History of Sports | Sports Through the Ages

History of Sports | Sports Through the Ages


There is nothing quite like the euphoric exhilaration of a sporting event. Or perhaps, the great sense of achievement that you gain as a player after slam dunking the final point of the game. Sports encourages people to share in a group dynamic, whether they are supporting a team or championing athletes who have reached their maximum potential. Sports, in many ways, highlight everything that makes us human. Our drive, ambition, passion, power, and potential to reach greatness. However, if you thought sports was always fun and games, you would be wrong. Back in ancient times sports had a rather important role to play in society and was never intended as a form of entertainment.

Let’s travel back in time and explore the origins of sports so we can discover how it became the cultural phenomenon that it is today.

The First Evidence of Sports in Society

How long ago do you think the first sports event was held? You might think that sports became a cherished part of society in the Victorian era. Or perhaps medieval times. After all, we know there was jousting as well as boxing during this time in England. Evidence shows sports existed long before there was even civilization. Ancient cave drawings seem to show sprinting races and wrestling matches that date back over fifteen thousand years. These can be found everywhere from France to Mongolia. You might think that back then, sports were not a popular activity for the masses. But drawings from 7000 BCE portray a wrestling match with a crowd surrounding it. As such, it’s clear that sports were certainly a predominant part of society before we built villages and cities.

It is unknown exactly why sports became popular during this time. Though it is certainly possible that it was used in some cases as a way to keep fit and avoid predators, and in others as a way to bring social groups together.

The Earliest Sports

Arguably, the earliest sport was wrestling with stone slabs in Japan depicting men in wrestling stances. For instance, one stone slab holds a drawing of a man with another in a tight arm grip. These slabs are believed to date back to around 3000 BCE, and as such, it can be concluded that both wrestling and sprinting sports were prevalent activities during this time.

In Sumerian civilization, there is evidence of fishing dating back to around the same time, with hooks like those we use today dug up in ancient caves. As such, it’s quite possible that this civilization used to hold tournaments to see how many fish they could catch.

In Egypt, there was evidence of sports dating back to 2000 BCE. Depictions of pharaohs playing many of the sports that we know today have been discovered, including javelin throwing and some form of long jumping. Indeed, many of the sports that we know from the Olympics seem to have been around at that time. Of course, this type of activity was only available for the upper classes of society, and this is one of the ways sports has evolved. Today sports are watched, played and enjoyed by everyone.

Since we mentioned the Olympics, it should not come as a surprise that the earliest evidence of sporting tournaments is found in Greece. Many ancient Greek writings note sports being played and enjoyed, often depicted as something for the wealthy and noble. Since these individuals had no need to perform manual labor, sports might have been their way of keeping fit.

The Olympic Games

The Olympic Games were born in 776 BCE, with several sporting events familiar to us, such as javelin throwing, discus throw, and wrestling. Of course, there were others that have long since passed from society including chariot racing. These games lasted until 393 CE, and it is interesting to note that they were not as inclusive as they are today. In fact, only freeborn Greek men could participate, though some women were allowed to participate in certain sports. It is also worth pointing out that, like today, sports in Greece were linked to both religion and patriotism. When you watch a football game, it has become the norm for the game to begin with someone singing the National Anthem, which itself mentions god. Of course, in ancient times the religious aspects of sports were slightly more apparent and distinct. After all, the Olympics originated as a celebration of the Greek god Zeus, and the Greeks gave the tournament a dense mythology.

Today, the Olympics is celebrated all over the world with 200 countries participating. It is amazing to think that this sports celebration has been embedded in society for thousands of years and highlights how important sports are and always have been in society.

Medieval Sports

Through the middle ages, sports became very popular in England, Ireland and many countries throughout Europe. However, these sports were nothing like the ones we play today. Even the early incarnation of soccer was far more violent and bloody. Arguably the most famous sport during this time was jousting. Jousting was another sport played by the nobles and upper class of society. For working-class families, it was all about the ball games, and it is these sports that have generally survived, thrived and evolved to what we know them as today. Though, there were others too, like Horse racing, believed to be particularly popular with the royals. These days, spectators from all walks of life are delighted to line up, watch the races and hopefully earn a buck or two on the winner.

The Evolution of Team Sports

You might have noticed that many of the sports that we have mentioned are played by individuals or one on one. Team sports began to become popular far later, and many historians believe western society is responsible for the growth and popularity of team-based sports, including American football. We’re going to explore the history of American sports in more detail a little further down.

Indeed, it seems it’s the British that is primarily responsible for the spread of team-based sports. During the time of the British empire, sports would develop in Britain and then spread to countries that Britain had claimed. European colonialism has also played a part and helped spread certain team based sports. For instance, it is all but certain to be the reason why cricket is so popular is Australia. In Britain, it’s quite possible that the popularity of team-based sports grew from the bans of other forms of entertainment. During Puritan rule, theatres were shut down and restricted. As such, the public turned their attention to sports instead that were still accepted under the puritan rule.

However, that is certainly not the only factor that has played a part in the development and growth of sports as part of society. Dating back to the medieval times, crowds gathered to witness their favorite athletes and cheer for the winners. However, until the industrial revolution, there was no way for these celebrations to spread across the country or indeed the globe. This changed with the invention of the printing press in 1440, and much later the introduction of the radio. Further advancement in machinery and technology ensured that the media could celebrate sports, and pushed the importance of professional athletes and sporting events, helping them reach the level of prestige and honor that they have today.

A Sporting Event That Rocked the World

There have been many sporting events through the ages that have rocked and shaped the world, though, there is one that certainly comes to mind as a defining point in the history of humanity. In December 1914, on Christmas day, in the middle of a War that stretched for miles along the front line, there was a truce. It began with soldiers on both sides of the line singing carols. It evolved into soldiers meeting in the middle for a game of soccer. The Christmas Truce, as it is known, was not the first truce that occurred on the western front, but it is the one that most have heard of. It again highlights the power that sports can have. That even in the middle of a long, painful and devastating war, it can be something that brings people together, even for just a short period.

Sports in America

As Americans, we love our sports, and that has always been the case. There’s a reason why baseball is referred to as America’s national pastime in popular culture. Arguably there are four main sports in the U.S., and each has a different history. These are baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Let’s start by looking at the history of baseball.

Americans dispute who actually created the first set of rules for baseball. Some believe that is was Abner Doubleday that created the first set of rules, while others are adamant it was Alexander Cartwright from the New York Knickerbockers. What is clear is that baseball was founded as a mixture of cricket and rounders. As such, it does have its origins firmly planted in British culture. That said, baseball has evolved into something entirely of its own and even has its very own World Series, despite only including American teams. It is the most popular sports in the United States, attracting the most fans and selling the most tickets. The Cincinnati Red Stockings are known as the first pro baseball team and this lead to the development of various leagues. Although it is believed that the very first baseball game was played in 1845, official reports date the game as being played in 1846. 

Then there’s Football, a cross of Soccer and Rugby. American football developed in the 1880’s after Walter Camp, a rugby player from the great college of Yale, developed the rules so that it could evolve into the sport that we know and love today. Interestingly, the protective body clothing that is worn by players in games today was not introduced until much later. In the early years, player’s heads were protected only with leather padded hood hats, making the game far more dangerous, and to this day it is still considered to be one of the most dangerous contact sports in the world. At one point, there were two leagues of American football coexisting, but the AFC and the NFL eventually merged. Into one league. Teams compete each year for the privilege of being one of the two competing teams in the Super Bowl. The very first college football game was played on November 6, 1869.

One of America’s other favorite sports, Basketball, was actually invented by a Canadian born physical education instructor, Dr. James Naismith. Naismith wanted to give his students a way to keep fit and stay active indoors. So, he hung a peach basket, ten feet above a ten-meter running track. The idea, of course, was to shoot the ball through the basket and score a point. That was back in 1891. Since then, of course, the sport has evolved dramatically, with new equipment and rules being added until it became the sport that we know and love today. To the rest of the world, basketball is primarily known due to the sports superstar, Michael Jordan. Watching him play in the early days has been described as seeing a man fly and witnessing poetry through motion.

Finally, we have Hockey, another game that was brought to life by the Canadians. It is believed to have originated through a game called ‘shinny’ that dates back to the late 1800’s. Though, during this time, a version of ice hockey was also being played in colleges across America. The National Hockey League was first created in 1910, and American teams joined in 1924. Since then it has been embraced as a major sport in both Canada and America, though primarily its popularity lies north of the border.

You might think that recently no new sports have been invented or played, but that’s not true. As late as 2005, the sport of Quidditch was born in Middlebury Vermont. Today, the sport has an international following with various matches and tournaments.

So, it’s certainly clear that the growth and evolution of sports is not at an end. It’s fascinating to look back to the beginning of sports, but it’s even more exciting to think about the future and consider what games people could be playing ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty years from now. One thing is certain; sports and sporting events will always be a defining part of international culture and society.




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