Current sports injury reporting systems lack a common conceptual basis. We propose a conceptual foundation as a basis for the recording of health problems associated with participation in sports, based on the notion of impairment used by the World Health Organization. We provide definitions of sports impairment concepts to represent the perspectives of health services, the participants in sports and physical exercise themselves, and sports institutions. For each perspective, the duration of the causative event is used as the norm for separating concepts into those denoting impairment conditions sustained instantly and those developing gradually over time. Regarding sports impairment sustained in isolated events, 'sports injury' denotes the loss of bodily function or structure that is the object of observations in clinical examinations; 'sports trauma' is defined as an immediate sensation of pain, discomfort or loss of functioning that is the object of athlete self-evaluations; and 'sports incapacity' is the sidelining of an athlete because of a health evaluation made by a legitimate sports authority that is the object of time loss observations. Correspondingly, sports impairment caused by excessive bouts of physical exercise is denoted as 'sports disease' (overuse syndrome) when observed by health service professionals during clinical examinations, 'sports illness' when observed by the athlete in self-evaluations, and 'sports sickness' when recorded as time loss from sports participation by a sports body representative. We propose a concerted development effort in this area that takes advantage of concurrent ontology management resources and involves the international sporting community in building terminology systems that have broad relevance.