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History of sport

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History of sport

Ancient sumo-wrestling competition from the Heian or Kamakura period (between 794 and 1333)

The history of sports probably extends as far back as the military training existence, to prove themselves fit and useful for army requirements, the best been chosen to serve and fight for the power in command. Team sports had most probably been developed to train and prove the capability to fight and work together as a team (army). Later sports has been also a useful way for people to increase their mastery of nature and the environment. The history of sport can teach us a great deal about social changes and about the nature of sport itself. Sport seems to involve the development and exercise of basic human skills for their own sake, in parallel with their being exercised for their usefulness. It also shows how society has changed its beliefs and therefore there are changes in rules. Of course, as one goes further back in history, dwindling evidence makes theories of the origins and purposes of sport more and more difficult to support.


  • Sport in prehistory 1
  • Ancient Sumer 2
  • Ancient Egypt 3
  • Ancient Greece 4
  • Ancient sports elsewhere 5
  • Stadia through the ages 6
  • Middle Ages 7
  • Development of modern sports 8
    • England 8.1
    • The British Empire and post-colonial sports 8.2
    • Women's sport history 8.3
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Sport in prehistory

Paintings of humans in the cave of swimmers

Cave paintings have been found in the Lascaux caves in France that have been suggested to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic around 17,300 years ago.[1][2] Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia dating back to Neolithic age of 7000 BC show a wrestling match surrounded by crowds.[3] Neolithic Rock art found at the cave of swimmers in Wadi Sura, near Gilf Kebir in Libya has shown evidence of swimming and archery being practiced around 6000 BC.[4] Prehistoric cave paintings have also been found in Japan depicting a sport similar to sumo wrestling.[5]

Ancient Sumer

An Egyptian burial chamber mural, from the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum dating to around 2400 BC, showing wrestlers in action.[6]

Various representations of wrestlers have been found on stone slabs recovered from the Sumerian civilization.[7] One showing three pairs of wrestlers was generally dated to around 3000 BC.[8] A cast Bronze figurine,[9] (perhaps the base of a vase) has been found at Khafaji in Iraq that shows two figures in a wrestling hold that dates to around 2600 BC. The statue is one of the earliest depictions of sport and is housed in the National Museum of Iraq.[10][11] The origins of boxing have also been traced to ancient Sumer.[8] The Epic of Gilgamesh gives one of the first historical records of sport with Gilgamesh engaging in a form of belt wrestling with Enkidu. The cuneiform tablets recording the tale date to around 2000 BC, however the historical Gilgamesh is supposed to have lived around 2800 to 2600 BC.[12] The Sumerian king Shulgi also boasts of his prowess in sport in Self-praise of Shulgi A, B and C.[12] Fishing hooks not unlike those made today have been found during excavations at Ur, showing evidence of angling in Sumer at around 2600 BC.[13]

Ancient Egypt

Monuments to the Pharaohs found at Beni Hasan dating to around 2000 BC[14] indicate that a number of sports, including wrestling, weightlifting, long jump, swimming, rowing, flying, shooting, fishing[13] and athletics, as well as various kinds of ball games, were well-developed and regulated in ancient Egypt. Other Egyptian sports also included javelin throwing, high jump, and snooker.[15] An earlier portrayal of figures wrestling was found in the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum in Saqqara dating to around 2400 BC.[6][16]

Ancient Greece

Depictions of ritual sporting events are seen in the Minoan art of Bronze Age Crete, such as a fresco dating to 1500 BC of gymnastics in the form of religious bull-leaping and possibly bullfighting. The origins of Greek sporting festivals may date to funeral games of the Mycenean period, between 1600 BC and c. 1100 BC.[17] In the Iliad there are extensive descriptions of funeral games held in honour of deceased warriors, such as those held for Patroclus by Achilles. Engaging in sport is described as the occupation of the noble and wealthy, who have no need to do manual labour themselves. In the Odyssey, king Odysseus of Ithaca proves his royal status to king Alkinoös of the Phaiakes by showing his proficiency in throwing the javelin. It was predictably in Greece that sports were first instituted formally, with the first Olympic Games recorded in 776 BC in Olympia, where they were celebrated until 393 AD. The games were held every four years, or Olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies. Initially a single sprinting event, the Olympics gradually expanded to include several footraces, run in the nude or in armor, boxing, wrestling, pankration, chariot racing, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw. During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their countries to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were wreaths of laurel leaves. Other important sporting events in ancient Greece were the Isthmian games, the Nemean Games, and the Pythian Games. Together with the Olympics, these were the most prestigious games, and formed the Panhellenic Games. Some games, e.g. the Panathenaia of Athens, included musical, reading and other non-athletic contests in addition to regular sports events. The Heraean Games were the first recorded sporting competition for women, held in Olympia as early as the 6th century BC.

Ancient sports elsewhere

Sports that are at least two and a half thousand years old include hurling in Ancient Ireland, shinty in Scotland, harpastum (similar to rugby) in Rome, cuju (similar to association football) in China, and polo in Persia. The Mesoamerican ballgame originated over three thousand years ago. The Mayan ballgame of Pitz is believed to be the first ball sport, as it was first played around 2500 BC.There are artifacts and structures that suggest that the Chinese engaged in sporting activities as early as 2000 BC.[18] Gymnastics appears to have been a popular sport in China's ancient past. Ancient Persian sports such as the traditional Iranian martial art of Zourkhaneh. Among other sports that originated in Persia are polo and jousting. A polished bone implement found at Eva in Tennessee, USA and dated to around 5000 BC has been construed as a possible sporting device used in a "ring and pin" game.[8]

Stadia through the ages

Middle Ages

For at least seven hundred years, entire villages have competed with each other in rough, and sometimes violent, ballgames in England (Shrovetide football) and Ireland (caid). In contrast, the game of calcio Fiorentino, in Florence, Italy, was originally reserved for the aristocracy. The aristocracy throughout Europe favoured sports as patrons as well as players with combat sports such as fencing and jousting being popular. Horse racing, in particular, was a favourite of the upper class in Great Britain, with Queen Anne founding the Ascot Racecourse.

Development of modern sports

A young cricketer by W.G. Grace, 1891

Some historians – most notably Bernard Lewis – claim that team sports as we know them today are primarily an invention of Western culture. The traditional teams sports are seen as springing from Europe, primarily England through its British Empire. This can be seen as discounting some of the ancient games of cooperation from Asia (e.g. polo, numerous martial arts forms, and various, now assimilated football varieties) and even from the Americas (e.g. lacrosse). European colonialism certainly helped spread particular games around the world, especially cricket (not related to baseball), football of various sorts, bowling in a number of forms, cue sports (like snooker, carom billiards and pool), hockey and its derivatives, equestrian (originally of Middle Eastern origin), and tennis (and related games deriving from jeu de paume), and many winter sports, while the originally Europe-dominated modern Olympic Games generally also ensured standardization in particularly European directions when rules for similar games around the world were merged. Regardless of game origins, the Industrial Revolution and mass production brought increased leisure which allowed more time to engage in playing or observing (and gambling upon) spectator sports, as well as less elitism in and greater accessibility of sports of many kinds. With the advent of mass media and global communication, professionalism became prevalent in sports, and this furthered sports popularity in general. With the increasing values placed on those who won also came the increased desire to cheat. Some of the most common ways of cheating today involve the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. The use of these drugs has always been frowned on but in recent history there have also been agencies set up to monitor professional athletes and ensure fair play in the sport.


The Ashes urn, competed for between Australia and England in cricket

Writing about cricket in particular, John Leech (2005a) has explained the role of Puritan power, the English Civil War, and the Restoration of the monarchy in England. The Long Parliament in 1642 "banned theatres, which had met with Puritan disapproval. Although similar action would be taken against certain sports, it is not clear if cricket was in any way prohibited, except that players must not break the Sabbath". In 1660, "the Restoration of the monarchy in England was immediately followed by the reopening of the theatres and so any sanctions that had been imposed by the Puritans on cricket would also have been lifted."[19] He goes on to make the key point that political, social and economic conditions in the aftermath of the Restoration encouraged excessive gambling, so much so that a Gambling Act was deemed necessary in 1664. It is certain that cricket, horse racing and boxing (i.e., prizefighting) were financed by gambling interests. Leach explains that it was the habit of cricket patrons, all of whom were gamblers, to form strong teams through the 18th century to represent their interests. He defines a strong team as one representative of more than one parish and he is certain that such teams were first assembled in or immediately after 1660. Prior to the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, all available evidence concludes that cricket had evolved to the level of village cricket only where teams that are strictly representative of individual parishes compete. The "strong teams" of the post-Restoration mark the evolution of cricket (and, indeed of professional team sport, for cricket is the oldest professional team sport) from the parish standard to the county standard. This was the point of origin for major, or first-class, cricket. The year 1660 also marks the origin of professional team sport.

A number of the English public schools, and colleges and universities such as Winchester and Eton, introduced variants of football and other sports for their pupils. These were described at the time as "innocent and lawful", certainly in comparison with the rougher rural games. With the coming of the industrial revolution and the movement of the populace from the country to the cities, the rural games moved to the new urban centres and came under the influence of the middle and upper classes. The rules and regulations devised at English institutions began to be applied to the wider game, with governing bodies in England being set up for a number of sports by the end of the 19th century. The rising influence of the upper class also produced an emphasis on the amateur, and the spirit of "fair play". The industrial revolution also brought with it increasing mobility, and created the opportunity for universities in Britain and elsewhere to compete with one another. This sparked increasing attempts to unify and reconcile various games in England, leading to the establishment of the Football Association in London, the first official governing body in football.

The British Empire and post-colonial sports

The influence of British sports and their codified rules began to spread across the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly association football. A number of major teams elsewhere in the world still show these British origins in their names, such as AC [Athletic Club] Milan in Italy, Grêmio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense in Brazil, and Athletic Bilbao in Spain. Cricket became popular in several of the nations of the then British Empire, such as Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan, and remain popular in and beyond today's Commonwealth of Nations. The revival of the Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin was also heavily influenced by the amateur ethos of the English public schools.

Baseball (closely related to English rounders and French la soule, and less clearly connected to cricket) became established in the urban Northeastern United States, with the first rules being codified in the 1840s, while American football was very popular in the south-east, with baseball spreading to the south, and American football spreading to the north after the Civil War. In the 1870s the game split between the professionals and amateurs; the professional game rapidly gained dominance, and marked a shift in the focus from the player to the club. The rise of baseball also helped squeeze out other sports such as cricket, which had been popular in Philadelphia prior to the rise of baseball.

American football (and gridiron football more generally) also has its origins in the English variants of the game, with the first set of intercollegiate football rules based directly on the rules of the Football Association in London. However, Harvard chose to play a game based on the rules of Rugby football. Walter Camp would then heavily modify this variant in the 1880s, with the modifications also heavily influencing the rules of Canadian football.

American footballers tackling

World-wide, the British influence certainly includes many different football codes, lawn bowls, lawn tennis and other sports. The major impetus for this was the patenting of the world's first lawnmower in 1830. This allowed for the preparation of modern ovals, playing fields, pitches, grass courts, etc.[20]

Perhaps in a reaction to the demands of contemporary life, there have been developments in sport that are best described as post-modern, extreme ironing being a notable example. There is also a move towards adventure sports as a form of escapism, transcending the routines of life, examples being white water rafting, paragliding, canyoning, base jumping and more genteelly, orienteering.

Women's sport history

UCSD Women's soccer Players fighting over ball

Women's competition in sports has been frowned upon by many societies in the past. The English public-school background of organised sport in the 19th and early 20th century led to a paternalism that tended to discourage women's involvement in sports, with, for example, no women officially competing in the 1896 Olympic Games. The 20th century saw major advances in the participation of women in sports, although women's participation as fans, administrators, officials, coaches, journalists, and athletes remains in general less than men's. Mass involvement tends to favour sports such as swimming and aerobics, and tends to stress the competitive aspects less than men.[21] The increase has been partly related to the drive for more women's rights. In the United States, female students participation in sports was significantly boosted by the Title 9 Act in 1972, preventing gender discrimination and equal opportunity for women to participate in sport at all levels.Pressure from sports funding bodies has also improved gender equality in sports. For example, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and the Leander Rowing Club in England had both been male-only establishments since their founding in 1787 and 1818, respectively, but both opened their doors to female members at the end of the 20th century at least partially due to the requirements of the United Kingdom Lottery Sports Fund.

See also


  1. ^ Capelo, Holly (July 2010). "Symbols from the Sky: Heavenly messages from the depths of prehistory may be encoded on the walls of caves throughout Europe.".  
  2. ^ Gary Barber (1 February 2007). Getting Started in Track and Field Athletics: Advice & Ideas for Children, Parents, and Teachers.  
  3. ^ Hartsell, Jeff., Wrestling 'in our blood,' says Bulldogs' Luvsandorj, 17 March 2011
  4. ^ Győző Vörös (2007). Egyptian Temple Architecture: 100 Years of Hungarian Excavations in Egypt, 1907-2007.  
  5. ^ Robert Crego (2003). Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries.  
  6. ^ a b Egypt Thomb. Lessing Photo. 02-15-2011.
  7. ^ Harriet Crawford (16 September 2004). Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge University Press. pp. 247–.  
  8. ^ a b c Kendall Blanchard (1995). The Anthropology of Sport: An Introduction.  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Faraj Baṣmahʹjī (1975). Treasures of the Iraq Museum. Al-Jumhuriya Press. Retrieved 26 September 2012. 
  11. ^ David Gilman Romano (1993). Athletics and Mathematics in Archaic Corinth: The Origins of the Greek Stadion. American Philosophical Society. pp. 10–.  
  12. ^ a b Nigel B. Crowther (2007). Sport in Ancient Times. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 15–.  
  13. ^ a b Terry Hellekson (19 November 2005). Fish Flies: The Encyclopedia Of The Fly Tier's Art. Gibbs Smith. pp. 2–.  
  14. ^ W. J. Hamblin (12 April 2006). Warfare in Ancient Near East. Taylor & Francis. pp. 433–.  
  15. ^ William J. Baker (1 July 1988). Sports in the Western World. University of Illinois Press. pp. 8–.  
  16. ^ Michael Rice (7 November 2001). Who's Who in Ancient Egypt. Psychology Press. pp. 98–.  
  17. ^ Wendy J. Raschke (15 June 1988). Archaeology Of The Olympics: The Olympics & Other Festivals In Antiquity. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 22–.  
  18. ^ "Sports History in China". 
  19. ^ Leach (2005a) is a heavily annotated chronology of cricket 1300-1730 and the source for numerous entries here.
  20. ^ Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National Ockham's Razor, first broadcast 6 June 2010.
  21. ^ The Department of Education (UK) (1996) A National Survey of Involvement in Sport and Physical Activity, Health Promotion Unit,Department of Education.

Further reading


  • Allen Guttmann, Women's Sports: A History, Columbia University Press 1992
  • Allen Guttmann, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism, Columbia Univ Press, 1996
  • Gleyse, Jacques (1995, reed. 2006). Archéologie de l'Education physique au XXe siècle en France. Paris: P.U.F. 
  • Gleyse, Jacques (1997). L'Instrumentalisation du corps. Une archéologie de la rationalisation instrumentale du corps de l'Age Classique à l'époque hypermoderne. Paris, Montréal: L'harmattan. 
  • Mangan, J.A. (1996). Militarism, Sport, Europe: War Without Weapons. Routledge. 
  • Martin Polley, 'Sports History: a practical guide', Palgrave, 2007.
  • Scott A.G.M. Crawford (Hrg.), Serious sport : J.A. Mangan's contribution to the history of sport, Portland, OR : Frank Cass, 2004
  • The new American sport history : recent approaches and perspectives, ed. by S.W. Pope, Urbana [u.a.] : Univ. of Illinois Press, 1997


  • STAPS. International Journal of Sport science and physical education, Bruxelles, De Boeck.
  • Sport History Journal
  • The International Journal of the History of Sport
  • Sport in History
  • STADION International Journal of Sport History
  • European Studies in Sport History


  • Michael Maurer, ’’Vom Mutterland des Sports zum Kontinent: Der Transfer des englischen Sports im 19. Jahrhundert’’, European History Online, Mainz, 2011, retrieved: 25 February 2012.

External links

European Committee for Sports History (CESH) CESH webpage: CESH] CESH on WorldHeritage: European_committee_for_sports_history

  • Images of ancient sport depicted in art
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