The History of sport reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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History of sport

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The history of sport can teach us a great deal about social changes, and about the nature of sport itself.

Sport seems to involve basic human skills being developed and exercised for their own sake, in parallel with being exercised for their usefulness. This suggests that sport is probably as old as the existence of people as purposive beings, and that it was a useful way of people increasing their mastery of nature and the environment.

Of course, as we go further back in history the dwindling evidence makes this more difficult to support.

Pre-history

There are many modern discoveries in France, Africa and Australia of cave art (see e.g. Lascaux) from prehistory which provide evidence of ritual ceremonial behaviour. Some of these sources date from over 30 000 years ago, as established by carbon dating.

Stone-age drawings were discovered in the Libyan desert depicting among other acitivities, swimming and archery..[1]


The art itself is an example of interest in skills unrelated to the functional tasks of staying alive, and is itself evidence of there being leisure time available. It depicts other non-functional activities such as ritual etc.. 

Therefore, although there is scant direct evidence of sport from these sources, it is reasonable to extrapolate that there was some activity at these times resembling sport.

Captain Cook, when he first visited the Hawaian Islands, in 1778, reported on the native people surfing. The native American Indians engaged in games and sports before the coming of Europeans, such as lacrosse type ball games, running, and other athletic activities. The ancient Mayan and Aztec civilisations played serious ballgames. The courts used at that time are still used today.

It is reasonable to assume from these and other historical sources that sport has origins which lie in the beginnings of mankind itself.

Ancient China

There are artifacts and structures which suggest that Chinese people engaged in activities which meet our definition of sport as early as 4000 years BCE. The origin and development of China's sports activities seem to have been closely related to the production, work, war and entertainment of the time.

Gymnastics appears to have been a popular sport in China's past. It certainly remains so today, as the skill of Chinese acrobats is internationally recognised.

China has a Bejing Museum which is dedicated to the subject of Chinese sport and its history. See Chinese Sports Museum

Ancient Egypt

Monuments to the Phaorohs indicate that a range of sports were well developed and regulated several thousands of years ago, including swimming and fishing. This is not surprising perhaps given the importance of the Nile in the life of Egypt. Other sports included javelin throwing, high jump and wrestling. See the reference to Ancient Egyptian sport.

Again, the nature of the sports popular at the time suggests close correspondence with everday non-sporting activities.

Ancient Greece.

A wide range of sports were already in operation at the time of the Ancient Greek Empire. Wrestling, running, boxing, javelin and discus throwing, and chariot racing were prevalent. This suggests that the military culture of Greece was an influence on the development of its sports.

The Olympic games were held every four years in Ancient Greece. The games were held not simply as a sporting event, but as a celebration of individual excellence, cultural and artistic variety, and a showplace for architectural and sculptural innovation.

Fundamentally, it was a time of gratitude and respect for the Gods of the Greek religion. The games are named after Mount Olympus, a sacred place where the Gods were said to live. A time of truce was declared during the Olympic Games, as military actions and public executions were suspended. This was to enable people to congregate peacefully and to compete in a civilised and respectful atmosphere.

European and global developments

Sport has been increasingly organized and regulated from the time of the Ancient Olympics up to the present century. Activities necessary for food and survival became regulated activities done for pleasure or competition on an increasing scale, e.g. hunting, fishing, horticulture. The Industrial Revolution and mass production brought increased leisure which allowed increases in spectator sports, less elitism in sports, and greater accessibility.

These trends continued with the advent of mass media and global communication. Professionalism became prevalent, further adding to the increase in sport's popularity. This perhaps contrasts with the noble Grecian ideal, where victory at the Games was much sought after, and rewarded with an olive branch. (Perhaps not only with an olive branch, some writers record.)

Perhaps in a reaction to the demands of contemporary life, there have been developments in sport which 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 from the routines of life, examples being white water rafting, canyoning, BASE jumping, and more genteely, orienteering.

See also