It is difficult to define what a sport is. A diverse set of activities are at least claimed by some as sports - from chess to cheerleading, from sheepdog trials to ballroom dancing. What do all of those activities have in common?

Physical "athleticism" seems to narrow down those activities which we would want to include in a definition: otherwise "sport" is a category so broad as to be potentially useless and quite different to the common understanding, fuzzy though that may be.

Table of contents
1 How to understand "Sport"
2 History of sport
3 A classification of sports
4 Sportsmanship
5 Professionalism and the regulation of sport
6 Sport and politics
7 Art and sport
8 Conclusion
9 Related topics
10 External links

How to understand "Sport"

Sport is a major area of human interest and activity. Large parts of our leisure time, and newspaper and TV time is given over to it.

This article approaches sport in a broadly philosophical way, and is intended to:

1 define sport,
2 to understand it through looking at the history and the development of sport, then
3 to evaluate its importance by looking at its involvement and effects in various other areas of living.

A pragmatic approach to defining "sport" is to look at the common usage of the term. A sport can be operationally defined as an activity characteristically involving :

  • The exercise of an everyday physical skill recreationally, i.e. for a purpose other than its usual application in daily life.

Conforming to a set of rules for the activity while aiming to attain excellence

The excellence referred to above may be measured against previous benchmarks, time measurements, performance of the other team or participants, world records, etc..

Examples of skills which have become sports:

  • Gladiators in Rome fought and killed for the delectation of the audience, rather than to protect the Empire:
  • Yachting is the travel across water for enjoyment or competition rather than e.g. for transport or commerce:
  • Running is done on a course for a fixed length of time or distance, rather than simply to catch a bus.

Physical sports use characteristics such as strength, stamina, speed, dexterity and other skills, other sports use more cerebral skills, such as strategic thinking in chess.

The line between sports, games, exercise and play is certainly not clear; games are often redefined as sports when they involve particularly skilled participants, which gives them appeal to non-participants. This is especially true in the modern age, which gives much weight to the spectator aspect of sports. Similarly, play is usually understood as less purposive activity, but can become more like a game or sport as it conforms more to external rules or patterns of behaviour. Exercise is action to develop skill or ability, and may be a forerunner of both sport and games.

History of sport

The development of sport throughout history can teach us a great deal about social changes, and about the nature of sport itself.

Sport seems to involve basic human skills being developed and exercised for their own sake, in parallel with being exercised for their usefulness. This suggests that sport is probably as old as the existence of people as purposive beings, and that it was a useful way of people learning and developing,l increasing their mastery of nature and the environment.

Of course, as we go further back in history the dwindling evidence makes this more difficult to support.


There are many modern discoveries in France, Africa and Australia of cave art (see e.g. Lascaux) from prehistory which provide evidence of ritual ceremonial behaviour. Some of these sources date from over 30 000 years ago, as established by carbon dating.

Stone-age drawings were discovered in the Libyan desert depicting among other acitivities, swimming and archery..[1]

The art itself is an example of interest in skills unrelated to the functional tasks of staying alive, and is evidence of there being leisure time available. It depicts other non-functional activities such as ritual etc..

Therefore, although there is scant direct evidence of sport from these sources, it is reasonable to extrapolate that there was some activity at these times resembling sport.

It is reasonable to assume from these and other historical sources that sport has origins which lie in the beginnings of mankind itself.

Ancient China

There are artifacts and structures which suggest that Chinese people engaged in activities which meet our definition of sport as early as 4 000 years BC. The origin and development of China's sports activities seem to have been closely related to the production, work, war and entertainment of the time.

Gymnastics appears to have been a popular sport in China's past. It certainly remains so today, as the skill of Chinese acrobats is internationally recognised.

China has a Bejing Museum which is dedicated to the subject of Chinese sport and its history. See Chinese Sports Museum

Ancient Egypt

Monuments to the Phaorohs indicate that a range of sports were well developed and regulated several thousands of years ago, including swimming and fishing. These are perhaps not surprising given the importance of the Nile in the life of Egypt. Other sports included javelin throwing, high jump and wrestling. See the reference to Ancient Egyptian sport.

Again, the nature of the sports popular at the time suggests close correspondence with everday non-sporting activities.

Ancient Greece.

A wide range of sports were already in operation at the time of the Ancient Greek Empire. Wrestling, running, boxing, javelin, discus throwing, and chariot racing were prevalent. This suggests that the military culture of Greece was an influence on the development of its sports.

The Olympic games were held every four years in Ancient Greece. The games were held not simply as a sporting event, but as a celebration of individual excellence, cultural and artistic variety, and a showplace for architectural and sculptural innovation.

Fundamentally, it was a time of gratitude and respect for the Gods of the Greek religion. The games are named after Mount Olympus, a sacred place where the Gods were said to live. A time of truce was declared during the Olympic Games, as military actions and public executions were suspended. This was to enable people to congregate peacefully and to compete in a civilised and respectful atmosphere.

Modern European and global developments

Sport has been increasingly organised and regulated from the time of the Ancient Olympics up to the present century. Activities necessary for food and survival became regulated activities done for pleasure or competition on an increasing scale, e.g. hunting, fishing, horticulture. The Industrial Revolution and mass production brought increased leisure which allowed increases in spectator sports, less elitism in sports, and greater accessibility.

These trends continued with the advent of mass media and global communication. Professionalism became prevalent, further adding to the increase in sport's popularity. This perhaps contrasts with the noble Grecian ideal, where victory at the Games was much sought after, and rewarded with an olive branch. (Perhaps not only with an olive branch, some writers record.)

Perhaps in a reaction to the demands of contemporary life, there have been developments in sport which are best described as post-modern: extreme ironing being a notable example. There is also a move towards adventure sports as a form of escapism from the routines of life, examples being white water rafting, canyoning, BASE jumping, and the more genteel orienteering.

A classification of sports

Main article: List of sports

One system for classifying sports is as follows, based more on the sport's aim than on the actual mechanics. The examples given are intended to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive




A combination of all categories


It is interesting that the motivation for sport is often an elusive element. For example, beginners in sailing are often told that dinghy racing is a good means to sharpen the learner's sailing skills. However, it often emerges that skills are honed to increase racing performance and achievements in competition, rather than the converse. 'Sportsmanship' expresses an aspiration or ethos that the activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, but often the pressures of competition, individual achievement, or introduction of technology can seem to work against enjoyment by participants.

People responsible for leisure activities often seek recognition and respectability as sports by joining sports federations such as the IOC, or by forming their own regulatory body. In this way sports evolve from leisure activity to more formal sports: relatively recent newcomers are BMX cycling, snowboarding, wrestling, etc. Some of these activities have been popular but uncodified pursuits in various forms for different lengths of time. Indeed, the formal regulation of sport is a relatively modern and increasing development.

Professionalism and the regulation of sport

The entertainment aspect of sport, together with the spread of mass media and increased leisure time, has led to professionalism in sport. This has resulted in some conflict, where the paycheck can be seen as more important than recreational aspects: or where the sport is changed simply to make it more profitable and popular therefore losing some of the traditions valued by some.

The successful execution of a sport requires the consensus agreement of the participants on a set of rules for fair competition. This has led to the control of each sport through a regulatory body to define what methods of competition are acceptable and what are considered cheating.

Sport and politics

There have been many dilemmas for sports where a difficult political context is in place.

When apartheid was the official policy in South Africa, many sportspeople adopted the conscientious approach that they should not appear in competitive sports there. Some feel this was an effective contribution to the eventual demolition of the policy of apartheid, others feel that it may have prolonged and reinforced its worst effects.

The 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin was an illustration, perhaps best recognised in retrospect, where an ideology was developing which used the event to strengthen its spread through propaganda.

In the history of Ireland, Gaelic sports were clearly carried on with nationalistic overtones: for example, in the mid 20th century a person could have been banned from playing professional Gaelic football, hurley, or other sport, if the person played Soccer, or other game which was seen to be of British origin.

Nationalism in general is often evident in the pursuit of sport, or in its reporting: people compete in national teams, or commentators and audiences can adopt a partisan view. These trends are seen by some as contrary to the fundamental ethos of sport being carried on for its own sake, for the enjoyment of its participants.

Art and sport

Sport has many affinities with art. Ice skating and Tai chi for example are sports which come close to artistic spectacles in themselves: to watch these activities comes close to the experience of spectating at a ballet. Similarly, there are other activities which have elements of sport and art in their execution, such as performance art, artistic gymnastics, Bodybuilding etcetera.

The fact that art is so close to sport in some situations is probably related to the nature of sport. The definition of "sport" above put forward the idea of an activity pursued not just for the usual purposes, e.g. running not simply to get places, but running for its own sake, running as well as we can.

This is similar to a common view of aesthetic value, which is seen as something over and above the strictly functional value coming from an object's normal use. So an aesthetically pleasing car is one which doesn't just get from A to B, but which impresses us with its grace, poise and charisma.

In the same way, a sporting performance such as jumping doesn't just impress us as being an effective way to avoid obstacles or to get across streams. It impresses us because of the ability, skill and style which is shown.

Art and sport were probably more clearly linked at the time of Ancient Greece, when gymnastics and callesthenics invoked admiration and aesthetic appreciation for the physical build, prowess and 'arete' displayed by participants. The modern term 'art' as skill, is related to this ancient Greek term 'arete'. The closeness of art and sport in these times was revealed by the nature of the Olympic Games which were celebrations of both sporting and artistic achievements, poetry scupture and architecture.


Sporting activity is probably as old as mankind itself, being related to learning through removal from everyday goals and purposes, competition and entertainment. All of these are valued aspects of modern life by most people, and this perhaps explains why sport is such an enduring part of our culture.

Related topics

The following entries go into further detail into issues important to sport:

External links