Article: Circus as Sport?

THE WIDE, WIDE, WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS ; What’s a Sport? Everything and Nothing

2,441 words
25 September 2003
The Washington Times
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

So you’re looking for sports, right? Presumably that’s why you’re slumming in this part of the paper. As opposed to the section that deals with bombs. Or the area that covers catastrophes.

Fear not. You’ve come to the right place. (And if you’re actually jonesing for catastrophic bombs, well, skip on over to Arts. Look for the capsule review on “Gigli.”)

Don’t be shy. Flip us open. Ruffle on through. On any given day, we have the scoop on large men chasing small leather balls. Small men on large horses chasing each other. Tall women tossing spheres through a ring. Short women kicking balls into a net. Pajama-clad men swinging sticks. Colorfully adorned drivers steering colorfully decaled cars in a seemingly endless series of circles.

All that, and not a single word on the circus. Which, come to think of it, might be a significant oversight.

“The circus is a sport,” said Barbara Pflughaupt, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “We have world-class athletes. They’re performing 11 times a week. There is a competitive nature to what we do as well, because circus performers try to outdo each other all the time.”

In an era that embraces televised strongman contests and a televised Stuart Scott, there’s no question that the sports world belongs under the big top. Particularly if Don King is involved. That said, does the circus qualify as a sport? And if not, then what about elephant polo? Or unicycle hockey? Or trampoline?

Heck, what about curling?

“It’s kind of a running joke in the Olympics to make fun of the curlers,” said Ruben Gonzalez, a three-time Olympic luger and a motivational speaker. “To me, you should at least have to sweat or at least have a little bit of contact to make a sport. Then again, the curlers ripped us back, said we’re just a bunch of nuts hurtling down the chute.”

Ever since the first Neanderthal pummeled his cave mate for nothing more than sheer amusement - followed by the first Neanderthal promoter peddling the overpriced pay-per-view to the rest of his unsuspecting tribe - man has engaged in sport. And for nearly as long, he has devoted many of his waking and many more of his drinking hours to an underlying problem - one that hasn’t gotten any easier with the advent of rhythmic gymnastics, let alone competitive cheerleading.

Namely, what makes a sport a sport, worthy of inclusion on the page you’re holding?

“To create a box that says, ‘OK, these things are sports and these things aren’t,’ that probably doesn’t suit the nature of this discussion,” said Scott Branvold, a sports management professor at Robert Morris University. “You’re going to get arguments. We have them in class. Is auto racing a sport? Is chess?”

Formal definitions aren’t much help. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.” At first glance, this looks great. All of our contents are accounted for. Plus jai alai.

Problem is, the dictionary definition applies as much to pro football as it does to, say, Celebrity Boxing. And “Dog Eat Dog.” And politics. And, quite frankly, most of what goes down at the average singles bar on any given Friday night. Not to mention tournament Scrabble and the National Spelling Bee - two activities in which the dictionary, it seems, would actually come in handy. (Apologies to Maurice Clarett and the rest of the NCAA’s, er, “scholar-athletes.”)

“There isn’t a legal definition of sport,” said Robert Jarvis, a professor of sports law at Nova Southeastern University Law Center. “I’ve been teaching this for years, and I have no idea what a sport is.”

So let’s lower our shoulders like the former Ohio State running back, leaving books to the eggheads who actually bother to sit through their midterms. And the egghead lawyers arguing that the NFL should accept underclassmen. Like there’s anything competitive about the classroom. Or the law, for that matter. What we need are common sense standards, something that separates the World Series from the World Footbag Championships. Besides groupies.

“I always have one student who says that women’s golf is not a sport, or that chess is not a sport,” Jarvis said. “What it comes down to is sweat. That seems to be the only thing we can agree on.”

Fine. Start there. And to perspiration, add eight other Sporting Commandments, culled from history, academia, current practice and the archives of Sports Illustrated’s semi-regular “Sport or Not a Sport?” feature.

(Why only nine commandments? Because Nos.1 and 2 of the Original Ten are a bit redundant. Besides, top 10 lists are so overdone).

Herein, the rules for the games. Let’s see which sports make the cut:

I: Thou shalt compete in a manner that requires antiperspirant

“It would only be a sport if you had to stand up for the whole game and hold something in each hand with your arms extended while the other players make their word.” - Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Scrabble.

No physical exertion leading to sweat, no sport. Simple as that. If a bit too vague. After all, lumberjack log rolling counts as a sweaty activity, as does jockeying for the last parking space in the Georgetown Safeway parking lot. And snorkeling off the coast of Bora Bora, assuming the presence of nearby sharks.

Still, sweat stands as useful opening punch, if only because it eliminates: (a) fantasy football; (b) fantasy baseball; © sitting on the couch in your boxers for seven consecutive hours on a Sunday, checking ESPN News for fantasy football and baseball updates.

(Then again, it’s possible that situation “c” could rapidly escalate into a sticky, prickly situation, provided you have a single television, a lone remote control, an increasingly angry significant other and a concurrent live broadcast of the “E!” network’s pre-Emmy red carpet show. Not that we speak from experience or anything).

After round one, then, fantasy sports, Scrabble, chess, checkers, the World Series of Poker and tournament Madden football are down for the count. Everything else is still bobbing and weaving. Or, in the case of underwater hockey, bobbling and gurgling.

II: Thou shalt reward mastery of a difficult and otherwise useless skill

“Who can’t eat? Everybody can eat.” - Los Angeles Clippers guard Quentin Richardson on hot dog eating contests.

If seventh grade P.E. class taught us anything beyond how to square dance and play pingpong, it’s that sports ought to be hard. Climb a rope hard. Ten pull-ups in a row hard. Run endless laps around the school while the teacher sits in a lawn chair reading the sports page hard.

Moreover, a sport should be difficult for the sake of, well, being difficult, requiring mastery of physical skills that are wholly unnecessary in the course of everyday life. Again, think square dancing. Or consider wrap-tackling. Amusing in those Terry Tate ads? Sure. Useful in a real world office setting? Probably not, unless you wear shoulder pads and a three-bar face mask to work.

For that reason, scratch horse racing, equestrian events and competitive eating from the list. Likewise, dump drinking games. Though bouncing quarters off a table and into a shot glass is both tough and unusual, getting sloshed is anything but.

III: Thou shalt run, jump, throw or risk bodily harm

“As long as there’s a chance you could die, it’s a sport.” - Oakland A’s pitcher Steve Sparks on bullfighting.

The ancient Greeks would have been perplexed - and perhaps a bit terrified - by our modern notion of golf as sport, to say nothing of Jesper Parnevik’s choice in coursewear. At the original Olympic Games, athletes squared off in four basic categories:

*Running (sprints, distance, racing in full battle armor).

*Jumping (long jump while holding weights).

*Throwing (discus, javelin).

*Beating people up (wrestling, boxing, “Pankration,” antiquity’s answer to K1 fighting).

Note that our classical forefathers also sanctioned pederasty and competing in the buff, hopefully not at the same time. Even so, their athletic notions remain sound. Really, what are our childhood proto-sports - tag, dodgeball, “smear the [expletive]” - if not exercises in sprinting and leaping, tossing and brawling?

Besides, the Greeks gave us democracy, the Parthenon and Plato. Plus the gyro. So let’s boot golf off the sports ark, along with NASCAR, beauty pageants, curling, illegal street racing and cycling (sorry, Lance).

Oh, and baseball gets to walk the plank, too, because of the designated hitter. Not that anyone will miss it (the DH, that is).

IV: Thou shalt keep score

“If it’s one guy, not a sport. If it’s a bunch of guys racing, a sport. If they’re racing in a thunderstorm, then it’s a sport televised on Fox.” - U.S. soccer player Clint Mathis on solo ballooning around the world.

Points or time, ya gotta keep score. Someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Not to get all cliched football announcer here, but isn’t that why they play the games? Outside of the billion-dollar broadcast deals?

Hence, bid adieu to diving, bullfighting, mountain climbing and renaissance jousting. Also wave goodbye to hunting, since deer don’t operate a scoreboard - and if they did, the count would be about 10 gazillion to two, including the guy that Bobby Knight shot. By accident. We think.


Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

Article: Circus as Sport? (continued)

V: Thou shalt not judge

Never mind Iraq. For the true origins of the current France- United States antipathy, look no farther than Marie-Reine Le Gouge. With a single, crooked vote at last year’s Winter Olympics, the fur- swaddled figure skating judge dashed whatever trans-Atlantic goodwill remained following Merchant Ivory’s laborious “Jefferson in Paris,” cementing our distaste for judged competitions in the process. Excluding the swimsuit portion of the Miss America pageant, that is, which remains both elegant and tasteful. Or so we’ve heard.

The beauty of sports is the beauty of simple arithmetic. Stopwatches don’t lie. Two plus two equals four. Throw judging into the equation, however, and you’re left with quantum mechanics, a morass of mind-numbing uncertainties. Is that subatomic particle actually there? Did he really 2-foot the quad? Questions like that won’t do. Not when you’re paying $8.50 for a bottle of water.

Into the dustbin of athletic history, then, toss cheerleading, figure skating, gymnastics, boxing, hockey, basketball (the Lakers get the calls), football (the Raiders don’t), dog shows and wet T- shirt contests. In addition, college football gets the heave-ho. Not to say that the BCS is an arbitrary fraud, but if the same system governed the presidential race, Carol Moseley Braun probably would be ranked in the coaches’ poll top five.

VI: Thou shalt wear uniforms

“They don’t have jerseys, man. To play a sport, you have to wear a jersey.” - former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis on professional bass fishing.

Good enough for McDonald’s. Good enough for sports. Just as a Golden Arches hat asks, “Can I supersize your order?” so too does a hockey sweater inquire, “Can I supersize this high stick to the jaw?” Without uniforms, you’re just a goof on the playground. Playing pickup. So lose tennis, skateboarding, the Great Outdoor Games and both sumo and pro wrestling (since adult diapers and Halloween costumes don’t count).

VII: Thou shalt pay thy own way

“What’s jai alai?” - Miami Heat forward Chris Gatling

Sports are a big business these days. Or haven’t you heard? But don’t fret - we’re not going to bore you with a nostalgic spiel decrying the megabuck world of modern athletics. For one, we assume you’re already familiar with George Steinbrenner. Second, oodles of cash have made just about everything in sports bigger and better. Save FedEx Field. Which is mostly just bigger.

The point? At NFL stadiums, fans who can’t afford personal seat licenses are out of luck. Likewise, sports that can’t generate enough fan and sponsor interest to stay afloat - let alone earn a half-minute on “SportsCenter” - don’t belong in this discussion. Scratch hockey, soccer, indoor lacrosse, track and just about every other Olympic sport that rears its stepchild-red head every four years.

VIII: Thou shalt attract wagering

“It’s fixed like other sports. I know, I’ve lost a few dollars on them. I heard they give some dogs too much water to slow them down.” - LPGA golfer Becky Iverson on greyhound racing.

People will bet on just about anything. How else to explain Las Vegas? Yet even in Sin City, some sports remain embarrassingly action-free. Like surfing. And rhythmic gymnastics. And the “Superstars” competition. And, alas, the circus.

No line, no dice. Sayonara, “American Gladiators.”

IX: Thou shalt not involve smoking or beer drinking

“If you’re going to shoot pool in the Olympics, do it right. Everyone in the competition has to be working on a pitcher of beer while he’s playing.” - Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Pat Rapp on pool.

Anything that causes cancer - or leaves your kidneys looking like Uday and Qusay’s safehouse - shouldn’t qualify as sport. What sort of message would that send to our children? Or our children’s children? Or … er, you get the idea.

As a result, nix bowling, pool, cockfighting, rodeo, the Bud Bowl and company softball. Leaving us with, well, nothing. Save a bunch of stupid rules. And our original, nagging query.

What’s a sport? Better question: What isn’t?

“Doing the luge, we used to joke around that it was a real sport, not like golf,” Gonzalez said. “But when I got on the golf course, boy, was I humbled. The first time I played, I wanted to throw the club as far as I could.”

Fortunately for the rest of his foursome, Gonzalez kept his cool. After all, anything else just wouldn’t have been sporting. Unless you’re talking javelin, of course.

Caption: If Bobby Valentine and baseball lost the designated hitter, then it would be a sport. And if “Stone Cold” Steve Austin wore that Mets uniform instead of black tights, well, pro wrestling might have a shot, too.

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

Cool article. A very detailed (and humorous) look at the definition of sport. It doesn’t seem to get us anywhere though. Those commandments seemed to, at one point or another, rule out just about every traditional sport.

Dividing sports from games might help, but you’d still have the trouble with a definition. After all, the Olympics is made up of “Games,” not sports, is it not? :slight_smile:

So when did commandment 7 (thou shalt pay thy own way) become essential to sports? I thought sports were about athletic competition, not money. I guess soccer isn’t an American sport, since in the United States it isn’t as popular as in other places. I pays for itself in Brazil, England, Spain, and I’ll bet quite a few other places. So that just goes to show you, soccer is the only real sport, since it actually does fit all the criterion. :smiley:

except for the offside rule and commandment 5
till they get Television Match Officials like in rugby union…

fun article tho
i bet he had a blast writing it

Er - “criteria”, surely? ;o)

Okay, that too. :slight_smile: