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A Brief History of Sport

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The history of sports extends back to ancient times. The physical activity that developed into sports had early links with ritual, warfare and entertainment.

Team sports were used to train and to prove the capability to fight in the military and to work together as a team.

Early Evidence

Sport goes back a long time, as the following examples show:

  • Cave paintings found in the Lascaux caves in France appear to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic period around 15,300 years ago.
  • Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia dating back to the Neolithic age (c 7,000 BCE) show a wrestling match surrounded by crowds.
  • Neolithic Rock art found at the cave of swimmers in Wadi Sura, near Gilf Kebir in Egypt, indicates that swimming and archery were practiced c10,000 BCE.
  • Prehistoric cave paintings in Japan depict a sport like sumo wrestling as we know it today.
  • An Egyptian burial chamber mural from the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum dating to around 2400 BC show wrestlers in action.
  • A cast bronze figurine, (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 BCE.
  • The origins of boxing have also been traced to ancient Sumer.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh[1] gives one of the first historical records of sport, with Gilgamesh engaging in a form of belt wrestling with Enkidu.
  • The Charioteer of Delphi, Delphi Museum Monuments to the Pharaohs found at Beni Hasan dating to around 2000 BCE indicate that several sports, including wrestling, weightlifting, long jump, swimming, rowing, archery, fishing and athletics, and various kinds of ball games, were well-developed and regulated in ancient Egypt. Other Egyptian sports also included javelin throwing and high jump.
  • The Minoan art of Bronze Age Crete depicts sporting events such as gymnastics (in the form of religious bull-leaping and bullfighting).

The Greeks and the Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games recorded in 776 BCE in Olympia, where they were celebrated until 393 CE. These games took place 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 foot races (run without any clothing or in armour) and boxing, wrestling, pankration (not unlike martial arts), chariot racing, long jump, and throwing the javelin/discus.

Sport mentioned in the Bible

There are several sporting references in the Bible, some of which are:

“And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”
Genesis 32:24, King James

“Thus, I do not run aimlessly, I do fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
1st Corinthians Chapter 9, verse 26:

“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
2 Timothy 2:5 English Standard Version (ESV)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Hebrews 12:1 ESV

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV

Other Old Games

These sports include hurling in Ancient Ireland, shinty in Scotland, harpastum (like rugby) in Rome and cuju (like soccer) in China. Earlier still, the Mesoamerican ballgame (from central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica) originated over 3000 years ago.

The Mayan ballgame of Pitz is believed to be the first ball sport – played from around 2500 BCE.

Some artefacts and structures suggest that the Chinese engaged in sporting activities as early as 2000 BCE. Gymnastics appears to have been a popular sport in China’s ancient past. Ancient Persian sports include the traditional Iranian martial art of Zourkhaneh. Among other sports that came from Persia are polo and jousting.

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Picture Credit: “Harpastum”, a form of ball game played in the Roman Empire. Fresco. Date: circa 100 BC – 400 AD. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Ancient Romans[2]

Although much of ancient Roman life revolved around negotium (work and business), there was also time available for otium (leisure). Ranging from swimming to playing board games to attending theatre performances, athletics and forms of entertainment enjoyed by Romans in ancient times were not much different from those that exist today. Generally, Roman girls and women did not participate in these activities.

Sporting activities in ancient Roman times included[3]:

  • Swimming
  • Horseback Riding
  • Wrestling and Boxing
  • Running
  • Hunting and Fishing
  • Ball Games
  • Board Games

Painting of men in the Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Gilf Kebir, Western Desert, Egypt

Picture Attribution: Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Modern Sports

Some historians claim that team sports as we know them today are primarily an invention of Western culture. Former Prime Minister John Major was more explicit when he said in 1995[4]:

‘We invented the majority of the world’s great sports… 19th century Britain was the cradle of a leisure revolution every bit as significant as the agricultural and industrial revolutions we launched in the century before.’

The traditional team sports are seen as coming primarily from Britain and then ‘exported’ across the vast British Empire. European colonialism helped spread some games around the world, especially cricket, football, bowling in various forms, cue sports (such as snooker, carom billiards – billiards on a table without side pockets and pool), hockey and its derivatives, equestrian and tennis, and many winter sports.

The Industrial Revolution and mass production brought increased leisure time which allowed more time to engage in playing, gambling on, or simply watching, sport. Then along came mass media and global communication to further enhance the popularity of sport in general.

The Influence of Public Schools

In the early part of the 19th Century, sport and games were not on the radar of the headmasters of the leading public schools. Involvement was sparing, but as time went on, there was a growing acceptance of the value in games and the characteristics its involvement could help develop. The Clarendon Commission of 1864 commended the leading public schools, of which Winchester was one, for “their love of healthy sports and exercise.” By the middle of the Century, games had been formally embraced by headmasters to such an extent that they began to employ masters purely for their sporting ability.


We tend to think that gambling is a recent side issue associated with sport. But this is not so – in the 17th Century, Charles II introduced an ‘Act against deceitful disorderly and excessive Gaming’ (1664). There appears to be no doubt that horse racing and boxing (originally mostly called prizefighting) were financed by gambling interests.

Sources and Further Reading:

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Ancient Sumo Competition.
Attribution: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Bilgamesh (Sumerian for “Gilgamesh”), king of Uruk, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic in Akkadian (the earliest attested Semitic language). Source:
  2. * Dating from the founding of the Italian city of Rome in the 8th century BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.
  3. Source: Cartwright, M. (2013, May 9th). Roman DiceWorld History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  4. Source: Garry Whannel (2005). Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities. Routledge. p. 72. ISBN 978-1134698714.

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