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The modern concept of sport refers mainly to organized and competitive physical activities such as cricket, basketball, table tennis, golf, or soccer and excludes recreational activities such as walking or hunting. Thus it leaves out games such as bridge, chess, or poker. This broad definition of sport reflects the universal human passion for movement.
Sporting activity is grounded in human physiology and a love of movement that all humans share at birth and embrace throughout life. This is demonstrated by the popularity of such recreational pursuits as walking and swimming, and by a wide variety of physical pastimes, such as hunting, fishing, skating, skiing, and sailing. The word sport derives from the Middle English word disport meaning to frolic, play, or amuse oneself. In modern usage, however, sport includes the elements of competition, physical prowess, and rules. In this sense sport mainly refers to organized activities such as cricket, basketball, or soccer and excludes recreational activities such as walking or hunting. It also leaves out games such as bridge, chess, or poker. A broad definition of sport includes recreational activities and games, but a narrower definition limits sport to athletics of a competitive nature.
It is helpful to think of sports as a form of cultural expression that reflects a culture’s history and character. As with other performed forms of cultural expression, sports appeal to the emotions and to aesthetics. Moreover, as with all arts, larger issues of a society involving economics, politics, technology, religion, architecture, and social questions can be observed in the circumstances of sports. As the social historian Jacques Barzun observed about the United States in 1954, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game—and do it by watching first some high school or small town teams” (Barzun 1954, 159). The sports sociologist D. Stanley Eitzen has updated this observation: “Baseball, then, represents what we were—an inner-directed, rural, individualistic society. It continues to be popular because of our longing for the peaceful past” (Eitzen 1996, 23).
There is no evidence that sports are necessary for human existence. Although a particular sporting contest might enflame passions and spark a riot, there are no instances of sports starting or ending wars. Two world wars, a cold war, and numerous regional conflicts, for instance, have occurred during the time of the modern Olympic Games. Sports do not drive the economies of the world, nor do they determine foreign policy, and there is no quantifiable evidence that they are necessary in schools. There exists much anecdotal testimony, however, about the usefulness of the arts, including sports, for creating multidimensional, interesting individuals. Athletic events, for example, prompt conversations that cut through all divisions of society, and sports metaphors sprinkle the language: “on target,” “level playing field,” “sticky wicket,” “throw in the towel.” Sports are a universal phenomenon that can be found with all peoples and in all times, and they invite cross-cultural comparisons to help ascertain what it means to be human.
Influences on Sports
Geography, vocation, religion, entertainment, Eros, and warfare have all influenced sports. It is easy to see the general influence of geography: people in cold climates invented skiing and ice skating, for example, and those bordering water were interested in boating and swimming. Hot, desert climates cautioned against excessive exposure of the body. As far back as the fifth century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus noted that people in the Middle East kept themselves covered and thought nudity was shameful. It should be noted, however, that ancient Egyptians of the Nile Valley wrestled nude, or while wearing a light loincloth. On a local level, geography involves the location of stadiums or sports venues and their influence on people’s lives. Ancient Greeks valued their gymnasion for physical and intellectual stimulation, for example, and modern U.S. universities make room for stadiums on their campuses.
Vocation has inspired sports such as the rodeo, in which cowboys show off their skills at roping, branding, and bronco busting. Religion was significant in the ball games of the Maya and the bull jumping of the Minoans, and has been a source of inspiration for modern athletes. Sports for entertainment can be seen in the crowd scenes in the temple carvings at Nineveh, in the friezes of ancient Egypt, and in the contemporary phenomenon of ESPN, a television channel dedicated to twenty-four-hour sports broadcasts. More evidence can be seen in the ruins of Greek and Roman hippodromes, built for chariot races; and the ruins of Roman arenas, built for gladiator fights. These are comparable to the new stadiums U.S. cities build in order to attract “big league” sports teams.
The erotic nature of sports has been a taboo subject, but is explicit in the art of ancient Greece, particularly on the trade pottery decorated with active, naked athletes. Ancient Egyptians painted nude acrobats and athletes on their tomb walls. Modern sports such as figure skating, gymnastics, swimming, diving, and body building, all of which expose the human body, possess an unspoken but obvious erotic aspect.
The most important inspiration for sports, however, has been warfare. In the ancient Olympic Games (776 BCE–393 CE) most of the skills tested by the events had fighting applications. Javelin throwing was one of the most apparent, but the contestants also ran, jumped, boxed, wrestled, threw a discus, raced chariots, and rode horses. One of the most popular events was the pankration, a combination of wrestling and boxing with almost no holds barred. The two combatants fought until someone surrendered. In 564 BCE Arrachion, a pankrationist, while being strangled in a bout, won by dislocating his opponent’s toe. Arrachion died, but the judges crowned his corpse with the olive wreath of victory. The final event of the ancient games was a running race in which the men wore armor and carried a shield, a concluding tribute to the importance of warfare in sports.
The influence of combat can also be seen in Native American contests. Eastern Woodlands Indians played a ball game that was the prototype of lacrosse. The artist George Catlin (1796–1872) observed a Choctaw match in the 1830s in which some six to seven hundred players tried to throw a small ball through goals placed approximately 250 meters apart. They used a meter-long stick with a netted hoop on the end to catch and hurl the ball without touching it. There was a great deal of running, yelling, hitting in the face and shins, and fighting until a hundred goals were scored. Afterward the winners claimed their wagers, everyone took a drink of whiskey, and the Indians returned home. They called their game baggataway, which translated into “little brother of war.”
Sports in the Premodern World
During the years of the Middle Ages in Europe (500–1500), the upper class sponsored tournaments to keep sharp the fighting skills of the knights, while the lower classes practiced archery. For pastimes, the elite hunted on horseback with falcons and played shuffleboard in their castles, while the peasants pursued crude games of football between villages, as well as bowling, field hockey, and games of quoits in the stables. Archery was a sport for the yeomanry of England and a passionate activity for the urban bourgeoisie of western Europe.
Marco Polo, traveling in Asia, recorded a large, month-long hunting expedition by Khubilai Khan in 1275 that included members of the court, family, and administrative officers using elephants, hunting dogs, horses, and ten thousand falconers to capture herons, swans, storks, and other game. The elite also played a form of polo, a horse game known from the Middle East to the Far East. Chinese court women played astride donkeys or ponies. Other Chinese, both men and women, played cuju, a game like soccer that utilized a ball stuffed with hair, and also enjoyed a game reminiscent of the present-day sport footbag (often called Hacky sack, after one manufacturer’s brand of footbag): people in a circle tried to kick a small deerskin ball in the air. People in Asia, moreover, practiced varieties of martial arts for personal discipline and defense after the invention of martial arts in the sixth century. Sports in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa are less well known, but there are examples of canoe races and, of course, wrestling, a sport that seems to have been universal throughout Africa.
Modern sports evolved mainly in the West during the time of the industrial and scientific revolutions, and the demographic surge of population from the countryside to the city. The British sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning and the U.S. historian Allen Guttmann have analyzed the differences between premodern and modern sports that accompanied this major societal shift. Elias and Dunning developed a theory about a “civilizing process” whereby people learned to control emotion and aggression in sports to reduce injury. Examples of the civilizing process include the adoption of gloves in boxing. Guttmann developed a list of distinguishing characteristics of modern sport: secularism, equality (equal rules for all participants), bureaucratization (organizational control), specialization (specific positions and roles played in a game), rationalization (rules and training for efficient skills), quantification (an emphasis upon measurement by numbers), and record keeping. Other historians have added the use of publicity and public announcements to the list. This definition of modern sports is widely accepted by sports historians. The process of adopting these characteristics is sometimes called “sportification.”
Western sports spread globally as a result of individual enthusiasm, Christian missionary work, sports organizations, military occupation, and the Olympic Games. Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, began as a game in British boys’ schools in the mid-nineteenth century. It spread to Europe, Africa, and South America through transplanted British schoolmasters, traveling students, interested businessmen, posted soldiers, and visiting sailors. Soccer and cricket, another British sport, spread throughout the British Empire, supported by the colonial administrations and by the British army, which used sports to forestall boredom and promote physical conditioning.
In some cases, enthusiasts helped spread sports. This was the case with baseball, as when A. G. Spalding (1850–1915), a professional baseball player and later manager and eventually president of a baseball team, sent teams abroad to promote the sport. The Marylebone Cricket Club, the arbiter of cricket, dispatched touring teams to Australia that eventually resulted in a biannual international match called the Ashes.
Christian missionaries inspired by “muscular Christianity,” a pedagogy that combined sports and religion to produce moral people, also took Western sports into Africa and Asia. The muscular Christian mentality helped to spread the sports of table tennis, tennis, track and field, soccer, and basketball. Most significant of these missionary organizations was the nonsectarian Young Men’s Christian Organization (YMCA), an organization founded in London in 1844 that was particularly active from 1850 to 1920. It established branch associations in cities around the world that promoted Christianity and athletics. It commonly constructed pools to teach swimming and gymnasiums to teach basketball and volleyball, games invented by YMCA instructors. James Naismith (1861–1939) put together, tested, and refined the rules of basketball in 1891; the game was not only popular in the YMCA, but also in school systems. In terms of numbers of participants and fans, basketball, along with soccer, became one of the most widespread sports in the world.
Because of the lack of comparable statistics it is difficult to measure the most popular modern sports, but in terms of the quantity of national sports organizations dedicated to a particular sport, the leaders are soccer, basketball, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. To a lesser extent American football, cricket, baseball, rugby, skiing, boxing, judo, car racing, cycling, swimming, and table tennis can be included. From that list a bias toward sports that originated in the West is evident. A major exception is judo, which was synthesized by Jigoro Kano in Japan from several schools of unarmed combat in the last part of the nineteenth century. Judo became popular as a participant sport after World War II, adopted the characteristics of modern sports, and became a part of Olympic competition in 1964.
Modern Olympic Games
Although well-known transnational sporting contests include the America’s Cup in sailing (1857), Davis Cup in tennis (1900), Ryder Cup in golf (1927), Asian Games (1951), Commonwealth Games (1930), and World Cup in soccer (1930), the most important event for the globalization of sport has been the quadrennial Olympic Games that began in 1896. It was the dream of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) to promote world peace through sports competition and a revival of the ancient Olympic Games. He persuaded seventy-eight delegates from nine nations at a meeting at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1894 to support the idea, and the first meeting took place in Athens. Although the statistics are in question, the first games seem to have involved 311 athletes from 13 nations performing for 70,000 spectators. The Olympic Games have persisted since 1896, although they were not held during World War I or World War II, and they were disrupted by major boycotts in 1980 and 1984.
The Olympics have been a showcase for the world’s best athletes and for rivalries between political ideologies. The Cold War antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union reflected in the games between 1952 and 1992 resulted in technological improvements in equipment, venues, and training, the erasure of the amateur code that had hitherto excluded professional athletes, and the acceleration of female participation in sports. Title IX of the United States’ Educational Amendments Act of 1972, which ordered equal treatment for female athletes in schools, was instituted in large part so U.S. female athletes could compete more successfully against Soviet bloc female athletes in athletic competitions.
Commercialization of Sports
The commercialization of sports, driven by the fantastic amounts of money produced by advertising on televised events, has created international stars such as boxing wit Mohammad Ali (b. 1942), basketball wizard Michael Jordan (b. 1963), and soccer phenomenon David Beckham (b. 1975). Their endorsement of products has helped to create an international market for sports equipment, affected labor markets in Asia, and enhanced the growth of companies such as Nike that market the majority of sporting gear and equipment in the global market. Professional sports stars have thus become an international commodity.
One disturbing aspect of international competition has been the increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs, a trend that started with Soviet weightlifters in 1952. Illegal drug use was carried to an extreme by East Germany until the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1991, and it has been continued in a systematic way in China. Performance enhancement with anabolic steroids, testosterone, human growth hormone, and possible gene alteration, however, is not limited to China; it has spread worldwide and penetrated to the lower ranks of athletes. The use of such drugs threatens the fundamental concept of fair competition and reaches beyond athletics to raise a question about changes in human physiology that may even affect the definition of a human being. How this problem is addressed will have a profound effect on the future of competitive sports. At the moment the work of the World Anti-Doping Agency (2000) to test and catch illegal drug users has been widely accepted and the athletes of the 2008 Beijing Olympics were found to be comparatively drug free.
- Baker, W. J. (1988). Sports in the Western world. Urbana: Illinois University Press.
- Barzun, J. (1954.). God’s country and mine (p. 159). New York: Vintage Books.
- Eitzen, D. S. (1996). The structure of sport and society. In Sport in contemporary society: An anthology (5th ed.) (p. 23). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Guttmann, A. (1994). Games and empires. New York: Columbia University Press.
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- Levinson, D., & Christensen, K. (Eds.). (2005). Berkshire encyclopedia of world sport. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.
- McComb, D. G. (2004). Sports in world history. London: Routledge.
- Van Bottenburg, M. (2001). Global sports. Urbana: Illinois University Press.
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