I came across this discussion on a translators' forum, and some people there say that

Uh uh, NEVER use sportsman to mean athlete. Messi and Mayweather are athletes, not sportsmen. )


A sportsman in actual usage (not in Wiki cut-n-paste lol) is someone who partakes in outdoor activities, like hunting, boating, fishing, etc...

It is so? In Russian, the generic term for a person engaged in sports is "sportsman", it is a loanword. Is it a "translator's false friend"? Would translating Russian "спортсмен" as "sportsman" instead of "athlete" always be a mistake?

The matter is, Wikipedia does state on its disambiguation page for "Sportsman" that

Sportsman may refer to:
Sportsperson, someone who enjoys sport

  • American English: sportsman <> athlete. A sportsman could have a big beer belly.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:22
  • @TRomano - I see. What if a person is engaged in sports, but on an amateur level, participating in amateur-level competitions etc.? Would a US person call him an 'athlete'? I had some doubts translating Russian спортсмен into English just a week ago. Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:23
  • Athlete, high school athlete, college athlete, professional athlete, amateur athlete, etc.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:24
  • sportsafield.com to give you an idea of the mindset consider this blurb about a book: "...the stories of people who have been on the receiving end of animal attacks." (my emphasis)
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:28
  • 1
    In England, "sportsman" has long been associated with the hunting and shooting pursuits of the aristocracy and "the country gentleman". Fishing, and yacht racing would also be part of the idea.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:35

4 Answers 4


I always often bristle when I hear people use absolutes such as NEVER or ALWAYS, particularly in ALL CAPS.

I do agree with the overall sentiment. When I hear the word athlete sans any additional context, I think of sprinters, gymnasts, and basketball players. So does Google.

When it comes to the word sportsman, I might be more inclined to think of hunters and fisherman, but Google doesn't seem to be so sure. (If we Google outdoor sportsman, however, we can find those fishermen we were expecting to see.)

One obvious exception to the sportsman ≠ athlete argument I immediately thought of was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Wikipedia says:

Since its inception in 1954, Sports Illustrated magazine has annually presented the "Sportsman of the Year" award to "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement."

The terms may not be equal, but there are some contexts where there is a lot of overlap. That said, the language might be evolving while SI clings to tradition. In other words, sportsman might have been more closely aligned with athlete 50 years ago than it is today, but the magazine might be reluctant to change the name of its prestigious award.

Bottom line: I think athlete might be the better word in many contexts, but, in answer to your title question:

Can we use the word “sportsman” to refer to a person who engages in sport activities?

is: Yes, that can be done.

The dictionary would back both sides of the argument, defining sportsman with some definitions that show it to be just about synonymous with athlete:

  • A man who is active in sports.
  • A man who engages in sports. A male athlete.

while other definitions are more aligned with the hunting, fishing, and boating aspects of the word:

  • A man who engages in country sports, such as hunting or fishing.
  • One who pursues the sports of the field; one who hunts, fishes, etc.

I think those participating in that discussion forum may have found an interesting distinction between the two words; however the assertion:

NEVER use sportsman to mean athlete

is not quite true, and fails to see how flexible the English language can be.

  • 1
    "I often bristle when I hear people use absolutes" - same here. One can never be sure about language. When one is right about a particular language issue, the realization that there are millions such issues out there should detain one from mentoring. Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 4:32

All of the responses above are entirely American-centric in their use of English language.

As a Brit, the definition of athlete is generally much more specific and reserved for those people who are part of the sport of 'athletics' or as you generally call it in America, track-and-field. We would use sportsperson for anyone who takes part in sport (especially if a professional) and would rarely use the word athlete for anyone that partakes in any sport apart from athletics itself. We'd use specific words such as 'footballer' 'basketball player', 'cyclist'.

The only time we might use the word athlete for sports other than athletics, would be if we were talking about a group of sportspeople from a variety of different sports together at which point we might refer to them as an athlete (or potentially if referring to someone as an overall sportsperson - 'they're an excellent athlete' to refer to the fact that they are skilled in a variety of different sports). Even then we'd probably be more likely to use the word 'sportsperson', 'sportsman' or 'sportswoman'.


As a native American English speaker, I would agree with the information you found. 'Athlete' refers to a person playing a sport. If somebody is an amateur, as you mention in the comments, I would probably call them a ' player' (as in, football player or volleyball player) before I would call them an athlete, but that word can't really be used on its own. (Calling someone a player in American English is slang for a variety of things, none of them having to do much with athletics...)

I live in a big city, so I don't encounter hunters very often. To me the word sportsman sounds odd and outdated, and I'm mostly familiar with it in the context of "sportsman stores" which sell hunting and boating gear. I'm not sure many people would know what you're talking about if you use the word sportsman.


As an American, I agree that athlete is the accepted and much more used term.

Anecdotally, I live in Japan and I have heard the term sportsman thrown around by non-native English speakers. Perhaps sportsman is just a more intuitive word for English learners and therefore is more commonly used as a loanword?

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