Someone told me recently that Plato was a wrestler. Can that be correct? The Athenians were certainly the most talented citizens there have ever been, but they were also a rough lot, so perhaps Plato was
a wrestler. As far as I know, however, there has never been a Platonic Dialogue
on sport. If there had been, I would guess that it would have gone like this.
Socrates would have been chatting to some of his beautiful and very bright young friends and would have asked about the absence of one of them. Someone would have replied that their absent friend was away taking part in a sports competition against Sparta. Then another would have said that the absent friend was involved in boxing, and that punching the hell out of a Spartan is not a sport.
Socrates: 'What is a sport?'
Beautiful young man: 'Throwing the discus is a sport or wrestling is a sport.'
Socrates: 'These are examples
of sports. But what makes something a sport?'
I'll try to pick up the argument from there. Socrates as usual was looking for a definition of a sport or its necessary and sufficient conditions, but he might have been faced by a counter-argument from Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was speaking of games but much the same might apply to sport, as we shall see. He said that a definition of a game is not possible. As soon as you think of a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, someone can come up with a counter example. For example, suppose you define a game by saying it must involve both competition and several taking part. But what about the game of patience?
Nowadays golf is seen as a competitive sport, but in my late teens I was privileged to be able to play in a country golf club. I used to play by myself in the very early morning. Sometimes I got bemused by the lark song and forgot where my ball had gone. It might have been a good walk spoiled but it certainly wasn't competitive and didn't involve others.
Despite Wittgenstein, contemporary philosophers carry on the tradition of Socrates and search for definitions. One such is Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper Games, Life and Utopia
(1978). Suits attempts to refute Wittgenstein's claim that, as a 'family-resemblance' concept, 'game' resists definition. Contra Wittgenstein, Suits argues that there are four elements common to every game: aims, means, rules and a certain attitude among the players. Every game has at least one distinct aim, a specific state of affairs that players try to bring about, such as getting the ball into the hole in golf, or into the net in a number of games.
The second element is the means. Every game restricts the methods that game players are permitted to use to achieve the aim. For example, golfers are not allowed to drop the ball into the hole with their hands. The third element of a game is the constitutive rules. Rules provide a complete account of what means are permitted and not permitted within the game. The laws of football permit the use of any body part other than the arms so that the ball is played predominantly with the feet. The final element of game-playing is attitudinal. Suits argues that, to play a game, one must have a certain attitude towards it. Players must commit themselves to playing in accordance with the rules that constitute the game.
The four elements in Suits' analysis of games culminate in the following definition: 'To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by the rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity'. Suits also offers a shorthand definition: 'playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles'.
Suits draws on his definition of games to provide a definition of sport. He defines sports as 'games of physical skill'. Incorporating the elements of his earlier definition of game, he adds further elements that are distinctive to sport as compared to other types of games. In particular, a game becomes a sport by meeting the following additional criteria: '(1) that the game be a game of skill; (2) that the skill be physical; (3) that the game has a wide following; and (4) that those following [the game] achieve a certain level of stability'.
Suits' arguments are very interesting and lead to a better understanding of games and sport, but they have had many critics. But what lies behind the arguments of both Suits and his critics is a tradition which I noted at the start and has continued in philosophy: to define, or discover the essence, or the necessary and sufficient conditions which makes a type of thing what it is. Suits believes he has done that for sport and games, but someone influenced by Wittgenstein would search for examples which spoil his neat picture. What about hill-walking, for example?
The Winter Olympics involved ice dancing and skating. Are these sports? They don't fit Suits' criteria very well. Some might say that they are performances. But that seems like just an attempt to rule out, or place in another category, examples which run counter to the definition. In other words, it may not be possible to devise watertight criteria which cover the criteria for a game supplemented by the additional criteria for a sport. Would that matter? I don't think so, there are at least family resemblances.
A different but important kind of objection concerns the difference between professional sport and amateur sport. For a professional player, sport tends to be viewed as a serious, instrumental activity, that is, as a means to earn a living. (A pretty impressive living for some football players.) On the other hand, amateurs play games for enjoyment or exercise or companionship, or even doing business deals. Winning or losing may be incidental.
I remember speaking to a professional American football player who said he hated playing against an amateur team such as a university one. His objection was that amateurs try too hard and this leads to injuries. He preferred keeping his pay to winning.
Interesting issues have been thrown up in the attempt to define a sport or a game, but I am not sure that a definition has been achieved or, if it has, that it matters. More interesting than a search for a formal definition are the human qualities that should accompany a sport.
Sportsmanship is the quintessential sporting virtue. For example, when a player is injured the ball is usually put out of play. Sportsmanship has also been thought important for civic and cultural life beyond sport, and it has been discussed in philosophies of education (including Plato's Republic
). There is more to be said on sportsmanship than I shall say here but whatever it is, it involves more than mere compliance with formal rules.
At the other end of the spectrum from sportsmanship is cheating. Cheating represents the chief form of moral failure in sport. It represents an attempt to gain an unfair advantage in a game or a sport. If all the competitors are cheating, then perhaps cheating can become part of the skill and strategy of a game. It is a sad fact that cheating may be built into high status competitive games and sports. It involves the search for drugs that can't be detected.
'Gamesmanship' is related to cheating. It refers to conduct that falls short of cheating (as it does not violate the formal rules) but is morally dubious nonetheless. I am ashamed to say that, in my golfing days, I have told my opponent a joke as we were leaving the green and heading for the next tee. My intention was to make my opponent laugh as he was attempting to drive off the tee. I am sure Socrates' young men would not stoop to that, but on the other hand, I would certainly not try to punch the hell out of a Spartan.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow