Saturday, August 4, 2012

Defining sport: Intrinsic and Instrumental Values

I have written before about defining sport and distinguishing sport from other athletic competitions. My preferred definition of sport includes four elements: 1) Large motor skills; 2) Simple machines; 3) Objective scoring (distinct from subjective judging); and 4) Competition. Of these, # 3 has proven to be most difficult, controversial, and contested, as the comments on this post show. Watching the Olympics (count me among the many who detest the NBC Primetime productions) has lead me to a different way of thinking about # 3, using a line familiar to legal scholarship--the difference between intinsic and utilitarian instrumental values. Hear me out.

Everything involves the performance of particular skills (dives, flips, swimming strokes, running strides, throwing, putting the shot, whatever), with the hope of performing those skills as correctly as possible. The difference is why the athlete performs those skills.

Sometimes they are done for utilitarian instrumental purposes--to enable the athlete to swim or run faster or to put the shot further or to put the ball in the basket. And the better or more perfectly the athlete performs those skills, the more likely he is to do well in the competition. But ultimate evaluation is not on the skills themselves and correct performance is not essential to success. A shot-putter still can have a good throw even if his performance on that throw is not technically correct; a swimmer still might swim fast even if his stroke is off; a jump shot in basketball may go in  even if the form on the shot is off. Each of those scores is worth the same as one done with perfect form. Other times, those skills are performed for their intrinsic value and utlimate evaluation is on the correctness and form of the skill itself. An Inward 2 1/2 that is not done correctly will score less than an Inward 2 1/2 done correctly; a backflip not done correctly will score less than a backflip done correctly.

This is our new third element. Sport is utilitarian instrumental; skills are performed toward some other end and outcomes are determined by the result of the skill rather than by evaluating the skill itself. It is not sport if it is intrinsic; skills are performed for their own sake and outcomes are determined by evaluating the skill itself. We no longer care about objective or subjective evaluation, about scoring or judging. Instead, we focus only on the thing being evaluated to determine outcome--the skill itself (not sport) or the results of the skill (sport).

Combined with elements 1, 2, and 4, above, we may have a winner.