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The History of Sport
Sports have been an integral part of many cultures around the world for centuries. Since before modern civilization, humans have used sports as a way to improve their physical fitness, compete for coveted honors, or enjoy recreational activity within their communities.
Although athletics have a long history that extends back thousands of years, many of the organized sports we know and love today were developed in the last few hundreds years. The history of sport is undeniably vast, there are some key points over time that have made a significant impact on the development of these activities. Let’s take a closer look at how popular sports have been practiced around the world and the detailed language that’s been developed to describe them.
While it’s unknown exactly when humans started playing sports, some cave paintings indicate that these activities could date back as far as 15,000 years. Some of the earliest sports appear to include sprinting, wrestling, swimming, and archery.
During this time, most societies had a hunter-gatherer culture. Due to the physical endurance and strength required to hunt, many individuals participated in activities that had an athletic nature, like chasing down prey or archery hunting.
The shift to a agricultural society changed how people participated in athletic activities. Instead of requiring them for survival, humans began to associate those activities with competition, recreation, or even religious practices. And in times of war, physical training may have been employed to prepare for combat.
While insular farming communities would persist for thousands of years, larger and more complex civilizations began to develop, creating what we often refer to as Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, etc.
Though these civilizations were distinct in a number of ways, it appears that many of them featured efforts to organize athletic events in a more official way. In addition, some new sports began to emerge.
In Ancient Greece, one of the primary sports to develop was gymnastics, which tested physical strength, coordination, and dexterity. It would later go on to be adapted in the Roman Empire for military training.
Track & field
Sports often associated with track and field today, like high jump, long jump, and javelin, were popular in Ancient Egypt. The competitions often looked different from what we see today. For example, high jump involved jumping over people who sat in place as obstacles rather than a stationary bar.
The sport of boxing may have originated in Ancient Sumer, where participants likely boxed with bare fists. It went on to become more popular in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.
A number of sports centering around the use of a ball also developed around this time. The Mesoamerican ball game and a Mayan ballgame called Pitz were first played a few thousand years ago. Hurling was played in Ancient Ireland, and a rugby-like sport known as harpastum was played in Ancient Rome. Cuju, considered by some to be an early form of soccer, originated in Ancient China. Ancient Scots played a shinty (similar to field hockey), and in Persia, they played an early version of polo.
The fact that the first Olympic Games were held in Ancient Greece clarifies how sports had evolved since the hunter-gatherer days. These games were not only an opportunity to demonstrate physical prowess, but were also closely associated with both entertainment and honor.
The earliest games, celebrated in Olympia in 776 BC, featured a close association with Greek mythology and were intended to honor Zeus. They also stemmed from other games and competitions which were often held, such as funeral games held to honor the dead. Ancient Olympic Games, however, represented a important shift to regularly scheduled, official competitions.
Originally, the only Olympic events were footraces. More events were added over the years, including wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon.
The original Olympic Games reached the height of their popularity in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. They continued until the 4th century AD, when emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan cults and practices and declared Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until 1896 that the first modern Olympic Games were held.
Moving into the Middle Ages, certain sports were closely involved with military training. During this time, knights used these practices and competitions to hone their fighting skills. This extended to dangerous sports like jousting, which were featured in Medieval tournaments and seen as part training, part entertainment.
Not all sports in the Middle Ages were quite as rough as jousting, however. Archery was widely practiced during this time, and other popular sports included stoolball (similar to cricket), colf (similar to golf), and skittles (similar to ten-pin bowling).
The feudalism of the Middle Ages made sports an attractive way for certain individuals to gain wealth, power, and status. Many of the sports from the Middle Ages were also played well into the Renaissance, including jousting and other military sports like archery and horse racing. Members of the aristocratic class preferred less violent sports, such as stoolball and early forms of tennis.
Over the last few hundred years, some of the most popular modern sports have evolved. Most of these sports were inspired by games that had been played for hundreds or thousands of years. However, it was only during the last few centuries that sports, especially team sports, became formalized in a more official manner.
A huge shift in athletics during this time was sports being played in a similar way across countries and even continents. In earlier history, different civilizations and even small communities might have played by their own rules with their own variations. Partly due to European colonialism (particularly during the 18th century and 19th century), more formalized sports with uniform styles of play began to spread throughout the world, including:
In more recent history, games like baseball and basketball have been developed. The innovators behind sports like these took elements of games that had been played in other eras to create something new.
For most of history, sports were played on an amateur basis. Some single athletes may have stood out at the time or profited from their abilities and victories, but the ability to choose athletics as a career didn’t really become a realistic prospect until the 19th century and 20th century.
As modern life brought sports to the forefront and more people were eager to attend sporting events as spectators, the number of professional athletes grew. The first pro baseball league was created in 1871, with American football following in the 1890s.
Beginning in the 1940s, televised athletic events created an even more pressing demand for professional sports. It also contributed to increased fame and recognition for professional athletes.
Today, some professional athletes have reached celebrity status, especially in popular sports like Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Football League (NFL). The best athletes are able to secure multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals, placing them among the world’s wealthiest individuals.
Women in sports
Historically, women have been largely excluded from sports. In fact, women’s participation in these kinds of activities was strongly discouraged in many cultures. Women were not included in the first modern Olympic Games, and many countries didn’t begin sending female athletes to the Games until recent decades.
Women’s sports started to become more common in Europe and North America in the 20th century. The Women’s World Games and Women’s Olympiad were held in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, some women took part in spectator sports like baseball to draw crowds while male athletes were away serving in the military.
The push for women’s rights was at a turning point, especially when the Title IX Act was passed in 1972. This civil rights law required educational institutions to eliminate gender discrimination, which led to increased equity in high school and college athletic programs.
The Olympic Games are undeniably the most important worldwide sporting event. After the ancient Olympics were forbidden in the 4th century AD, hundreds of years passed without the official Olympic Games.
But in 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed and the first Summer Olympic Games were held just two years later in Athens. This first modern event featured many classic sports, such as Greco-Roman wrestling, fencing, tennis, and track and field events like discus.
The Winter Olympics were first celebrated in 1924. For many years, both the Summer and Winter Olympics were celebrated every four years during the same year. In 1994, the schedule changed to have the Winter Olympics celebrated every four years, two years after each Summer Olympics.
Additional events have been added to the modern Olympics over the years. There are now over 40 Olympic sports across the Summer and Winter Games, including newer additions like beach volleyball, synchronized swimming, and snowboarding. In addition, there are now several specialized Olympic Games endorsed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), including the Paralympic Games, the Youth Olympic Games, and the Special Olympics.
Sports terminology & slang
Sports language has developed over substantially over time. How did the names for sports and terminology used in each one come about? What types of slang sports words and phrases are the most commonly used?
In terms of the actual names of sports, many can be traced back to the place where they were originally developed. For example, both “marathon” and “gymnastics” have Greek roots. Tennis has French roots thanks to a phrase players would often shout as they hit the ball: “Tenez!”
But where does the rest of our sports lingo originate? That depends on whether you’re talking about official sports terms or sports slang.
Formalized sports language
For certain sports terms, the origins are fairly obvious. When James Naismith invented a new sport in 1891, he used an actual peach basket as the goal where players would shoot the ball; the “basketball” came naturally.
There are other terms like this that appear quite logical in their application, including first base, free throw, and field goal. But it’s important to recognize that part of what makes these terms so familiar and commonplace is the formalization of modern sports that has taken place over the last couple centuries.
As official rules were drawn up and leagues were formed, many sports terms became standardized across regions and countries. In order to engage in play with other athletes or teams outside of your immediate community, you needed to know the names for specific plays, equipment, and rules.
The interest of spectators also caused many fans to acquire an entirely new sports-related vocabulary regardless of whether they had ever played. Some of the original terms used when these sports first became more formalized by governing bodies are the ones we still use today.
Sports jargon often doesn’t have any obvious origins. For example, have you ever wondered about where the term hat trick comes from? One story has this sports lingo first used in 1858 when an English cricket player named H. H. Stephenson completed the first hat trick in cricket history by dismissing three batters in a row. Impressed fans decided to collect donations for Stephenson to honor the occasion. A hat was passed around to gather the money, and a new sports term was born.
Another unique example of sports slang is nutmeg in soccer/association football, where the ball is cleverly passed between an opponent’s legs. The unusual term was first used in the 1870s when false replicas were often slipped into bags of nutmeg spice in order to save money on export fees. To “nutmeg” someone meant to pull a fast one on them, essentially. In this case, the term began outside of sports and then became applied to a move used on the soccer field.
These two slang terms are good examples of where some of the most unusual sports lingo comes from. Whether it’s a specific sporting event as with hat trick, or an everyday term that crossed over into sports like nutmeg, these words and phrases represent the close connection between sports and shared culture.
Here are a few others with interesting backstories:
- Alley oop (basketball): From the French “allez hop,” a term used by acrobats right before leaping.
- Pigskin (football): Early footballs were often made of pig bladders.
- Love (tennis): From the French “l’oeuf” meaning egg, which looks like the numeral zero.
- Hail Mary (football): Football players at Notre Dame (a Catholic university) used it to describe a long pass made in a last-minute, desperate attempt to score.
One of the clearest indicators that sports terminology has worked its way into modern culture is the use of sports metaphors. These are terms that originally referred to sporting events but which now have developed secondary meanings in everyday life. Consider the following sports idioms, for example:
- Cover the bases (baseball)
- Hit it out of the park (baseball)
- Run interference (American football)
- Call an audible (American football)
- Beat someone to the punch (boxing)
- Down for the count (boxing)
- Come out swinging (boxing)
- Roll with the punches (boxing)
- Saved by the bell (boxing)
- No holds barred (wrestling)
- Go to the mat (wrestling)
- Par for the course (golf)
- Slam dunk (basketball)
- Down to the wire (horse racing)
- Win by a nose (horse racing)
- Drop the ball (ballgames)
- Get the ball rolling (ballgames)
- Keep your eye on the ball (ballgames)
That’s just a shortlist of American sports metaphors. There are plenty of other terms and phrases that originally derived from sports that we commonly use today.
One concern with this use of sports language is the ways in which it can be exclusionary in some cases. For example, when using sports analogies in a work setting, it may cause those who don’t follow sports or who are from other cultures to feel left out.
Time will tell which new sports will be created, and what new terminology will develop as a result. But as history goes to show, there will always be a close connection between sports and culture.