14 October 2015

For some, sport conjures up images of supreme physical performance; world record leaps, lightning quick speeds and technical movements executed with highly skilled, pinpoint precision.  A far cry from the dealing and shuffling of cards at the Bridge club?  Perhaps not.

The English Bridge Union (EBU) has taken legal action against Sport England, the public body responsible for increasing the nation’s participation in sport, after it refused to recognise the card game as a sport.  

The case was fought out before the Royal Courts of Justice in London with the EBU asking the Court to conduct a judicial review of Sport England's decision.  Under the terms of a judicial review, the Court will determine whether Sport England acted lawfully in reaching its decision, it will not decide whether or not Bridge should be recognised as a sport more generally.  The hearing concluded last month and the parties are now waiting for the decision.

At stake for the EBU and Bridge is access to the limited pot of public and lottery funding distributed by Sport England in support of participation in sport and physical recreation as well as potential tax exemptions available to ‘sports’ but not ‘games’.  At the same time, the case is likely to be of wider interest to bodies representing other activities who may be warming up to stake their claim for status, recognition and funding.

The team sheets

Whilst the EBU is the only body formally challenging Sport England's decision, it is not alone in its contention that Bridge should be classified as a sport.  Lining up behind it are other European countries and sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee.  Indeed, Sport Accord, an umbrella organisation created to provide expertise and support for sports governing bodies, recognises not just Bridge but also Chess, Go, Draughts and Xiangqi (Chinese chess) as sports.

Backing Sport England’s corner is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) who contend that sports councils should be allowed to differentiate mind games from physical activities when deciding which activities they choose to recognise.  Behind this lies a concern for the impact that the diversion of funding from traditional sports projects, aiming to improve the physical health of the nation, would have on society.  DCMS' suggestion is that the EBU seek funding through the departments of education or health.

Mind over matter?

At the heart of the dispute lie two competing definitions of 'sport'.  Although similar in their underlying concern for the importance of health and well-being, there are subtle differences in the emphasis each puts on the need for physical activity, reflecting different social and public health concerns. 

The definition of sport adopted by Sport England comes from the European Sports Charter which defines sport as “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being.'  Whilst not appearing to require a competitive element, this definition does appear to require an element of physical as well as mental activity.

Sport England, which seeks to distribute its limited funding in line with its core objectives of fostering, supporting and encouraging the development of sport and recreation among the public, argues that Bridge's case for eligibility falls down on the game's lack of physicality. Although there are physical elements involved, the chances of success are based on mental rather than physical exertion; it is the particular cards that are played, and when, that determines the outcome, not the act of dealing, playing or shuffling the cards.

Whilst Bridge players argue that the game encourages ‘training’ of the mind, Sport England contends that mental stimulation alone is not enough to be considered a sport. Indeed, it has gone as far as comparing Bridge to reading a book with the Director of Sport England, Phil Smith stating that:

Sport England’s job is to get the nation fitter and although Bridge is a fantastic pursuit, and we think it probably gives pleasure to a lot of people, it certainly isn’t getting the nation any fitter.”

The EBU, on the other hand, contends that the definition of 'sport' relied upon by Sport England is inconsistent with the evidence of parliament’s most recent intentions as set out in the Charities Act 2011.  The Charities Act defines sports as including activities which 'promote health or wellbeing through physical or mental skill or exertion.”  Adopting this definition would mean that mind games such as Bridge which involve mental skill and exertion could arguably be classed as sports.

The EBU argue further that Bridge trains the mind, requires “undoubted levels of mental skill” and has “known health benefits'.  At a time where decreasing cognitive skills in a country with an aging population are of increasing concern, it contends that Sport England should take a broader view of the concept of health and well-being and consider those activities which don't simply focus on strengthening the 'limbs and lungs.'  In its view, recognising Bridge as a sport would demonstrate a real commitment to improving and maintaining the nation's mental health.  

Clearing the bar

As noted above, the case has been fought out in the context of a judicial review, which enables the courts to supervise public bodies such as Sport England, to ensure that they act lawfully and fairly within their remit. 

When reviewing the decision, the Court will consider whether it was lawful for Sport England to impose a requirement for physical activity for the purposes of its recognition policy. This will be considered in the light of Sport England’s objectives arising out of its Royal Charter. The question for the Court will therefore not be the wider one of whether physical exertion is a necessary requirement for a pursuit to be recognised as a sport in general, but whether, in this particular context, Sport England’s requirement for physical activity is appropriate.  

In debating Bridge's claim for recognition, attention will inevitably have focused on the sports already recognised by Sport England and the degree of physical exertion involved in them compared with Bridge.  Whilst the importance of physical exertion in sports such as athletics, rugby and football is undeniable and a degree of physical exertion allied to exceptional hand-eye coordination is apparent in sports such as darts and snooker, the element of physical exertion required in sports such as model aircraft flying and angling, which are also recognised by Sport England, is far less visible.

Against that backdrop, and with the Court’s decision pending, in addition to Bridge, there are no doubt a number of other pursuits interested to know just how much physical activity is required to clear the bar set by Sport England.

The authors James Pheasant and Siobhan Lewis are part of Burges Salmon’s Sports Disputes team.

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Jeremy Dickerson

Jeremy Dickerson Partner

  • Head of International 
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