Games, sports, and what defines an athlete?

On the radio this morning, the DJs were having a discussion about athletics.  Specifically, they were asking whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes.  Most people eventually agreed that they were, because it requires physical strength just to maneuver the car in the first place, and it takes stamina to make it through the number of laps they do.  As it turns out, over the years, I have given this topic a general amount of thought, and, before I go too far, I will say that I too agree that these drivers are athletes.  It’s just for a completely different reason.

When ESPN began broadcasting poker on their channels, it seemed preposterous.  Other than the fact that people who like sports, in general, for me, and, apparently, for ESPN, are likely to like watching poker, could you really call poker a sport?  So, I began thinking about it, and, as it turns out, the line between a game and a sport can be a little blurry.

It’s easy to find sports whose participants you might not call an athlete.  After all, can a ping pong player really be in shape as much as a tennis player?  Possibly (actually probably more-so, but that’s not really the but of this discussion).  Can you really put a golfer or race car driver in the same category as a marathon runner or professional basketball player?

First of all I will say that it’s evident to me that an athlete is a participant in a sport where a sport is a game.  The distinction is that, in a sport, the games outcome rests heavily on the participants PHYSICAL performance.  That is, a player in a sport must perform mentally as far as game strategy (this includes emotionally from my perspective) as well as physically.  A participant in a game need only perform mentally.  So, an athlete is a participant in a sport (which is also a game), but a participant in a game is only an athlete if the game is also a sport.  This is a very clear distinction, and it renders the argument about which sports’ participants are athletes obvious.

Tennis? Sport. Basketball? Sport. Chess? Game. Ping pong? Sport.  Poker? Game … wait no because in high level poker it requires body language, gestures, etc.

This is where the concept that there are levels of athleticism come into play.  You simply have to accept the fact that an athlete is someone who is doing any kind of performance physically.  By moving a mouse, you are an athlete, especially, by our above definition, if you are doing so in a game where somehow the way you move the mouse affects your results in that game.

Can a poker player by definition just jump out and run a marathon? Not likely. I suspect that at the heart of the inquiry inspiring this post is more a competition between athletes (not necessarily just by athletes — it’s usually more by sports fans).  It’s kind of a “My dad can beat up your dad” debate.  Yes a good high-level poker player is certainly an athlete.  So is a golfer (because he/she has to swing the club appropriately), so is a basketball player, so is a football player, but not a chess player, Scrabble player, etc.

Just realize, being an athlete does not mean you are equally as physically fit as any other athlete.  Pro basketball players are in very good shape, but that does not necessarily make them endurance runners or world class sprinters.  For any sport, being an athlete simply means that said athlete has refined their physical prowess in a manner allowing them to be effective at competing in their sport (which, again, is also a game).  They have most likely refined their mental prowess as well, but that does not distinguish them from chess players.

The conclusion is that athletes must perform physically and mentally in a game in order to win.  It follows then that athleticism is only relevant to and is only relative within the sport where it is defined as a part of the sport. Wasn’t that easy?

Respond to this post