Headlines on bellringing as a sport – more a result of wishful thinking than serious consideration
The Daily Telegraph and others have recently run a story concerning a dispute between bell ringers as to whether the activity should be classified as a sport, with some arguing that “their hobby is a sport because it is competitive and physically difficult”. The article includes quotations from the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) and its official weekly journal The Ringing World; however, apart from th e excellent Dove’s Guide for Church Bellringers, these sources are somewhat reticent in the availability of information beyond the realms of CCCBR membership, and this post is therefore based upon reports from secondary sources.
The Telegraph article stated that some readers of The Ringing World have written to the magazine insisting the church activity is “an art and a sport”, as demonstrated by regular “striking competitions”. They suggest that making ringing a sport could save it from becoming obsolete, and even more fancifully note that “if active religion declines to such an extent that churches are no longer in existence as places of worship, then church bell ringing will end with it”. However, “the idea has not chimed well with the governing body, the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR)” which opposes the idea for fear it would jeopardise its relationship with church bodies, since bell ringing should be seen as part of Christian worship, not exercise”. Whilst the benefits of bell ringing have been promoted by the Churches Conservation Trust and YMCAfit, a fitness and training provider, those resulting from its designation as a sport were listed, but unquantified, by the readers of The Ringing World. Likewise, the means by which it was to be classified as a sport were not examined, yet these are critical in relation to the body that makes the classification, and the legal or other impacts of that classification.
Legal issues – another “Dove’s Guide”
Inevitably, comparisons have been made with the classification of the game of bridge as a sport, as examined by the High Court in R (English Bridge Union Limited) v The English Sports Council & Ors  EWHC 2875 (Admin). However, paragraph 2 of the judgment states:
“2. The question that arises in this case is not the broad, somewhat philosophical, question as to whether or not bridge is a sport. The question is whether or not the defendant (and for that matter the interested parties) erred in law in adopting a policy containing a definition of sport derived from the European Sports Charter which incorporates physical activity within the definition, leading to the conclusion that the defendant would be unlikely to recognise bridge as a sport for its purposes applying that definition. The legal error alleged by the claimant relates to a misconstruction both of the Royal Charter which created the defendant and also s3 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937.”
Mr Justice Dove’s summing up in paragraph 55 states:
“55. For the reasons which I have set out above I am satisfied that the defendant’s adoption of the definition of ‘sport’ contained in the European Sports Charter was in line with both a proper interpretation of s3 of the 1937 Act and also a proper construction of the objects and powers contained within their Royal Charter. It follows that the claimant’s application for judicial review must be dismissed.”
Nevertheless, after considering Article 2(1) European Sports Charter from which the defendant’s policy was derived, and that used by the United Nations, the court stated:
“4. All parties accept that it is possible to construct a definition of sport that would include ‘mind sports’ like bridge. Indeed the International Olympic Committee and other international organisations recognise bridge as a sport. Further, in the field of charities, Parliament has chosen to define sport within section 3(2)(d) of the Charities Act 2011 as follows: ‘”sport” means sports or games which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion’.”
With regard to “the broad philosophical question” of whether bellringing can be regarded as a sport, there are a number of aspects of this activity that would support such a claim. Whilst the recent media interest had focussed on the physical aspects of bellringing, it is also generally acknowledged that it also requires a high degree of mental concentration, another aspect in the consideration of bellringing as a sport. The English Bridge Union case addressed a number of definitions of how “sport” may be defined, and how the game of bridge was so regarded within the criteria of other organizations. Beyond this example there is other litigation concerning English Bridge Union in relation to its classification as a sport: the decision of the Charity Commission relating to the Hitchin Bridge Club; and VAT-relates issues due for consideration by the Court of Justice of the EU, case C90/16.
The designation of an activity as “sport” clearly has implications beyond achieving greater popularity/involvement in bellringing, not least of which is access to lottery funding through Sport England, (formerly the English Sports Council). However, without support from the governing body, further progress seems unlikely.