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Is Bridge a Sport?

It depends who you ask. Often referred to as a ‘mind-sport’, opinions are divided. The European Court of Justice has ruled that it isn’t a sport, yet the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says the World Bridge Federation is a sporting organization. Opinions are divided according to how much weight you give the argument that a sport must have a significant physical component.

Let’s delve into this topic a bit further:

The Story So Far: Who Says Bridge Is A Sport And Who Say It Isn’t

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck a major blow to those who want Bridge labelled as a sport when they ruled exactly the opposite in October 2017. This ruling occurred after the English Bridge Union (EBU) chose to challenge the British tax authorities who had ruled that Bridge was not a sport because there was no evidence of physical exertion – and therefore not VAT exempt.

The court sided with HMRC and ruled that the lack of discernible physical activity meant that Bridge couldn’t be a sport, and so the EBU still needs to pay VAT. This is depite the fact that bridge organization in some other European countries are given tax exemptions (although presumably not on the grounds of being a sport).

Just to confuse things, the International Olympic Committee (you’d assume they know a sport when they see one) has recognized the World Bridge Federation as a sporting organization. Having said that, it also recognizes Boules, Orienteering, and Life Saving in the same category, so clearly it has quite a broad definition.

So Is Bridge An Olympic Sport?

Recognized status – that sounds important right, so is Bridge an Olympic sport?

No. The IOC recognizes the World Bridge Federation as a sporting organization, but bridge is not an Olympic sport. Bridge was featured as a demonstration before the 2002 Winter Olympics but has not been chosen as a competitive event.

What it does mean is that participants in WBO events are subject to the same rules that other athletes are, which includes drug testing during competitions. These tests are based on the anti-doping rules set out by the World Anti-Doping Agency and cover the following competitions:

  • The World Team Championships – Bermuda Bowl and Venice Cup
  • World Bridge Series – Open, Women’s & Mixed Series
  • World Bridge Games – Open and Women’s Series
  • World Junior and Girls Bridge Teams Championships

Players in these competitions may be subject to testing. Any missed test is counted as a positive and could result in a ban from the sport and/or criminal proceedings, as will a failed test of course!

What About The 2018 Asian Games?

In a coup for the game, bridge appeared at the Asian Games for the first time in 2018. 217 players from 14 nations competed in six categories, with China emerging top of the leaderboard with 3 golds, 1 silver, and 2 bronze. To put this in context, the Asian Games is the second-largest multi-sport competition in the world; second only to the Olympics.

Bridge’s appearance at the Games has been largely attributed to the work of billionaire Indonesian bridge player Michael Bambang Hartono, who went on to win bronze for his country in the supermixed team event. Hartono is said to have lobbied for years to get bridge to appear at the games – and it worked.

Why It Matters Whether Bridge Is A Sport or Not

Being labeled a sport isn’t inconsequential and can bring some significant benefits to those that achieve it. Let’s take a look at why some are so passionate about getting bridge named as a sport:

  • Funding – In many countries, there is significant funding for sports organizations that are not available to clubs or societies without this definition. In the UK, for example, sports are afforded Lotto funding, which is significant: in the year ending March 2018, sports received more than £330 million in funding from the National Lottery. This funding could be used to promote bridge better in schools and clubs.
  • Tax Advantages – In some countries, having a legal status as a sport can confer tax advantages. For example, if Bridge were legally a sport in the UK players would not need to pay VAT on their competition entries. This would lower the cost of playing and help more people to play.
  • Recognition – For many players, the recognition that comes with naming bridge as a sport is entirely justified by the hard work and passion they put into mastering the game. This is especially true for international players, who may spend 8-to-12 hours a day playing and training for big competitions.
  • Competition – Recognition as a sport could help bridge achieve representation at the Olympic games and other large competitions – something many in the hobby have long desired.

Arguments Against Bridge Being a Sport

As ever, the main argument against bridge being a sport is its lack of a significant physical aspect. While maintaining concentrated play for days at a time does require some physical conditioning, it’s obviously not athletic in the sense that tennis, athletics, or basketball is. This is never more obvious than when players in their sixties, seventies and beyond can still compete at the highest level.

Arguments For Bridge Being a Sport

Those who argue bridge should be a sport point to the following requirements for high-level play:

  • Skill – duplicate play removes any elements of luck, ensuring a level playing field
  • Concentration – one single mistake can ruin day’s of good play
  • Stamina – high-level events require many hours of play per day, for days at a time, requiring both mental and physical endurance

The common counter-argument to the lack of physicality is the number of sports that already lack a significant physical element: shooting and dressage are two that come to mind. While the physical component is not entirely absent, people above 50 regularly compete (and win) in these sports.

The New Contender: Does The Rise of eSports Change Anything?

Just this year, reports have been released suggesting eSports may be due an appearance as a demonstration game at Olympics, possibly in 2024. eSports are also due to be demonstrated at the 2022 Asian Games.

While I personally enjoy eSports, I struggle to see how it contains much more of a physical element than bridge – reaction times, perhaps? The chief motivator seems to be money – the eSports industry is estimated to hit £1bn in revenue by 2020. It does seem a shame that bridge can miss out for so long, only to be pipped by eSports simply because it makes more money.

Although, perhaps the silver lining is that if eSports starts getting significant recognition as a sport, the arguments against bridge being recognized in a similar fashion are significantly reduced.

What Do I Think?

Personally, I’m not overly fussed with the designation of ‘sport’. The main driver behind achieving it is so that bridge can get more recognition, more funding, and more players – a motive I applaud – but I think there’s a better way. I am happy calling bridge a mind-sport, and I’d rather see people campaigning for pursuits like bridge to receive greater recognition and funding.

Instead of trying to reclassify bridge, we should be looking to change the law to promote mind sports. Why shouldn’t bridge, chess and Go clubs receive the same tax advantages that sporting clubs do? Both physical sports and mind-sports have been proven to be beneficial. Of course, this is the case in some countries already – the unfortunate conclusion of the IOC’s willingness to recognize bridge as a sport is that it has very little impact on an individual country’s policies.

Oh, and a spot at the Winter Olympics would be nice.

What do you think? Is bridge a sport? Does it matter?


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