When is a sport not a sport? When it’s entertainment, apparently.
As we approach the end of the snooker season and the beginning of Wimbledon, there are again quiet rumblings in the Force about what is, and is not, sport.
Quite recently, snooker fans have had the wind snatched from their sails as commentators and pundits alike remind viewers “we’re in the entertainment business.” “No you’re not!” I scream back at the television, but when the sports’ governing body (World Snooker) seems to concur, the argument is surely lost. Yet, by definition, Snooker is sport.
Snooker, like golf, and darts, comes in for the same criticisms time and time again. It’s not sport, people say. Sport is defined as “an activity involving physical exertion and or skill in which an individual or team competes”. By that definition, snooker and golf, along with pool, darts, chess, and even tiddly winks is a sport as they require the participant to be skilled players of the game in question in order to win but the definition has been stretched like elastic in recent years.
The old stand-by for many people arguing this point over the years has been the Olympics. If it’s in the Olympics, then it’s a sport. But for many years Greco Roman wrestling was left out of the Olympics, which is odd when you consider that not only is amateur wrestling very clearly sport, it is the very first sport ever developed!
I think, where people tend to come unstuck is in reconciling sport with athleticism. You do not need to be an athlete to be a sportsperson. I couldn’t describe participants in sports such as snooker and chess as athletes, because participation in the games requires no athletic ability at all. To compete in any sport requires good mental discipline, often achieved through training, but these sports require no physical training at all. Cricket, tennis, netball and volley ball all feature participants that would be classed as athletes. You need to move fast to catch the ball, therefore you’re doing something physical to which being of an athletic bent is incredibly useful, if not essential. The more someone trains, the more physically fit they become, the easier they’ll be able to move swiftly and get the ball. In this case the ability to play the game is enhanced by being athletic. The ability to play snooker or golf, even at a world championship level, is not enhanced by physical training. Rotund players like John Higgins play the game just as well as slimline participants like Judd Trump.
But how far can the accepted definition of sport be carried? It seems there is no limit. Poker is considered a sport by many, yet other games underpinned by the use of cards, like Dungeons and Dragons aren’t. Chess and Backgammon are both board games, considered by many to be a sport, yet Ludo and Mousetrap! aren’t. Where will it end? This is the question that dogs those that assert snooker, darts and players of similar sports are not sportspersons. Perhaps the rigidity of the terms that are often applied have settled into the established order, precisely to avoid answering these very questions, demanding the line between sport and games, sport and athleticism must be drawn somewhere. Trouble is, it’s already a very blurry line.
I’ve already said not all sports people are athletes, and conversely, not all athletes are sports people. Professional wrestlers, for example, are considered to be athletes. To some this is a controversial viewpoint, but even a quick glance at modern wrestling will show how many miles north the 21st century lies from the days when overweight men in leotards could apply sloppy-looking rest holds and have the audience eating out of their hands. Pro wrestlers of the 21st century requires far more body on body contacts that its twentieth century forbear. You need physical and mental training to be a professional wrestler, yet as everybody should be aware, wrestling is by no means a sport. It’s per-determined, often scripted nature precludes it from being classed, in any way, as a sport. It’s entertainment, a physical form of theater, but this should in no way demean the extraordinary efforts, and physical well-being sacrificed in the pursuit of that entertainment. Wrestlers are just, if not more, likely to develop serious knee, back and neck injuries. Yet, professional wrestlers are definitely not considered athletes, in the way that boxers definitely are.
Similarly, mixed martial arts are seldom mentioned in the same breath as ‘traditional’ sportspersons. MMA is a relatively new addition to the pantheon, and so finds itself a neverworld, sandwiched equidistantly some way between legitimate sport and physical entertainment. Perhaps this middle ground occupied by such ‘modern sports’ is a rite of passage for, harking back to the days when all ball sports were looked down on by the rock throwers of yore.
Snooker is sport. Like it or not. And damn good entertainment too but you won’t see Ronnie O Sullivan becoming Sports Personality of the Year.
Copyright Martin Gregory 2019