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What makes a sport a sport?

What makes a sport a sport?

The European Court of Justice has declared bridge to be a sport – not just a game. It’s a distinction that has tormented lawyers and philosophers for centuries

The European Court of Justice has declared bridge to be a sport – not just a game. It’s a distinction that has tormented lawyers and philosophers for centuries

Michael Hann | June 22nd 2017

Rare is the day that the philosophy of Wittgenstein and a ruling by the European Court of Justice’s advocate general combine to reshape sport. But such a day arrived last Thursday. The case was the latest instalment in a long-running saga in which the English Bridge Union (EBU) has been taking on the bureaucratic apparatus of the British state – including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, various sports councils, and the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. The EBU was attempting to reclaim £631,000 in taxes from which “sports” are exempt. The case started at a tribunal in 2014, and then went through the English courts. Every time, the EBU lost. Then along came Maciej Szpunar. Invoking Wittgenstein, he handed down a ruling that bridge, a card game for four players with a reputation for being popular among the posh and the old, is indeed a sport. 
 
The question that Szpunar was answering was, he said, similar to one tackled by Wittgenstein in his “Philosophical Investigations” about how we define games – including board games, card games, ball games and the Olympic Games. He cautioned against being too prescriptive. “Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called “games”’ – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!’”
 
Overthinking it has been causing arguments for decades, usually around pub tables after several drinks, but also among governing bodies and lawyers. Though there is proof of sport existing in China and Egypt thousands of years ago, as well as in the original Olympic games in Greece, the concept did not enter the English language until the late middle ages, from the French “desport”, when it meant pleasurable pastimes and activities. Its first usage to mean a game involving physical exercise dates from 1520, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
 
Later as sports became more popular, governing bodies emerged to codify their rules. The oldest appears to be the Marylebone Cricket Club, founded in 1787 to revise the laws of cricket which had been drawn up by a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” in 1744. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club turns out not to be that ancient: it was founded in 1754, but didn’t codify the rules of the sport until 1897. The growth of professional sport through the 20th century, and the rise of international competitions like the modern Olympics in 1896, spurred the growth of federations to regulate the regulators. Today there is no single entity that decides what is and isn’t a sport. There are dozens.
 
The papers in the various hearings in the case of the English Bridge Union show the confusion this causes. The European Sports Charter and the United Nations both define sports as physical activities that promote physical fitness and mental well-being, which would rule out anything mentally exercising but physically sedentary. The British Charities Act of 2011 is more inclusive: sports are activities “which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion”. But all three are problematic, given the capacity of many of the most popular spectator sports for leaving their participants severely damaged: not just boxing and ultimate fighting, but rugby, American football, and even soccer, which, according to recent evidence, can leave players brain damaged from long years of heading the ball.
 
The definitive text on sports law – the imaginatively titled “Sports Law”, by Michael Beloff, Tim Kerr and Marie Demetriou – goes with “(i) an activity, human or animal, (ii) in which two or more players, human or animal, compete against each other (iii) according to predetermined rules (iv) pursuant to which someone wins, and which determine who wins.” Which has the benefit of including dog racing, but the disadvantage of including dog-fighting.
 
The definitions cited in the case don’t stop there. There’s one from SportAccord, the umbrella body for international sports federations, whose minute variations from the other definitions include a stipulation that “the sport should not rely on any element of ‘luck’ specifically integrated into the sport” – which would seem to rule out card games, where there’s an element of chance in the hand you’re dealt.
 
All this is complicated by the notion of “mind sports” which tend to be conducted sitting down. The International Mind Sports Federation was formed to unite the five federations of “the traditional mind sports”, namely chess, bridge, draughts, go and xiangqi, as well as others like poker and mah jong. Crucial to HMRC’s case against the EBU was its insistence that “mind sports” are not sports. 

Szpunar didn't agree, seeing no reason why sports have to be physical. But he came closest to Wittgenstein – a philosopher who thought that the meaning of words was nothing more than how we use them – when he talked about public perception of bridge as a sport, in the form of international competitions, including the International Olympic Committee. 
 
Peter Stockdale of the EBU was delighted by the ruling, and not just for financial reasons. Rather optimistically, he thinks it will help to promote bridge in schools. “If it was on a list as a valid sport, we would be able to get many more youngsters playing.” Really? That could be a bridge too far.

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