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The Oxford English Dictionary defines sport as "an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment".[1] The activity is governed by a generally accepted set of rules and guidelines. Most sports allow judged competitions, and have clear winners and losers as defined by the rules that govern the sports.[2] For many people, competition, and a wish to develop and display one's skill and proficiency, provide strong motives for engaging in sports. But many sports, such as running, swimming, weightlifting and fishing, do not require competition. One may do them merely to get exercise or for personal enjoyment, though sometimes one tries to compete with oneself.

As well as serving as a form of recreation for those engaged in the activity, sports often entertain far more spectators than participants, often run promoted as a business. In professional sports leagues or associations, players in official teams or clubs receive payment for their participation. Spectators, in turn, pay for admission to view the event at an arena, stadium, or other such venue, as well as broadcasting the event on television or radio often with commentary. Also, professional sports earn revenue through advertising and sponsorship of different aspects of the sport: individual players, teams, competitions, and equipment. The Super Bowl in American football is a prime example: sponsorship of a thirty-second advertising slot during the game costs $2.6 million. There is also a phenomenon known as sports entertainment, such as professional wrestling, where the practices of sport are used to produce an entertaining show.

Sports go back to the ancient Greek Olympiad, resurrected as the modern Olympic Games. The ancient Romans considered deadly combat competition between slave-gladiators a sport, and medieval knights sported by jousting. We consider boxing, amateur and professional, a sport.

Types of sports

A sport may be either individual (as in running), group (e.g., two players may form a doubles team in tennis) or team (e.g., football). Individual sports, such as running and swimming, may feature teams, as at track meets, and team members may root for each other, but individuals do not directly help each others' individual scores, and the team scores are determined by individual performance. Group and team sports are very different in this regard: one player can directly help other player's ability to score, and so it is fully meaningful to speak only of the score that the entire team received.

Sports can also be divided into ball sports, races, demonstrations of skill and strength, and fighting.

Many sports are played using a ball or a ball-like object. These include the world's two most popular spectator sports, association football and cricket. Other ball sports are American football, Australian rules football, baseball, basketball, field hockey, golf, ice hockey, rugby football and tennis. Most of them are team sports.

Races include track and field events such as the 100-meter dash, long-distance running, swimming, cycling, and rowing. These sports usually involve moving a person (as in the marathon), or an object in which people are moving (as in luge), from a start line to a finish line, and the winner is determined by the fastest time. The best-known and most-watched demonstrations of skill and strength include figure skating, gymnastics, and weightlifting, but also include such diverse sports as surfing and rock climbing. Also falling into this category would be field events, including discus, shotput, and javelin, which involve the athlete displaying strength and technique to throw an item the furthest distance. Finally, fighting sports include boxing, martial arts such as karate, and wrestling, and are typically scored or based on how many "takedowns" a person scores.

Games that do not require physical exertion are not usually referred to as sports. Chess and similar games of strategy sometimes are, and are reported on in Sports sections of newspapers. This is probably due to the fact that, insofar as they are interesting public competitions, they resemble the sports that are reported on in newspapers. Whether chess really ought to be called a sport is a matter about which intelligent people are capable of debating at great length.[3]

A rather new kind of sport involves video games in single player mode, such as Dance Dance Revolution (a kind of game in which the player steps on an electronic carpet input device rhythmically) or multiplayer (computer) mode, such as StarCraft which is a very popular in South Korea competitions of which even show on their TV networks. The Wii gaming platform also involves some physical exertion.

The website of the International Olympics Committee lists the following sports for the Summer Olympic Games 2008, with the introduction: “Discover all about the sports on the programme of the Olympic Summer Games, with detailed explanations of each event, the equipment required and the techniques used.”: [4]

Swimming; Synchronized Swimming; Diving; Water polo; Archery; Athletics; Badminton; Baseball; Basketball; Boxing; Canoe-kayak; Cycling; Equestrian; Fencing; Football; Artistic Gymnastics; Rhythmic Gymnastics; Trampoline; Handball; Hockey; Judo; Modern Pentathlon; Rowing; Sailing; Shooting; Softball; Table Tennis; Taekwondo; Tennis; Triathlon; Volleyball; Beach volleyball; Weightlifting; Wrestling.

Levels of competition

People participate in sports at many different levels of skill and formality. At one extreme are very informal sporting events, where the players come together for entertainment much more than for keen competition. In such sporting events, some rules may be relaxed or ignored.

At the other extreme is the world of professional sports. Players at the highest level of professional sport are frequently the best in the world. Furthermore, there is a tendency in many professional team sports for players to specialize by position, and extraordinary skill at an important position can earn a player a large salary. Though sports at the professional level are centered around the game, the game is subordinated in some respects to earning money for those who finance it-- through ticket sales, television broadcasting rights, as well as through merchandising.

Professional sports have had persistent problems with striking a balance between earning money and fostering competition. Different sports have handled this issue differently. In professional American football, for example, teams have a strict salary cap and many have seen the high turnover in championship winners as a positive result. In other professional sports such as baseball, cricket and football, owners have fewer restrictions on how to spend their money and there is a tendency, particularly in Europe, for the wealthiest teams to buy up all the talent and dominate their league.[5]

In between the shamelessly amateurish and the professional are many other levels of sport competition. One prominent form of sport in the United States of America is at the collegiate level. Here, too, there is a range of skill and seriousness. At its highest levels, college sports have many of the same features as professional sports, such as television contracts, expensive sporting event tickets and the recruitment of talented athletes. The difference is that student-athletes are not allowed to receive any financial benefits for their performance. In some cases, where professional teams will not recruit players out of high school, this means that student-athletes must spend a portion of their career playing pro bono. This is the case in college and professional football, where NFL teams will recruit players after their junior year of college, but not earlier.

College sports have been criticized for a number of reasons. Educators have argued that the large budgets spent on sports would be better turned to the classroom, and that high-level collegiate sports distract student-athletes from their education. In many cases, though, collegiate sports are an important way that schools build alumni loyalty and draw in financial contributions.

Equipment and clothing

While many sports can be performed at an amateur level without specialist equipment, professional athletes often require rather extensive amounts of specialist equipment and clothing, and a great deal of research is conducted on how such equipment can improve performance, often by creating ever more technologically-advanced materials to make the equipment lighter or more resilient, and to make clothing that reduces friction or drag (for swimming, running, skiing or many other sports) or increase grip (as with running footwear). Much of this equipment is expensive, and athletes are often sponsored by sports equipment manufacturers. For many athletes, the advances of science and technology are now a strong component in boosting their performance. Entire health related industries have emerged as a result of the desire for athletes to maximize performance and rehabilitate injuries. Prosthetic technology has advanced to the point that strength and endurance of artificial joints and extremities rival the original function, leading to more interesting debate concerning perceived advantages that were not even imagined only a decade ago.

There have been some ethical concerns with the use of technology in sports, but most athletes and sports organizations have decided that sports equipment and clothing are acceptable means of improving performance, while performance enhancing drugs are not.

Ethics and politics in sports

In the twentieth century, much controversy surrounded athletes who used their position to advocate for political causes. Many black American athletes took a vital role in advocating for civil rights, and used their athletic ability to change people's attitudes. Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists in a black power salute on the rostrum at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City was one example of this, as were the athletic careers of Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. In the case of Smith and Carlos, there were negative repercussions with Avery Brundage expelling the athletes from the U.S. Olympic team and from the Olympic Village in Mexico City.

There has been a great deal of controversy in 2008 over the political reactions to the hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, with many people concerned about the human rights record of the Chinese government. During the torch-bearing ceremonies, numerous people attempted to extinguish the torch while it passed through London, United Kingdom and Paris. The British Olympic team were asked to sign a 'gag clause' that would prevent them from engaging in political speech during the Games, but they refused[6].

Sport has other ethical issues, many around the use of steroids and other drugs in doping. While banned by most sporting authorities, teams and leagues, doping is practiced with increasingly stealthy methods like blood doping being used. Many think that doping should be made legal, as to draw a distinction between, say, the use of a performance-enhancing swimsuit or shoe and the use of a drug is an artificial and unsustainable one, and that athletes also now use a variety of other methods to boost their performance, like high-altitude training and the use of oxygen tents. Supporters of doping bans argue that making doping legal would lead many athletes to feel compelled to use drugs to boost their performance - a dangerous and irresponsible move - and that lifting a ban on doping would mean that people are competing on the basis of who has the best doctors and drug laboratories rather than who has trained the hardest.[7]

With the rise of availability of cognitive enhancement drugs, similar questions have been raised as with physical enhancers and doping in sport: is using a cognitive enhancer to perform better in a school or university examination, or in sports or games requiring mental skill rather than or as well as physical skill (card games, quizzes, board games like chess) equivalent to using physical enhancers? Is it cheating to use cognitive enhancers in academic or sporting situations? Medical bodies like the British Medical Association have called for discussion of the ethics of cognitive enhancement medication.[8] Sports competitions, leagues and regualtory bodies now ban use of many physical enhancement drugs – but should they do similarly with drugs that change one's mental abilities? In a competition like the Tour de France, it is not just one's physical endurance that is being tested, but also one's mental endurance.

Some people have also raised questions about the short careers that many athletes have, with many players being unable to find employment after their sporting careers are finished. A great deal of time is spent discussing the responsibilities athletes have towards young people, as participants in a celebrity culture. In the United States of America where the National Collegiate Athletic Association system of sports in higher education operates, some university professors have argued that professional sports on campus detracts from the academic role of the university, with lower admissions requirements for student-athletes, with professors being pressured into giving better grades to student-athletes so that they don't lose their athletic scholarships, with the enormous pay given to sports coaches and other lines which academics feel are being crossed by the heavy focus on sports in universities[9].


  1. OED 2004, page 1,397.
  2. Some call those zero-sum games, a term used primarily in economics and game theory and indicative of a competition involving clear winners and losers.
  3. See the forum board Chess IS a sport,, last accessed October 10, 2020..
  4. Summer Sports: Olympic Disciplines
  6. Geoff Small, Remembering the Black Power protest, The Guardian July 9, 2008
  7. Philosophy Talk, Ethics in Sport
  8. The Varsity: Wired Awake, 16 Nov 2007
  9. Murray Sperber, Beer & Circuses: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education (review)