rare, for instance, where a track and field athlete is said to have been “robbed” of a victory. If it does happen, it is usually after the fact and the result of some external event like a doping violation that isn’t entirely definitive.

Category 2: Refereed Sports

This category contains most of the team sports. These sports are usually scored, and have referees or umpires who are actively involved in the events. The referees enforce the rules. Because of this, they can influence the outcome to varying degrees. (They can even be accused of “fixing” an outcome).

But as a general rule, the outcome is determined by the players, and the results are accepted and understood. Either you scored more points or you didn’t. Sometimes controversies occur and the outcome is not always accepted.but generally, the winner is known and determined by the athletes themselves.

If fans remember “getting robbed by the refs”, then this is a Category 2 sport. (Think the 1972 Olympic Basketball gold medal game…)

Category 3: Judged Sports

This category is where things get a bit interesting. The results of these sports are determined to varying degrees by judges. An athlete performs a routine or a specific act, and that endeavor is judged and a score is given.

Most sports in this category, like diving, have a specific notion of a “Degree of Difficulty” where specific maneuvers or acts can be mathematically factored into the judged score. A certain dive into the pool is harder than another, and that factors into the final score mathematically. In gymnastics, the degree of difficulty determines the maximum score you can get, and the performance of certain elements increases your score.

Here, though, judging is a major factor in the results, and can become a factor. Us older folks used to joke about “…and the Russian judge scored it…”

If the outcome can be determined by a controversial judged score, it’s firmly in Category 3.

Category 4: Non-sports

Some competitions are called “sports” but they are not. Auto racing is the prime example here. Anything involving the input of energy other than the athlete is not a sport. I mean, motocross racing is clearly a competition, and I’m sure the riders are in great shape, but involving electricity or internal combustion engines is where I draw the line.

Anything involving pure brain power is not a sport. Chess and poker? Not sports.

Additional Thoughts

Some sports are a little hard to categorize. What is tennis? I could make the case for Category 1, but a match could turn on the in/out call of an umpire, causing it to lean towards Category 2.

Weightlifting? Either you lift the weight or you don’t, but every lift is judged and approved by a panel of judges. I’d call that as “Just above the line of being a Category 1 sport”.

Figure skating? It’s a sport, but it is probably as close to the line as any sport gets because what is with the costumes? Judging controversies are not uncommon, and they openly speak about things like “It’s her time…” and “They have to get a few more competitions under their belt”. On the other hand, I know a former professional figure skater, and holy hell is that woman strong and fit.

Other things pop up — why is Break Dancing now an Olympic sport and not, say, Ballet? Cheerleading didn’t used to be a sport, but now it is clearly a Category 3 sport.

How about “Circus Arts”? I don’t even know if there is a competition for that?

Surfing? It was the best example I could think of for “barely a sport”, but maybe I don’t know enough about it.

Or how about Rock Climbing? I never thought about it as a sport, but one could make a case that it can be timed, and the first one up the wall wins, so I guess it is a Category 1 sport, no?

In any event, I’m going to have a hard time accepting “Olympic Gold Medalist in Break Dancing”, which actually will be a thing this year.

Anyway, this was fun to write and think about, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.