Wednesday, 31 July 2013

On Whether Martial Arts Are Sports

A question that's come up a few times, both in my SCA experience and my previous martial arts training, is whether martial arts can be considered as sports.

The debate is often phrased disparagingly and aimed at other martial arts, to differentiate your own, clearly superior form from theirs. In the Taekwon-Do school of which I was a member, it was used to differentiate their own, "pure" form of the art from the other, clearly lesser, sporting forms. In the SCA, there are occasional flare-ups on both sides of the debate, between those who see tournaments as competetive sporting activities and those who see tournaments as almost moving meditation.

The first matter in establishing a position on this is defining what we mean by sport. The OED defines sport thusly: "4. a. An activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others." Given this definition, competition is implied, but not strictly required.

So, for the Taekwon-Do school mentioned, its activities do involve physical exertion and skill, but given the near-fanatical objection to any entry into tournaments (sometimes even phrased as entering tournaments being a road to expulsion from the school), it is the competition implied that's objected to. However, I'd argue that there is great competition within the school, as reaching a belt sooner gives seniority, which in the hierarchical ranking present in the school, can be quite important to those of a competetive bent.

Within the SCA's martial activities, the matter is somewhat more clear. There is physical exertion to a great degree, skill beyond what I can even comprehend some days, and open and exciting competition. For the most part of the participants, it's therefore a sport under this definition.

There will always be exceptions to the competetive side, such as those who choose not to enter tournaments, and focus instead on bettering themselves and others. However, even in their case, the exertion and skill is clearly present.

Despite what your own focus within the martial art of your choice may be, whether it is tournament play, melees and war fighting, or just improving your own coordination and skill, I believe that it is a sport.

Please note, I do not include any of the denigrating meanings of sport. I use my fencing as moving meditation, and sometimes to my cost. When I fight, my mind clears completely, reactions and training take over and I find myself filling a gap in my opponent's defence before I've consciously seen it.

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