the last presidential campaign, I had a conversation with a friend
whose husband was about to do some reporting from the Democratic
national convention. She was excited about this prospect and referred
to politics as "the greatest sport." I began to think
about this characterization and wonder whether or not politics was
a sport at all, much less the greatest one. Below I will share my
assessment of this issue.
defines a sport as follows:
consists of a physical
activity or skill
carried out with a recreational purpose: for competition, for
self-enjoyment, to attain excellence, for the development of a
skill, or some combination of these. A sport has physical activity,
side-by-side competition, and a scoring system. The difference
of purpose is what characterizes sport, combined with the notion
of individual (or team) skill or prowess."
us start by analyzing the elements of sport which seem to be in
common with politics.
competition" — Clearly, politics is a highly competitive
endeavor, whether one is talking about campaigning for office,
trying to pass a law, lobbying, or any number of activities, competition
against adversaries is a salient feature of politics.
… a scoring system" — Undoubtedly, politics has a scoring
system and this may be what gives it a reputation for it being
a sport. Its primary scoring system is of course winning votes
in an election or in the legislature, but there are other sub
scoring systems too, such as raising more campaign contributions
than competitors, scoring points in the debate over public policy,
gaining a favorable political legacy, etc. Without question, politics
has a scoring system.
the development of a skill" — It is debatable whether the
purpose of politics is development of a skill. Those who wish
to advance in the political arena will have to develop certain
skills, but these are probably more in the nature of prerequisites
than the object of politics.
let us review the elements of sport which do not appear to be consistent
has physical activity" – While campaign schedules can
at times be grueling, it would really be a stretch to consider
politics a physical activity. While some of the activities of
politics may have physical metaphors associated with them (for
example, arm-twisting), I'm afraid that Arnold will need to keep
up his workout routine if he wishes to maintain his physique.
Carried out with a recreational purpose …the difference of purpose
is what characterizes sport" — Here we get to the element
of sport where politics clearly does not fit. Sure many people
take their sports very seriously. Nevertheless, as compelling
and enjoyable as these activities may be, we are talking about
participants trying to do things such as throw a ball through
a hoop, hit a ball, or outrace other competitors. In other words,
while success in sports may take great talent and practice, the
activities themselves are contrivances. Participation in sports
is wonderful but the contests themselves do not affect others
beyond their recreational value and their voluntary support for
these activities. The contrast with the political arena cannot
be sharper. Whether or not one participates, political activity
will have a profound impact on one's life in modern times. It
will have an effect on how much of your income you may keep, whether
you or your friends or relatives will go to war, what foods and
medicines you may partake, and the nature of your education, to
name only a few of the significant real-life impacts of the political
process. Clearly, while being a political observer may have recreational
value for some, politics itself is NOT carried out for recreational
to the Wikipedia definition of sport, politics clearly meets some
of the criteria, partially meets other elements of the definition,
and does not appear to meet the recreational purpose requirement
at all. So how does one weigh all of these considerations in deciding
whether or not politics is a sport? For me, it comes down to this:
If you consider the contests between the subjects who ancient Rome
viewed as a threat and hungry predatory animals to be great sport,
then politics qualifies. As for me, when I want to enjoy some sports,
I will stick with ESPN.
Saul Weiner [send him mail]
is an actuary and writer living in the suburbs of Chicago.