What makes a sport a sport? Sport England’s recent decision to deny the accolade to bridge, based on the lack of physical exertion required, prompted much debate – not least on this very site. This singular case, on which it’s possible to form opposed, equally valid opinions, points at a wider issue. The criteria by which we decree any event to be a sport are largely subjective, and activities that lie in its hinterland face an uphill struggle for recognition.
Sport England’s own modus operandi is “to help the nation to be more physically active”, as prescribed in the EU’s European Sports Charter, which also references mental well-being, forming social relationships and a level of competition as factors in proclaiming any pursuits a fully-fledged sport. The English Bridge Union, which has lost funding and opportunities to compete internationally, might feel that three out of four ain’t bad – especially given that a raft of borderline games make the cut: darts, clay pigeon shooting, life saving and yoga all have sporting status.
There are a wealth of additional factors – traditions, personal preference, and good old-fashioned snobbery – which frame our individual perceptions of sport. Does an event’s huge popularity – 50,000 people attended last year’s World Darts Championships, with four million watching at home – override a lack of physical exertion? How big a factor is participation, when the UK’s most played sports aren’t likely to ever achieve pay-per-view status – swimming, running, badminton, bowls and fishing all rank inside the top 20?
The truth is that there can be no set definition – just an envelope that bulges with an array of opinions. Allow me to push it to breaking point then, with my call to embrace the growth of facial hair as a bona fide sport. After all, it has its own world championships.
The World Beard and Moustache Championships began in 2001, and this pogonophilic jamboree has travelled from Alaska to East Sussex in the intervening years, landing at Leogang, Austria this year. Before I go any further, I accept that, while growing a beard may be a physical activity on a technical level, many of you may scoff at the notion that possession of a beard equates to athletic prowess. A counterpoint – where is the sporting endeavour in José Mourinho repeatedly attacking Arsène Wenger? Where is the sweat and strain on transfer deadline day (apart from on Jim White’s face)? In the modern age, it is the accoutrements as much as athletic achievement that drive a sport forward.
Name your sporting sideshow of choice, and you’ll find it here – from widespread accusations of big decisions going the way of the heavyweights, to a firm line on cheating – there’s no hormone growth testing yet, but plenty of categories don’t allow the use of products and dying your beard is strictly forbidden. The cynical among you might suggest that if you can cheat at it, it’s probably a sport – as evidenced by recent scandals in the murky, lucrative world of electronic gaming.
Staging plays its part too – the 350 competitors are divided into sub-categories, which is a logical choice given the variety on show, but also creates an ebb and flow to proceedings, as we build from the niche categories (Garibaldi beards, anyone?) and morally dubious (the ‘Chinese’ round is a low point) to the freestyle beard and moustache rounds – very much the blue riband events.
It’s not just about creating a sense of theatre – the different genres offer opportunities for newcomers like myself, instilling a sense of a level playing field from the opening moments, where all participants are summoned to … an actual playing field, just outside the main marquee. The feeling of equality is short-lived, as one excitable American spots follicular legend Arnie Bielefeld and shrieks: “He’s incredible!” Every sport has its stars, and beard growing is no exception.
We have the baying crowds, the controversial decisions and, we discover as the day unfolds, administration that’s both idle and incompetent. No major tournament would be complete without a couple of other crucial additions – a dollop of national pride, and a fierce, evolving rivalry. Here in Leogang, as the official website proclaims, we witness a defining moment in the annals of the event, with the young, brash Americans, decked out in biker jackets and bow ties, finally wrestling victory from the Germans, who forlornly adjust their lederhosen as they realise that their time at the top is over. Team USA take home the gold in six categories, completing a goal set out in documentary series Whisker Wars to conquer the world of beards.
I’m part of a small British contingent, producing mediocre results in the true national tradition, in a region that has its own eclectic sporting reputation. It’s a suitable setting for the changing of the guard, with medieval town halls brushing against gleaming ski centres, in an area so preoccupied with alpine pursuits that even the modest secondary school that serves as the venue has a modern climbing wall rising from the entrance hall. It’s perhaps telling that none of the 350 competitors, no matter how inebriated, shows any interest in scaling it.
It strikes me that, while mountain bikers, skiers and climbers do their outdoor thing nearby, and the only perspiration in the hall is ended by the skylights being opened on an unseasonably hot day, those inside the venue are meeting as many of the EU’s criteria as those outside. When it’s my turn to take to the stage, at one end of the cavernous main hall, it feels as if I’m part of something – and by doing little more than standing still as a group of judges peruse my face, I achieve a respectable score in an international tournament. I may be embellishing slightly, but its more than many much finer athletes have managed.
Ultimately, aside from the nervous, moustache-twiddling contestant next in line behind me, nobody seems desperately concerned about the outcome; even those who have put considerable effort into their facial attire can laugh off a narrow defeat. Spectators and competitors alike – for they are largely one – are here for their own entertainment; another criteria on the sporting list ticked. Madison Rowley, winner of the unofficial tournament in Portland last year, was offered a free flight to take part here. I ask if he has any pre-game nerves, and he just shrugs.
“I’m just here to have a good time”, he tells me in a languid tone, before breezing off with his elephantine beard in tow. Rowley’s offhand words bring to mind those of the great Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, who famously claimed that winning isn’t the most important thing – it’s the taking part that counts. Rowley goes on to triumph in the freestyle full beard category, reflecting an American twist on that maxim; winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing.
Years of practice, team tactics, national pride, high drama and entertainment were all present in this quiet corner of Austria; when many sports survive and thrive on the soap operas that surround them, does the lack of physicality on show diminish the sense of spectacle one iota? Whether bridge or beard growing, in the modern world, there are myriad ways that a sport can be a sport, whatever the powers that be might say.
Just try telling a young lad from Wiltshire, who gave up shaving one day and made it all the way to a preliminary semi-final at a world championship, that he isn’t a true athlete. You can do so below the line, because you’re reading his article.