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Years ago, in a college newspaper office, I was lucky enough to witness a spirited academic debate on the legitimacy of certain popular sports.

It began when one young man declared that baseball players are not athletes because several pitchers are old and fat. This was the era of Terry Forster and Fernando Valenzuela.

Someone replied that baseball players are, too, athletes because they expend more energy than, for instance, race-car drivers.

The first guy responded: Surely you don't mean to say auto racing is a sport on a par with, say, track and field!

To which the second guy answered: Track and field isn't a sport - nobody plays defense in track and field! It was not yet the era of Zola Budd.

At this point I found an excuse to leave the room, and never learned how these two logic students resolved their differences. But their argument resonates as the Olympic Games draw near, inspiring similar discussions in college newspaper offices and other intellectual incubators.

They'll throw out the first team handballs, beach volleyballs and rhythmic gymnasts at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta on Friday. Shortly thereafter a guy on a bar stool somewhere will grunt toward the TV screen and grumble, ``Synchronized swimming is not a sport!''

And for some unfathomable reason, nobody in the room will reply: ``Who cares?''

Which was my out-loud response when a radio host, Jim Rome, flatly stated the the other day: ``Golf is a sport. Bowling is not a sport.''

The point of this debate has never been clear.

Of course, everybody wants to safeguard the purity of the Olympics, lest skydiving or contract bridge become the next ``demonstration sport.''

And we all - especially we the writers - like to protect the language from misuse of the words ``sport'' (``an activity . . . requiring more or less vigorous bodily exertion and carried on, sometimes as a profession, according to some traditional form or sets of rules . . .,'' says Webster) and ``athlete'' (``a person trained in exercises, games or contests requiring physical strength, skill, stamina, speed, etc.'').

Beyond that, why all the wasted breath?

The what's-a-sport question isn't just an every-four-years phenomenon. Readers phone newspaper editors to ask why horse racing is in the sports section. ESPN probably gets the same calls about bodybuilding. And Sports Illustrated must have searched its soul before it stopped covering chess championships a couple of decades ago.

The real question remains: Say we could agree on what is and isn't a sport - how would we act on this information? Ban the non-sports? Arrest the non-athletes? Throw the results of their games in the features section?

Do we revere athletes so much, or so little, that not being considered one is a sort of insult?

Whatever. We may never find unanimity, but Americans seem to have reached consensus on what constitutes a sport and a non-sport:

It's a sport if you need special shoes in order to compete. And you must buy the shoes. It's not a sport if you can rent the shoes. So bowling is, indeed, out.

It's a sport if ESPN covers it. It's not a sport if ESPN2 covers it.

It's not a sport if its name is derived from an actual sport - beach volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, team handball, mountain biking, synchronized swimming, table tennis, board sailing.

It's not a sport if Wham-O sells it in a cardboard box.

It's not a sport if the champions are under the age of 15 or over the age of 50.

It's not a sport if the athletes compete under assumed names. Thus the American Gladiators are not athletes, in the estimation of most Americans. Neither are jai alai players.

It's not a sport if the East German judge, or her post-Iron Curtain equivalent, can throw off the results.

It's not a sport if a car or an animal gets most of the credit or carted away in a van.

It's not a sport if the thorough removal of body hair can make the difference between winning and losing.

It's not a sport if the object of the game requires such uniformity among the players - like rowers and synchronized swimmers - that individuality disappears and with it commercial endorsement opportunities.

But being able to answer the question doesn't explain why we're asking.

I mean, assuming the results of the game in question aren't random - that is, deserving people win more often than not - why does it matter whether it's a ``sport,'' a ``trash sport'' or something else?

So have at it, Olympic trash-sportsmen and women. Don't hit your head on the diving board, don't drown in the name of synchronicity, and keep the sand out of your suntan lotion. We're rooting for you. But please - bring your own shoes.

MEMO: Kevin Modesti is a Daily News staff writer.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 14, 1996

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