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Like play and games, sport is ancient, ubiquitous, and diverse. Given the multitude of sport forms and the variety of specific sports, and granted the magnitude and complexity of sport in modern society, a full description of sport requires treating the social phenomenon at different levels of analysis, including sport as a unique game occurrence, sport as a particular type of ludic activity, sport as an institutionalized game, sport as a social institution, and sport as a form of social involvement. But for purposes of concise consideration herein, sport is highlighted as an embodied, structured, goal-oriented, competitive, contest based, ludic, physical activity.
Sport Is Embodied
The degree of physicality varies by sport, but the body constitutes both the symbol and the core of all sport participation. Embodiment in sport is clearly revealed in the many kinds and degrees of physicality associated with sporting activities, including physical activity, physical aggression, physical combat, physical exercise, physical prowess, and physical training. Embodiment in sport is a mirror of social relations in society, as for example, elitism (class vs. mass bodies), sexism (male vs. female bodies), racism (black vs. white bodies), ageism (young vs. old bodies), ableism (able vs. disabled bodies), and homophobia (straight vs. gay bodies). In short, sporting bodies represent a range of desiring bodies, disciplined bodies, displaying bodies, and dominating bodies.
Sport Is Structured
Sport is highly structured in at least four ways. First, all sports (whether informal or formal) are rule governed by either written or unwritten rules of play. Second, most sports are spatially circumscribed by the sites of their venues, whether they be arenas, courts, fields, pools, rings, rinks, stadiums or tracks. Third, nearly all sports are temporally circumscribed as illustrated by designated time periods such as innings, halves and quarters; or number and time of bouts and rounds; or allocated attempts within a specific time period. Indeed to prevent indefinitely long sporting encounters sports have instituted tie-breakers, ”sudden death” playoffs, and shorter versions of selected sports (e.g., one-day cricket matches). Fourth, modern sports are typically formally administered, whether by local clubs, schools, universities, professional teams and/ or sport federations.
Sport Is Goal-Oriented
Individuals, teams and corporate organizations are explicitly goal directed in sport situations, especially in terms of the perennial overriding goal of winning. Athletes and coaches alike continually attempt to achieve various standards of excellence. And numerous forms of self-testing take place in all sporting encounters. Most predominantly, the sporting media constantly stresses the theme of being Number One in terms of number of games won, total points earned, number of medals earned, top rank on the money list, most career victories, or number of Grand Slam titles.
Sport Is Competitive
Perhaps the key feature of all forms of sport is competition demanding the demonstration of physical prowess. Such competition may be between individuals or teams, and may involve either an animate object of nature (e.g., a bull in a bullfight), or an inanimate object of nature (e.g., surmounting the highest mountain in the world). A spectator typically perceives three basic forms of competition (McPherson et al. 1989): Direct competition where two opponents, either individuals or teams, directly confront one another, as for example, in boxing or football. Parallel competition wherein participants compete against one another indirectly by taking turns as in bowling or golf; or contesting in separate spaces, as for example, swimming or running in assigned lanes in the case of aquatic and track competitions. Competition against a standard, as for example, trying to make the ”minimal standard” of a qualifying time for an Olympic running event, or trying to achieve an ”ideal standard” of a world record in an Olympic event.
Sport Is Contest Based
Many, if not most, sporting encounters are contests, i.e., competitive activities characterized by two or more sides, agreed upon rules, and criteria for determining a winner, with a non-reciprocal outcome (i.e., they are zero-sum contests wherein the victor takes all). Two basic categories of sporting contests are sporting matches and agonal games. Sporting matches involve demonstrations of physical superiority in terms of speed, strength, stamina, accuracy, and coordination. Agonal games are games whose outcome is largely determined by the demonstration of superior physical prowess in combination with superior strategy and tactics. A chief characteristic of sporting contests are uncertain outcomes which lend excitement to the contests for players and spectators alike. Efforts to insure ”a level playing field” represent attempts to guarantee an uncertain outcome by matching opponents by age, weight, skill level, or some type of handicap system as seen in bowling, golf and horse racing.
Sport Is Ludic
Even the most highly professionalized sports possess some ludic or play-like elements. Two major ludic elements in all sports are artificial obstacles and realized resources. Individuals and groups are confronted in daily life by obstacles that they must attempt to overcome. However, individuals and groups often do have the requisite resources to adequately cope with the specific obstacles that they confront. Uniquely, in the ideal play world of sport and unlike real-life situations, athletes and sport teams are typically provided with the needed resources (e.g., coaching, equipment, training, etc.) to cope with their artificially created obstacles. The history of sport shows that there is always controversy as to what constitutes ”legitimate” realized resources in a given sport. For example, many drugs and steroids are illegal, and there are constant rule changes as to what constitutes legal sporting equipment, be it the size of a tennis racquet, the horse power of a racing car, the type of grooves on a golf club, or the design of prosthetics for disabled athletes. In sum, the ludic element of sport is the core of the tension balances associated with the expressive and instrumental aspects of sport since time immortal.
- McPherson, B. D., Curtis, J. E., & Loy, J.W. (1989) The Social Significance of Sport: An Introduction to the Sociology of Sport. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
- Hargreaves, J. (1986) Sport, Power and Culture. Polity Press, Cambridge. Loy, J. W. (1968) The nature of sport: a definitional effort. Quest 10: 1-15.
- Loy, J. W. & Coakley, J. (2007) Sport. In: Ritzer, G. (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 4643-53.
- Weiss, P. (1969). Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL.
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