What constitutes a sport?

When is a sport not a sport?

What exactly makes something a sport? Does it require physical exertion, a governing body, a high level of skill and technical ability? How does an activity go from being seen as a game or a pastime to being officially classified as a sport?

The Council of Europe charter on sport uses the following definition: "Sport means all forms of physical activity, which through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels".

Funding bodies like Sport England look to see if a particular activity meets this definition when determining whether or not they recognise it as a sport. But that has not stopped the debate from continuing to rage.

Darts' battle for acceptance

Darts has long been a bone of contention in the debate around what constitutes a sport, with some seeing it as the ultimate pub game.

It was officially recognised by Sport England in 2005. When in 2010 Phil Taylor, the 16 times world darts champion, was awarded second place in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, it was lauded in darting circles as a watershed moment in the game's battle for acceptance in the mainstream sporting environment.

For others, Taylor's award was seen as sacrilege, giving darts a sporting platform they felt was unmerited. Golfer Ian Poulter epitomised this viewpoint, describing the award as "a farce". What is Phil Taylor's response to the naysayers?

"I always laugh at people who say darts isn't a sport, but rather a pastime. You don't pay tax on a pastime and I have paid a fortune in tax so it must be a sport! Coming runner up in BBC Sports Personality is the highlight of my career simply because this is something that is voted for by the whole nation and gives me a great deal of pride to be recognised for what I have achieved, and it helped take darts to another level. To be standing on stage with the likes of David Beckham is something I will cherish forever. The trophy still has pride of place at my daughter's house."

"I would say darts being accepted as a mainstream sport gathered momentum when Barry Hearn became chairman of the PDC and the introduction of the Premier League brought weekly TV coverage. Darts is now on the BBC and Sky more than ever. When I first won the World Championship in 1990 the prize money was £24,000, while now the winner gets close to £400,000 – a life-changing amount of money. The standard among the young players is so high now that you have to keep improving to keep up."

A clip from the Timeshift programme Bullseyes and Beer, looking at how the popularity of darts exploded in the UK in the 1980s.

A Bridge too far?

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognise the card game bridge as a sport because it does not involve physical activity.

They lost their High Court battle. The EBU wanted Sport England to reclassify the game, which would have made it eligible for government and lottery funding. It had claimed the ordinary and natural meaning of 'sport' in the 1996 Royal Charter, which established Sport England, was sufficiently broad that it did not necessarily require physical activity.

The judge said Sport England's current policy defined sport as involving "physical activity" and its move to reject reclassification of bridge was correct. During the case, Sport England argued that bridge was no more a sporting activity than "sitting at home, reading a book". Speaking after the decision, Sport England's director of sport, Phil Smith, said: "Our job is to help the nation to be more physically active. We recognise that many people enjoy playing bridge, but that's not going to play a part in the fight against inactivity."

"Physical activity is a very uncertain yardstick", lawyer Richard Clayton (representing the EBU) told the High Court, drawing a comparison between bridge and darts. He said the amount of physical activity involved in playing darts was arguably not much greater than that involved in shuffling and dealing cards to play bridge. Clayton conceded that darts did involve a level of physical skill not required in bridge, but argued that was not what the definition required. The EBU are currently appealing the decision.

Each of us brings our own opinion and bias to the question of whether or not a particular activity is a sport. For many, a certain level of physical fitness is required, yet the rather genteel activity of angling has received official sporting recognition by Sport England. So it would seem that ambiguity continues to reign in the argument over 'what is a sport', although some progress has been made in a debate which has been raging for centuries.

The England Bridge Union's fight for sporting recognition continues.

A sporting evolution

The word ‘sport’ comes from the Old French word 'desport' meaning leisure, with the oldest definition in English from around 1300 being "anything humans find amusing or entertaining".

But how has the "what is a sport debate" evolved down the years?

Hit the pointer on the left hand side and then click on each of the labels to reveal more about the history of sport.

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