What’s the Oldest Sport?

What’s the Oldest Sport?
Illustration: Vicky Leta/Gizmodo

Hello and welcome to the third instalment in Giz Asks’ ongoing investigation into Firsts. Having opened with the first recreational drug, progressed to the oldest disease, and moved from there to the earliest music, we now turn our attention to the oldest sport. Unlike drugs, diseases, and music, sports are not something I have much firsthand experience of — but I am aware that they are central to the self-conception and daily practices of most cultures throughout history and I am further aware that they have been going on in some form for a very, very long time. To find out who kicked the whole endeavour off, and with what exact sport, we turn to experts in ancient history, who provide their takes below.

Sarah Murray

Assistant Professor, Greek History and Material Culture, University of Toronto

It’s a tough question to answer, because it depends on what you define as sport. Humans engage in quite a lot of voluntary physical activity and contests, but we wouldn’t call them all sports. We obviously know sport when we see it — a rowdy college football game, competitions at the Olympic games, etc. But not everyone draws the same line around ‘sport’ and ‘not sport.’ Some criteria used to distinguish sport from, say, entertainment or play, would include: the presence of two or more competitors pitted against one another with the aim of determining a winner through physical strength and/or finesse, the lack of scripting or predetermined results, and the existence of mutually recognised rules that govern proceedings so that the competition is fundamentally fair. But even if we agree on these parameters, there are still grey areas. Pistol shooting is included in the Olympics, even though it does not involve all that much physicality, while people might not call arm-wrestling a sport, even though it technically fits the rules.

Given that we still struggle to come to a universally clear definition, it’s unsurprising that nobody agrees about where sport first emerged in human society! Even if we did agree on a definition, we would probably still never find a definitive “true” answer to the question, because sport likely emerged sometime deep in prehistory when people produced no written texts or many images. We can probably assume that people participated in low-stakes physical contests — running, wrestling, throwing, etc. — and organised structured rule-bound competitions of some kind long before we have definitive evidence for such practices.

So, the only question we can actually answer is: what is the oldest documented sport? Here we can be less annoyingly circumspect. To my knowledge, the oldest documented sports are boxing and wrestling. Both appear in art from Egypt and Iraq as far back as 2000 BCE. Especially informative are the mortuary paintings inside of a tomb at the site of Beni Hasan in the Middle Nile valley. These paintings show wrestlers using a wide variety of moves and manoeuvres to best their opponents. Some scholars might argue that Egyptian wrestling doesn’t “count” as sport because they identify it as a mere physical spectacle or show (along the lines of Cirque du Soleil) meant to provide entertainment for the Pharaoh or the elites. But, since most of the other paintings in the tomb show scenes from daily life, like producing crafts and farming, there’s no reason to believe that wrestling was not a part of the normal life of Egyptians too. Around the same time, a text preserves a boast by King Shulgi of Ur: “I am the one who is strongest and most skilled in athletics and trials of strength.” Again, many scholars dismiss this as evidence for sport because it is assumed that contests in which an all-powerful god-king was involved had an overdetermined result of victory by the king. However, once again, a propagandistic reference to athletics and physical contests presumably would not have made sense to an audience to whom such contests were unfamiliar.

Although it’s obviously later than the evidence for wrestling/boxing, I can’t help mentioning that from the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE we have evidence for something like a rodeo in the form of bull jumping scenes, especially from the Greek island of Crete, but also other sites scattered around the eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia.

So, long answer short, intuitively I would guess that simple running races were really the oldest sport, but based on the evidence we have preserved, the oldest form of sport may have been combat sports — which I suppose tells you something not-so-encouraging about humans and our ability to get along with one another.

Ceramic ballplayer figures found at the Etlatongo site in Mexico. (Image: Blomster and Salazar Chávez, 2020/Science Advances) Ceramic ballplayer figures found at the Etlatongo site in Mexico. (Image: Blomster and Salazar Chávez, 2020/Science Advances)

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Heather Reid

Professor, Philosophy, Morningside College, Scholar in Residence at EXEDRA Mediterranean Centre and the author of Olympic Philosophy The Ideas and Ideals behind the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games

The standard answer is that wrestling is the oldest sport. The evidence for this is usually taken to be the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero wrestles with his rival. But that is the realm of mythology, and it is more of a fight than a sport. If we use Bernard Suits’ pithy definition of sporting games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (my favourite), then it seems like we have to exclude anything that seems necessary.

In Homer’s Iliad (mythology again) we get a description of funeral games that are easily recognisable as sport, including wrestling, boxing, running races, chariot races, even a weight throw. No word on which one is oldest. It seems clear however that sporting contests evolved from rituals which imitated the “athla” (feats/labors) of heroes like Heracles. The question is when they became competitive contests, and why.

At least in the context of ancient Greece, I think the first contests were probably running races. We know there were running rituals and it doesn’t take much, when you send a group of young people running, for a race to break out. Also, according to Philostratus, the first contest at the Olympic Games was a race from the edge of the sanctuary to the altar to see who would have the honour of lighting the sacrificial flame. He is a later source, but the story is plausible and the “stadion” foot race remained the most prestigious of the Olympic events throughout antiquity (they even named the four-year period between Games after the winner).

As for why they set up a fair contest to grant this honour, the religious context meant they had to get it right in order to please the god(s) — that’s the whole point of a sacrifice. Trying to trick an all-seeing god was not the best idea, so an impartial contest to determine the “best” of those present was needed to make the ritual work. You could also look at it as a scientific experiment to learn the truth about who was best. So I think the first sport was footracing, and even though it had a serious religious objective, it was not a matter of survival but rather a celebration of human excellence.

Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo) Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)

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David Lunt

Associate Professor, History, Southern Utah University, specializing in ancient Greece, ancient Greek athletics, and the history of the olympic games

Pharaonic Egypt shows evidence of wrestling, boxing, and archery contests, and the physical fitness of the Pharaoh was an important consideration in staking his claim to divine status. However, without knowing the context of these events, it’s difficult to call these “sports.” Indeed, at one festival, the Pharaoh undertook a vigorous run as an act of symbolism, with no opponents, making this a ritual run rather than a competitive race.

The late Bronze Age Aegean (roughly 1500 – 1100 BCE) seems to have featured boxing contests, with a fresco from the island of Thera (modern Santorini) showing a couple of young fighters wearing gloves and sparring, and material culture from the island of Crete seems to show boxing among the Minoan Civilisation. The enigmatic “bull-leaping” of Minoan Crete might be considered a “sport,” where art depicts acrobatic humans flipping over horned bulls. However, as with the example of the hungry tiger, without knowing the context of these images, I think it’s a stretch to identify this confidently as a “sport.”

Overall, it was the ancient Greeks who developed “sports” as we today consider them. Among the earliest Greek writings, the poet Homer describes elaborate funeral games for the fallen Patroclus in the Iliad, and Odysseus competes in a discus-throw during his long journey home as related in the Odyssey. The Greeks went beyond what we might call “sports,” though — offering competitions in far more endeavours than what we might call “athletics.” Ancient Greeks routinely competed for prizes in musical contests, poetry recitations, comedy and tragedy, and — of course — athletic contests such as those held at Olympia. At Olympia, where the Games are traditionally dated to 776 BCE, the first and only event was a running contest of about 182.88 m where the victor received the honour of lighting the fire on the sacrificial altar. Eventually, of course, other contests were added to the program, but the prestige of that original race never wore off. Indeed, the the games of each Olympian festival were remembered with the name of the runner who won the 182.88 m sprint in that particular festival.

Peter J. Miller

Associate Professor and Chair of Classics at University of Winnipeg

If nothing else, we can assume human beings started competing to outrun one another as an outgrowth of running while hunting or for other reasons. Some of our earliest knowledge of sports in the ancient Mediterranean concerns running. While not necessarily a competitive sport per se, the Festival of Sed or Ritual of Renewal that the Pharaoh performed in ancient Egypt on the 30th anniversary of his reign included a short run, presumably to demonstrate the vitality and physical ability of the ruler. When we turn to the ancient Greeks, running is a very early sport: it’s included in Homer’s description of athletics in the Iliad and Odyssey (written down around 800 BCE), and even non-athletic running, especially Achilles’ chase of Hector in the closing books of the Iliad, features prominently. Running was the original sport of the ancient Olympics according to Pausanias, who wrote around 900 years after the fact, but running’s connection with the early Olympics is made clear by the fact that the winner of the stadion (the shortest distance race, around 200 metres or one length of the track) gave his name to the Olympiad, the four year period of time that began with the Olympic Games. It’s an inference, but this close connection between an Olympic sport and the schedule of the Olympics must mean that running was central to the early Olympic games.

But what kind of running? That’s a little trickier, and our sources are more obscure. Given that the distance gave its name to the place where athletics took place, the stadion (English: stadium) must be an early form of running competition. It was one length of the stadium, though the distance varied from place to place–there were no standard stadium lengths in ancient Greece. Other early race types were the diaulos (two lengths of the stadium) and the dolichos (8-24 lengths; our sources vary).

Still, even with this strong evidence in favour of running, chariot-racing, in particular, was quite old. Chariots were mainstays of Bronze Age warfare, and while we have no evidence of competitive racing, it may be human nature to compete in a skill, even divorced from its particular context and circumstances. We have early evidence of chariot racing in ancient Greece from Homer, and in ancient Rome from the earliest records of the city. Fragmentary pottery from the Bronze Age palace of Tiryns from the 12th century BCE shows what appear to be chariot-races and prizes placed together. This is the earliest evidence for prizes in ancient Greek sport, and for the ancient Greeks, at least, there was no sport without prizes of some sort. Chariot-racing is a late comer to the Olympics — perhaps not appearing until one hundred years after the traditional start date of the Olympics in 776 BCE — but it becomes one of the central and most spectacular events. In Republican and Imperial Rome, for centuries, chariot-racing in circuses across Europe and North Africa was the most popular sport. Chariot-racing outlasted every other sport from the ancient Mediterranean, extending from the end of the Bronze Age in the 1100s BCE to medieval Constantinople in the 1200s CE–that’s a stretch of over 2000 years!

Joel Christensen

Professor, Classical Studies, Brandeis University

The oldest sports — using that term loosely — would likely concern training for war or ritualized leisure activities tied to violence. There’s also good textual evidence that boxing existed at least two or three thousand years ago: frescoes from Thera, [part of] Minoan culture depict people boxing. For team sports, there’s early evidence for something like polo among the Persians.

But the consensus pick for oldest sport would seem to be running. Partly that has to do with the origins of the Olympics, prior to 776 BCE. The legend there is that Heracles (or the Roman Hercules) won a victory at Olympia and then founded games there — essentially running competitions, in honour of Zeus. Which is weird, when you think about it, because that doesn’t have much to do with traditional Heraclian labour. Likely the races were related somehow to ritual worship of the Gods. But there’s evidence stretching back even earlier, to the Minoan period around 1600 or 1700 BCE, for some kind of ritualized running in Egypt. By the time we get to the earliest textual traditions, there’s a whole gamut of physical stuff — not just running but wrestling, boxing, and even, in the Odyssey, a kind of dancing involving hackeysacks.

As for less competitive leisure sports: in the Odyssey, when the princess Nausicaa goes to do her laundry by the seashore, she and her handmaidens take a ball with them and throw it back and forth; it bounces near the leg of the naked, hiding Odysseus. If this was legible to audiences at that time, it means that people were doing this sort of thing.

It’s important to note that cultural competitiveness fosters the development of games. Greek culture was intensely competitive from an early period — the fancy word we use is agonistic. They held competitions for the best singers, the best poets, the best flute players — really, everything. Like: “We’re bored — who can run fastest to that rock and back?” They even had a kind of drinking game, called kottabos, in which you drank to the dregs of your wine, picked a target, and then slung the dregs at it. We’re really the heirs of this mindset — the intentional and pervasive competitiveness of modern Western culture.

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