What is a national sport?

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Dear Sports Fan,

What is a national sport? What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? For example, I think soccer is the national sport of Italy but I’m not sure. Is there a list of official national sports?

Sandy from Stack Exchange

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Dear Sandy,

Your question is an interesting one. What makes something a national sport? There are two answers, one straightforward and one complex and hypothetical at best. Which answer you care about depends on how much you care about obscure laws.

“Laws?” you say. That’s right, laws! There are a small number of countries in the world and states within the United States that actually have official sports. Just like the national flower of Sri Lanka is the blue water lily, the national sport is volleyball. Canada has two national sports, lacrosse for the summer and ice hockey for the winter. As for states, the state bird of New Hampshire, the Purple Finch, is joined by its state sport of skiing. North Carolina made the sport of stock car racing officially its state sport in 2011. Perhaps North Carolina has a thing for droning, buzzing sounds because its state insect is the honeybee! These are just a few examples of sports that have become officially, in law, representative of a nation or state.

It’s a funny concept though, a national sport. One of the lovely things about sports is how they so frequently are able to cross boundaries of culture, ethnicity, race, and nation. The Olympics, the World Cup, even the Little League World Series, which might seem like the most American thing around, has been international since the 1950s. How can a country claim a sport that’s loved world-wide? Indeed, that seems to have been on some countries’ minds when they selected a national sport. Take Brazil, which, if you watched the World Cup this past summer, you know is one of the most soccer crazed countries in the world. Why is Brazil’s national sport capoeira not soccer? Or the Philippines, a country who loves basketball more than anyone, but whose national sport is Arnis, a weapons based martial art? I honestly don’t know, but my guess is that soccer and basketball seemed too international and therefore not suitable to become the national sport.

That leads us back to your initial question. What criteria must a sport meet to be said to be the national sport of a country? Reasoning from the sports chosen as official national sports, I would say these criteria are important:

  • The sport should have been invented in the country. Example: lacrosse in Canada.
  • The sport should be extremely popular. Example: kabaddi in Bangladesh. 
  • If it’s not popular, the sport should be “important” in some cultural way and therefore worthy of conservation, reenactment, and reverence. Example: Charreada in Mexico.
  • When possible, the sport should convey something meaningful about the country, ideally in a kick-ass way. Example: Varzesh-e Bastani in Iran.

These same factors are important when talking about unofficial national sports too, but here I think that popularity takes precedence. There’s no need for unofficial national sports to be unique to each country. One could easily say that soccer is the unofficial national sport of Brazil and Italy and the Netherlands and many other countries. Cricket would be another popular choice as an unofficial national sport in former British colonies in Asia or the Caribbean. Then there are some countries which, for reasons of nature or nurture, seem to produce an inordinate number of skilled athletes in particular sports. These too could be said to be unofficial national sports, like marathoning in Kenya, sprinting in Jamaica, or Cross Country Skiing in Norway.

National sports may shift over time, especially if they are left unofficial, as most are. Forty years ago, baseball would have been the most likely unofficial national sport for the United States. Some sports fans still reflexively call it the “national pastime.” Today, that sport is football. Things change. As we covered a few weeks ago, the unofficial national sport of Poland has been soccer but American football is rapidly gaining steam there. Who know, in time any sport could gain in popularity pretty much anywhere, or maybe even a brand new sport could take over!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

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