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A bridge too far: can a card game be considered a sport?


With all the competitive mindset of elite athletes, the English Bridge Union appears to like a challenge. A judicial review this week will decide whether it was right for Sport England to have ruled that the card game is not a sport. It isn’t the first time the EBU has sought to increase the status of bridge – last year, it lost a case against HMRC after a tribunal ruled bridge was a game, not a sport (becoming a recognised sport would have meant VAT exemptions).

“There are two issues – the funding issue and the definition issue,” says Kris Lines, associate professor of sports law at Staffordshire University. “The problem is there isn’t actually a definition of sport in the UK.” Where funding is concerned, organisations such as Sport England will be reluctant to admit new “sports” if it means they will also have to fund them.

According to the European Sport Charter, sport is “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.”

“Europe has said [sport has] to be physical, but the International Olympic Committee is prepared to include mind sports. So you’ve got Europe saying one thing, the IOC saying another thing, and other jurisdictions around the world saying something completely different. There isn’t one absolute definition” says Lines.

An ultimate frisbee championship in the US.

The IOC, for instance, recognises chess and bridge as sports – the respective federations have applied for them both to be included in the 2020 Olympics; other sports that have applied include snooker and tug of war, and the IOC recognised “ultimate frisbee” last month. Other EU countries, such as Ireland and Poland, also consider bridge a sport. It seems hard for Sport England to argue against bridge, when it recognises angling as a sport, which doesn’t require a huge amount of physical exertion.

There has been much debate over the years about whether “sports” such as darts (pub game), cheerleading (arguably pointless) and dressage (see cheerleading) should be considered as such. If ballroom dancing is a sport, as recognised by Sport England, then is ballet one too? If sport is defined as physical skill, then why not include wood whittling or tiddlywinks? Or if by its competition element, why not competitive eating?

Last year, a number of people entering the US for a competition were given athletes’ visas but they weren’t athletes in the way you may think – they were videogamers. ESports (or competitive gaming), says Lines, have a number of things in common with officially recognised sport: “It’s physical, there are tactics and a regulatory body. But eSports still aren’t recognised in a number of jurisdictions, and certainly not in the UK.”

Sports such as “synchronised swimming or rhythmic gymnastics are more about the expression and art form,” says Lines, “but if you go down that route then the only sports left are the ones that have got a physical start and stop where it’s obvious who the winner is, like a race. I think it’s more about the context in which the activity is taking place.”

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