Friday, October 27, 2017

When is a sport not a sport?

Further to the ongoing debate on what is, or is not, a sport, the European Court of Justice has ruled, perhaps unsurprisingly, that bridge is not in fact a sport.
The English Bridge Union, essentially a bunch of wealthy retirees (and probably tax lawyers), had, rather cynically I thought, applied for sports status for tax purposes. The Court demurred on the grounds that a sport should involve "a not negligible physical element". Having been stymied in this, they will now try for tax-exempt status as a "cultural service".
But whatever you think about the English Bridge Union, the case has reignited the age-old debate about what actually constitutes a sport. The status of most activities that involve running, jumping, swimming and chasing a ball around a field are not really in any doubt (not withstanding the fact that many soccer fans would deny that American football is a real sport, and probably almost as many football fans the reverse).
It's when we get into the realm of ice dancing, dressage, rhythmic gymnastics, curling and golf that things get tricky, where there is undeniable skill involved and some physical exertion (even a lot of exertion in the case of ice dancing), but where the activities fall outside of the core Olympic ideals of "faster, higher, stronger". Indeed, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used to be considered the ultimate arbiter of all matters sporting. But, in this new era of commercialism and cynical marketing, the IOC can no longer be relied upon for objectivity (take the addition of surfing and skateboarding as Olympic sports at Tokyo 2020, for example). As Cathal Kelly drolly observes, "If someone can persuade teenagers to watch bear-baiting and laundry-folding, the IOC will slap a logo on them". And yet squash has been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to get itself recognized as an Olympic sport...
So, where does this leave activities like car-racing (usually considered a sport, but is it really?), bowling (if curling is a sport, then presumably so is bowling?) and darts (no one is really serious about that, surely!). What counts as a sport, what is an artform, and what is just a skill or merely a pastime? Well, unfortunately, the ECJ ruling doesn't really help us at all.

Just to mix things up a bit, the Global Association of International Sports Federations  has just recognized pole dancing - whichbit describes as "a performance sport combining dance and acrobatics on a vertical pole" - as a sport. I'm sure they just did it for a lark.

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