New Rule: You Gotta Have Balls, So Poker Is Not a Sport

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With protests raging in the streets of Tibet and world-class athletes pulling out of the games (from fear of Beijing's dangerous air pollution), I know there are many controversial topics that the International Olympic Committee needs to confront as it prepares for the summer games in Beijing.

However, since that worldwide spectacle is just around the corner, I choose now as the perfect time to submit a modest proposal: that we take "sports" out of the Olympics.

Hold the invective.

I should probably admit that my interest in this little idea first hit me while I was watching television a couple of years ago: Saturday afternoon. I was lounging in the living room, channel surfing, when I came across a double-dose of poker—on ESPN and ESPN2. The unbridled fun of monthly poker parties helped to get me through graduate school. That is definitely the case. But parlor games are hardly sports, and poker doesn't belong on ESPN. Period.

In trying to make my case to skeptical friends, I soon realized that I had even bigger fish to fry. For one thing, there were other events—like golf, bowling, and billiards—that I also felt compelled to disqualify. Those activities seem to fall below the threshold for what I would think of as the defining physical nature of real sports. They take skill, no doubt. They are incredibly fun to play (at times, even to watch), but something about them doesn't seem quite sportsy enough — at least not to me.


With that in mind, I decided to offer up my own definition. Needless to say it has been somewhat controversial.

There are three things that make games or competitions bona fide sports—at least in my book. First, there has to be a ball-like object involved. This might sound arbitrary, but it is vital. No ball, no sport.

Of course, when I say ball, I'm not just talking about the bouncy kinds. Frisbees and pucks count, too. The point is simply that there needs to be an external object that organizes everyone's attention.

Second, there must be a sense of physical urgency when that ball-like thing is in play: running, jumping, kicking, throwing—something. A true "sport" should not permit, say, walking to the next green. Or driving, no less. Again, the activity might take a ton of practice and even stamina, but so does a long calculus exam.

Third, in a sport, your opponent has to be able to directly thwart you—by catching a ball, intercepting a pass, blocking a kick, anything. There might be clocks involved, but you can't just be finishing something quicker than a competitor. That is a race, but it isn't a sport.

Put these three features together, and you have a sport worthy of ESPN broadcast. Leave out two, or even one, and you have a contest, a game of skill, maybe even an athletic competition, but you don't reach the level of sporting event. Now, I know what you're thinking. Given this definition, look at all the sports that get disqualified. Poker meets rule # 3, maybe even rule #1 (if we are willing to over-generously count playing cards as ball-like objects), but sitting at a table with chips and a cigar lacks the kind of physicality that a true sport demands.

Bowling, billiards and golf each satisfies two but not all three of the rules. So, they would be out, too.

Of course, those sports wouldn't be alone. Track and field events are the most egregious (and troubling, for some) non-sports by my definition. How could these most cherished of athletic events be disqualified, even if they usually break rules #1 and #3? What kind of definition of sport is worth having at all if it doesn't see, say, the 100-yard dash as a quintessential sport?

Running on a track is an athletic competition, and it calls for the most elite and challenging of physical skill and training. No question about that. But it is the building block of sport, not the thing itself. You use that skill in actual sports—to tackle a runner, to round some bases, to catch up to a ball, etc.


Now, I can picture a ton of former college track stars all poised to hurl epithets my way, but let me be clear. The distinction isn't meant to disparage track and field events. If anything, I want to offer up this new definition as a way to give things like track and field pride of place come Olympic time. There should be a higher scrutiny given to sports seeking entry to the Olympic Games, especially sports that people tend to watch anyway.

In the United States, that would mean things like basketball. Track and swimming aren't necessarily at the center of American culture for the 3¾ years between games. So, why should they have to compete with basketball or soccer for top billing during their moment of glory? That just seems unfair.

Of course, this isn't a fool-proof plan. We would still have to make exceptions here and there. For example, synchronized swimming would be allowed to stay in the Olympic mix, which means that we should devise some special rule to ban it. And water polo technically satisfies all three of the above criteria, but it should probably be grandfathered into its Olympic slot anyway.

Ultimately, the IOC can tweak these kinds of issues on a case by case basis, and they can also use the above rules to determine what, if any, new sports get added to the Olympic roster. (Of course, to many naysayers, curling shouldn't be allowed into the games under any auspices.)

If you had time to kill and wanted a fun game to play with friends (instead of just poker), you could try to think of all kind of ways to turn non-sports into sports (given the abovementioned criteria).


Force golfers to run from hole to hole as their competitors shoot balls at their heads. Now that's a sport. Give a sprinter a ball (maybe just that same old baton) and let other runners try to tackle her before she reaches the finish line. A clear sport. Throw in skates, and you get a cross between hockey and roller derby. In any case, it is something that should take a backseat to the kinds of athletic contests that the Olympics has always privileged. Let the games begin. And let's leave the sports on the sidelines.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is an anthropologist and academic and filmmaker.

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