What’s in a Game?

A trivial but surprisingly passionate argument with A. a few nights ago, which reminded me of the scene in Radio Days in which the fictional Woody Allen describes his parents arguing about which is the greatest ocean, the Atlantic or the Pacific. How we got there isn’t important, but our point of contention was whether motor racing is a sport or not. She says it isn’t; I say it is.

‘Only connect,’ said Forster. Me, I always say ‘Only oversimplify,’ so I was taken to try to characterise the essences that identify a sport and, conversely, those that identify a game.

It seems to me that the participants in a sport, whether or not they compete at the same time as, and/or alongside, others, are basically competing against the physical world — typically time or gravity. Though there isn’t necessarily correspondence between sport and Olympic sport, the Olympic motto does serve as a useful rubric. Citius makes time its opponent, while Altius and Fortius are concerned with pushing against gravity, or physical friction, or some combination of those. It’s clearly the case that the earliest Olympic sports, and those we still implicitly recognise as the purest, stick to the physical agenda: athletics is human against clock, throwing of discus or javelin are human against gravity.

A game, on the other hand, is about direct competition between humans, whether it’s a matter of achieving the highest score in some common but diametrically opposite goal, in which category almost all ball games fit, or one in which score is fought for according to some variant of a zero-sum system — snooker, lawn bowling.

From my perspective, the key here is what’s being competed against, and not necessarily how one does the competing. Specifically, the use of technology is mostly irrelevant. It might be pushing the argument to its limit, but running shoe technology is no less technology than Formula 1 racing car technology, nor is the carbon fibre that goes into pole vaulting. They’re still all about faster, or higher, or stronger, and are therefore sports.

As ever, the interesting stuff lies on the margins. No athlete competes in a vacuum, of course. The awarding of medals recognises competition between humans, even in events of individual pursuit. But this is a different sense of competition, I think; it refers more to ranking than to direct conflict. Notwithstanding the sorts of psychological intimidation and gamesmanship which are an intrinsic part of sport, a sprinter has no direct power to slow an opponent; the rules allow them no such power. All they have the power to do is to run faster. Their true opponent is the clock.

Things get slightly greyer in timed events where there is conflict for the physical space. Sprinters might get a lane each, but middle-distance runners don’t, and the strategic approach which results changes the shape of the event. The cat-and-mouse silliness of sprint cyclists makes the event only very marginally about sprinting. The physical shape of the streets in Monte Carlo directly influences the shape of the Monaco Grand Prix, in which passing is difficult to impossible, and most cars fail to finish after various collisions in the cramped conditions.

Again, I think these are red herrings, for two reasons. Firstly, such practical strategies and expedients are not intrinsic parts of the respective sports. To argue that Formula 1 (for example) isn’t a sport because there’s competition between drivers for physical space would be to argue that the difference between it being a sport and not being a sport is the width of the track, and to argue that it’s less of a sport at Monte Carlo than at Silverstone, say. To argue that competition for limited space on the racing track puts into question its status as a sport is to question the status of the Tour de France, (to some extent) most marathons, and certainly all middle-distance athletics. Indeed, one would have to argue that the moment 800-metre runners break from their lanes after the first 100-or-so metres, the event magically becomes a non-sport.

Secondly, the practicalities of such events are often matters of convention, which change over time, or are overturned by an innovative individual: Dick Fosbury, for example. The state of cat-and-mouse sprint cycling is a non-essential development, and not intrinsic to the sport. One could easily imagine an alternate world in which runners approached the 100-metre sprint in much the same way, only to be thrown completely — if temporarily — by an outsider who didn’t share the same assumptions, and set off like a bullet.

I tend to feel that this notion of what constitutes a sport underlies many informal qualms, or stronger objections, to certain Olympic sports. If a sport involves direct competition against the physical world, then there must be a clear, objective measure of success: typically time, or distance, or height. That many sports — even many traditional Olympic sports — fall back on systems of subjective human judging reveals that they’re not really sports at all: figure skating, gymnastics, even boxing. There’s no direct, quantifiable competition against the physical world. Interestingly, platform diving is a kind of dance with gravity as its partner, an artistic cashing out of potential energy, rather than a pushing against gravity.

Especially clear are the objections to the Olympic status of events which are unequivocally games, such as basketball, volleyball, (association) football and tennis. That boxing turns out to be a game too is startling, because it needs us to set aside an assumption that physical bravery necessarily entails sport-hood.

With the London games coming up, it’s been a staple joke for years that the Brits should get darts put into the schedule, and it’s not obvious that it shouldn’t be considered a sport, notwithstanding the traditionally-poor physical condition of even its greatest exponents. If the inspiration for the Olympic ideal is a primitive simplicity, represented as those skills needed to thrive in a hostile environment — running fast, jumping obstacles — one might have to add accuracy. If the javelin was once a spear, and the goal was to find food, then accuracy probably counted for at least as much as distance. Archery being a surprisingly pure modern incarnation of an archaic life-skill, its system of measurement no less objective than the tick of a stopwatch, it would seem to qualify as a sport without much argument. Is darts merely miniature archery? If it were, would the miniatureness be significant?

Perversely, darts turns out to be the most marginal case I can think of. Think of archery as refined hunting with bows, and darts as refined archery, and it seems to fit. Ultimately, though — and also notwithstanding the astonishing skills involved — what pushes it from sport to game is the scoring system — indeed the very fact that there is a scoring system. Though the process depends on accuracy, accuracy isn’t the principal measure of achievement, any more than accuracy with free-throws is the principal measure of success in basketball. One doesn’t measure the success of a darts throw with a ruler, but with chalked numbers on a blackboard. Even if one admits accuracy into the Olympic ideal, along with speed and strength and distance, and even if one admits archery according to that criterion, darts is too much of a numerical construct laid on top of its pure heritage, to make a case. It’s not just accuracy. One might just as well try to spike a javelin into numbered circles whitewashed onto the grass, or play discus golf.

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