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What Makes An Activity An Olympic Sport?

The opening ceremony for the London 1908 Olympic Games
“Let’s get this party started” – stepping out for the opening ceremony for the London 1908 Olympic Games

Towards the end of last term, my nine-year-old daughter Laura’s class topic culminated in a five-week long homework  to write a comprehensive guide to the sport of each child’s choosing. This imaginative assignment encouraged every child to step outside of the normal school sports curriculum and take ownership of one discipline with which they felt a particular affinity. Their chosen sport didn’t even have to be an Olympic one.

“Seb thinks he might do car rallying,” Laura reports. “That’s no surprise.”

Pre-parenthood, Seb’s parents were seasoned and accomplished ralliers who have now segued, interestingly, into running a taxi firm. (I guess there’s no need to worry about missing your flight when they’re booked to take you to the airport.)

“Alexis thinks she might do air hockey.”

I try not to look askance, but Laura spots my raised eyebrows.

“Miss Hawker says it counts as a sport.”

What Miss Hawker says, goes. (Unlike Mummy.)

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The Fi...
Commemorating the original Olympic spirit with a Greek stamp for the Athens 1896 games

I reign in my cynicism when I remember my own predilection for a similar game at which I am pretty damn good: table football. Though more likely to be found in a bar-room than an Olympic stadium, this sport can work in perfect tandem with the Olympic spirit of uniting nations through athletic endeavour. I once enjoyed an excellent impromptu international tournament in an Amsterdam bar. My husband and I took on a crowd of youths of indeterminate nationality, who at first glance I had judged to be a bunch of louts. I can’t remember who won, but we ended the last match with smiles, handshakes and a new sense of international fellowship, despite not sharing a common language.

Laura sticks with a more traditional sport for her homework and in no time at all is an authority on the javelin. But my dubious attitude has rubbed off on her.

“Why is THAT a sport?” she queries scathingly as we catch a few minutes of an Olympic shooting competition on the television.

I try to subdue my abhorrence of guns to make a convincing case.

“Why is horseriding a sport?” she asks next. “Surely it’s the horse that’s doing all the work? The person just sits there. And what about sailing? Why do they let sailing into the Olympics?”

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the mode...
If in doubt, ask: “What would Baron Pierre de Coubertin do?”

Horses are beyond the realm of my experience, but with sailing I’m on safer ground, remembering the aching arm muscles, bruised thighs and blistered hands of our pre-baby sailing holidays.

Laura’s questioning prompts me to ponder what exactly turns an activity into a sport, as does the popular joke already wearing thin that the British are best at sports that involve sitting down. (Thanks, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, for putting the cynics in their place.) I come up with some defining British activities in which success could easily be interpreted as an athletic achievement:

  • Running for a bus – with handicap points given in inverse proportion to the number of shopping bags that you are carrying
  • Queuing – a subtle endurance sport, for example at the supermarket, strategically timed tannoy announcements can be enough to make the strongest competitor crumple
  • Irony – surely the mental strain of Ironyman and Ironywoman contests would earn Team GB accolades from around the world: we don’t need gold medals to prove the British are undisputed masters of irony

For the first time in my life, I think I could be an Olympic contender.

(Photo credits: Wikipedia)

Here are my other posts inspired by our fabulous London2012 Olympics:

In A Lather Over My Olympic Shampoo    

The Olympic Spirit Meets Britannia    

Sharing the Olympic Glory – or How I Learned to Love the London2012 Logo


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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