A Thousand Years of Sports

Step into our time machine, sports fans, and be whisked back to the world of athletics in the earliest days of this millennium - long before the National Football League, big-league baseball, or the modern-day Olympics.

Come with us to England and China and pre-Columbian America, and see games that were the forerunners of many of today's popular sports.

In England and Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, there are contests of physical strength and speed - games like wrestling and foot racing - that had their origins in Egypt and Mesopotamia. You'll also discover early forms of football, tennis, and boxing, as well as ice skating.

Many years before Columbus discovered America, you'll view Iroquois Indians playing baggataway ("lacrosse"). As many as 1,000 warriors on each side drive a ball with racket sticks down a field that's up to 10 miles long. Games could last three days. Women had their own version of the game, or sometimes joined men on the same teams.

In China, you'll discover football played with a round ball stuffed with hair. In AD 1000, the game was already 500 years old.

Sporting events often separated along class lines. Geoffrey Chaucer in "The Canterbury Tales" (1387) tells of a monk who "fondly loved the chase," or hunting on horseback. But such sports were limited to the wealthy. The English nobility relished other pursuits on horseback as well, such as jousting.

English commonfolk were encouraged to improve their skills at archery for the nation's defense. But leisure time often went to more rough-and-tumble activities like weight throwing and bare-knuckle boxing.

Then - as now - sports could be controversial. Kings and churchmen at various times condemned certain sports, or even banned them.

Early English football, a free-for-all that pitted village teams against one another, was forbidden by at least three kings in the 12th, 14th, and 17th centuries. James I (1603-1625) protested that football was more likely to make players lame than improve their physical skills.

Early Christians had already shown their influence over sports by helping to shut down the highly popular Roman gladiatorial games in the 5th century. Later, they discouraged the most violent sports, such as stick fighting, bull-baiting, and boxing (though at least one monk, St. Bernardine, is credited with teaching bare-knuckle fighting in the 14th century).

In America, the Puritan influence inhibited the spread of sports, particularly in New England. Games were seen as a form of idleness, violence, and corruption, due to related gambling. Even pastimes such as nine-pin bowling were prohibited. (Some wily New Englanders added one pin to make 10-pin bowling and avoid the ban.)

Other regions of Colonial America were friendlier toward sports, including the South, where horse racing was a favorite among the gentry. Frontier sports - shooting contests, rail flinging, wrestling - often derived from the skills needed in the wilder regions of the country.

Some sports of the time would be considered distasteful even today, however, such as cockfights and "ratting," in which a dog is set upon a pit of rats.

Historians tell us the origin of sports goes back to at least two perennial demands - hunting for food and waging war. Hunting could require running for miles in pursuit of game, hurling a spear, or firing an arrow. Warfare could be hand-to-hand, and boxing, wrestling, weight-lifting, and various kinds of armed competition all provided useful training for combat.

Local customs also promoted those with athletic ability. History is replete with stories of bride racing - the bride going to the suitor who could catch her. Competitions in ancient Greece had religious underpinnings, with early Olympic matches played in honor of Zeus. Similar ceremonial games can be found throughout early history.

A number of trends have marked the sporting world in the past century, and at least two should be mentioned.

Women, long discouraged from strenuous exercise, have expanded their field of play. While women in the 1800s might be limited to shuttlecock, tossing a ball, or rolling a hoop, today they enjoy most sports open to men.

The relationship between sports and religion has also evolved. After bucking religious opposition for centuries, sports now has powerful support in the religious community. The turnabout was most notable in the 1800s with the emergence of "muscular Christianity." Sports was seen as an antidote to sloth and vice.

As the millennium ends, the pace of change in sports is speeding up. Expanded international media coverage and greater participation by women could bring more significant changes just ahead.

By John Dillin

Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.