Is Orienteering a good example of a sport? That depends on whom you ask

Posted on August 27, 2010


Originally posted on

Jukola orienteering relay start by Oskarlin

Something a little different today, a guest post from University of Melbourne student and Victorian orienteer, Clare Browridge.

What is a sport? How would you explain the concept of a sport to someone? Some of the activities that are considered by at least some people to be sports seem to be more ‘sporty’ than others. How do football and synchronised swimming compare?

There have been numerous linguistics studies investigating ‘prototype theory,’ which posits that some members of a category such as sport are more central than others as they have more in common with other members of the category. A study in the USA in 1975 found that football, baseball and basketball were the best examples of sports.

As part of a Semantics class at the University of Melbourne, I conducted a survey to investigate the rankings of ‘goodness of example’ of sports. The purpose was to compare the rankings given by groups of orienteers (n=16) and non-orienteers (n=18).

The survey was designed to investigate the influence of personal experience and familiarity on the judging of prototypical sports to see if results differed between orienteers and non-orienteers. I expected that orienteers would rank orienteering, and other endurance based sports such as athletics, cycling and triathlon, higher than non-orienteers. A second question on the survey asked for the characteristics an activity must have to be classified a sport, and I predicted that orienteers would focus more on the mental aspect of sports, as this is so salient in orienteering.

The results of the survey were rather unexpected. There was little difference in the rankings by orienteers and non-orienteers, with orienteering itself being the only sport that differed (ranked 3rd by orienteers, 12th when results were combined, see Table 1). I therefore combined results for both groups for the rest of the study. The sports with the highest ‘goodness of example’ scores were all individual based, rather than the team sports which topped the 1975 study.

Table 1. ‘Goodness of example’ ranks for sports. Scores: 1: very good example of a sport, 7: very poor example of a sport. Scores are averaged across orienteers and non-orienteers.

Score Rank
Athletics 1.32 1
Cycling 1.32 2
Swimming 1.38 3
Basketball 1.44 4
Triathlon 1.44 5
Tennis 1.50 6
Netball 1.50 7
Squash 1.53 8
Football 1.62 9
Rowing 1.82 10
Badminton 1.85 11
Orienteering 2.03 12
Handball 2.18 13
Gymnastics 2.21 14
Skiing 2.38 15
Canoeing 2.56 16
Fencing 2.56 17
Archery 2.91 18
Karate 2.97 19
Surfing 3.09 20
Climbing 3.15 21
Taekwondo 3.30 22
Waterskiing 3.74 23
Lifesaving 3.82 24
Horse riding 4.12 25
Synchronised swimming 4.41 26
Tenpin bowling 4.47 27
Billiards 4.74 28
Tug of war 4.82 29
Body building 5.15 30

In the second question, the most commonly listed attributes of a sport were: physical, skill required, competitive, physically challenging,

Orientering - Misc sports by Qrodo photos

provide enjoyment and being individual OR team in nature. The most marked differences between orienteers and non-orienteers were the higher frequency of mention of enjoyment and endurance by orienteers, and their less frequent mention of skill, mental benefits, NOT recreation/hobby, different levels of competition and the presence of an organising body or the established nature of the sport.

Neither group emphasised only the necessity of the mental aspect of a sport, which had been expected from orienteers. However, a small number of both orienteers (x=2) and non-orienteers (x=2) listed both mental and physical components as important.

The study did show that people perceive the category of sport as having a ‘graded centrality’ in its internal structure, as different scores were given to different sports. It also showed the effect of personal experience and familiarity on subjects’ determination of ‘goodness of example’ scores, with orienteers ranking orienteering higher than non-orienteers. However, the effect was narrow in its range, and applied only to orienteering.

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