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Sports History
By  Nithin  -
December 26, 2023

Sports have been a part of human culture for a long time in almost all societies around the world. Paintings found in the Lascaux caves in France depict sprinting and wrestling.

These paintings date back to around 15,300 years ago, that is, during the Upper Paleolithic Age. Similar cave paintings dating back to 7000 BC, depicting wrestling, have also been found in Mongolia. Egyptian monuments dating back to 2000 BC, which depict fishing, swimming, rowing, athletics, wrestling, weightlifting, archery, and even different sorts of ball games, were discovered.

Though sports have been around for a long time, many modern sports that we see today, like basketball, American football, and ice hockey, developed only within the last couple of centuries. Many ancient sports are still played today but have transformed dramatically. Boxing dates to 3000 BC in Egypt, but it was quite different from what we see today.

It is hard to trace back the exact origin of sports, but it is evident that human activities like traveling and military training influenced its development. Boxing and wrestling are some of the earliest sports to be played, as per the evidence found in cave paintings. Other ancient sports included footraces, horse riding, chariot racing, javelin throws, archery, etc. Even soccer has its origins from the Chinese military training dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Today, we can see most of these games are still being played even though they might have transformed heavily in different ways.

The Olympics

One of the major sports tournaments that we have witnessed is the Olympics. The Ancient Olympics is said to have started in 776 BC. Every four years, religious and athletic festivals were held in Olympia, Greece. These game festivals were dedicated to Zeus, the sky, and the thunder God as per the ancient Greek religion. These ancient games included footraces, wrestling, javelin, chariot racing, boxing, and other equestrian events. Many believe that The Ancient Olympics ended in 393 AD when the emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan practices. Some believe that the games continued till 426 AD until his successor, Theodosius II, ordered the destruction of all Greek temples.

It was not until more than 1500 years later that the idea of reviving the Olympics was thought of by the Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He, along with Demetrios Vikelas, formed the International Olympic committee in 1894. He presented his ideas to establish the Modern Olympic games during the first Olympic Congress that met in June 1894. At the end of the meeting, they decided to conduct the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The first Olympics comprised of events 43 events that included track and field, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, cycling, and so on. 241 Athletes from 14 nations participated in these events.


In 1920, the official Olympic flag was hoisted for the first time at the Antwerp games. The flag featured the Olympic symbol consisting of the five rings that represented the five continents of North and South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia. Though the first Olympic games were widely received, the Olympics became gained international popularity only after the 1924 games in Paris. Around 3000 athletes from 44 nations competed that year. It was also the first time that the Olympics had a closing ceremony. Today, the number of participating athletes and nations has grown enormously. In the last Olympics held in 2016 in Rio, more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries had participated.

The modern Olympic Games have been held successfully every four years since its start in 1986, except for three occasions. In the years 1916, 1940, and 1944 the destruction and devastation caused by the 1st and 2nd World Wars resulted in their cancellation. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were scheduled to happen from 24th July to 9th Aug of 2020. But they have been rescheduled to 23rd July to 8th Aug of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games

In 1908, Figure Skating was included as a sport in the Summer Olympics. The 1920 Summer Olympics featured both Ice Hockey and Figure Skating. They need to include more snow and ice sports in the Olympics required separate games to be held due to the logistical requirements of these sports. The Winter Olympics were first held in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

The Winter Games were separated from the Summer Games for the first time in 1994. The original games had nine sports, while the most recent XXIII Winter Olympics in 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea, held a total of 102 events in 15 disciplines. 2,914 athletes from 92 countries participated in it. The next Winter Olympics will be held in 2022 in Beijing, China.

The Paralympic games started with an effort to rehabilitate soldiers after the Second World War. In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized games involving different sports between several hospitals. These games coincided with the 1948 London Olympics and came to be known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, which became an annual event.

For the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Guttmann brought 400 athletes to compete in the Parallel Olympics, which became known as the first Paralympics. Since then, the Paralympics have been held in every Olympic year. In 2001, the IOC and the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) together agreed to ensure that the same city host the Olympics and the Paralympics.

American Football

The origin of American Football can be traced back to rugby football and association football that was played in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century. A significant development in the evolution of American Football happened when Walter Camp, at Yale University, began to help establish rules that made the game appear much as it does today. He is considered the Father of American Football. College football started gaining more popularity as the college teams attracted nationwide audiences for Bowl Games. In 1920, the American Football Association was formed and was renamed the National Football League (NFL) two years later. The NFL became the major league of American Football eventually.


The earliest mention of baseball can be found in the children’s book written in 1744 – A Little Pretty Pocket-Book – written by John Newberry. Though the game was known as rounders back then, he refers to it as baseball in his book. Today’s baseball is believed to be a North American development of rounders. The game was brought over from the UK to Canada and the United States by immigrants. The first known American reference to baseball appears in a 1786 diary entry by a Princeton student. By the 1830s-50s, many amateur clubs played baseball.

Baseball went through a major transformation when Alexander Joy Cartwright established a new set of rules for the game that is closer to the modern game of baseball. He was co-founder of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club in 1845. The first recorded baseball game was held in 1846 between the Knickerbockers and a group of cricket players. In 1876 the first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players (also called the National League or NL), was established. The American League (AL or American League of Professional Base Ball Players) was formed in 1901. These leagues merged in 2000 to form Major League Baseball or MLB.


Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in December 1891 to condition young athletes during the winter months. He was a physical education instructor at YMCA International Training School, which is now known as Springfield College. He crafted 13 rules for the game that was played initially with peach baskets and a soccer-style ball.

Basketball initially started gaining popularity among colleges, but soon, professional teams also appeared. In the 1920s and 1930s, Eastern Basketball League (founded in 1909), Metropolitan Basketball League (founded in 1921), and American Basketball League (founded in 1925) were the most important leagues. In the 1936 Olympics played in Berlin, Germany, Basketball became an official Olympic sport. The American National Basketball Association (NBA), established in 1946, has now become a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

An illustration of a basketball game that accompanied Naismith’s article from The Triangle in 1892 listing his 13 rules.


Historical records show that a crude form of the game was played in Egypt 4,000 years ago and in Ethiopia around 1,000BC. The modern game of hockey emerged in England in the mid-18th century. The first Hockey Association was formed in the United Kingdom in 1876 and drew up the first formal set of rules.

The inaugural Olympic Hockey Competition for men was held in London in 1908. In 1927, the International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations (IFWHA) was formed. After celebrating their respective Golden Jubilees – the FIH in 1974 and the IFWHA in 1980 – the two organizations came together in 1982 to form the current FIH. Today, the International Hockey Federation consists of five Continental Associations, 132 National Associations and is still growing.


Many believe that tennis originated in the monastic cloisters in northern France in the 12th century. Back then, the ball was struck with the palm. Hence, the French called it – jeu de paume – which meant the game of the palm. It was not until the 16th century that rackets came into use, and the game began to be called tennis that became popular in England and France. Henry VIII of England was a big fan of the game, now referred to as real tennis or royal tennis. Apart from being played indoors, real tennis was different from the version of lawn tennis that we see today.

Rubber vulcanization was a process invented by Charles Goodyear in the year 1850. It led to the creation of the bouncier rubber balls. It, in turn, allowed tennis to be played outdoors on mud and grass. In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented in London the equipment and rules for a game called Sphairistike that later influenced the development of tennis. In 1877, the All England Club held the first Wimbledon tournament. The organizing committee ditched the hour-glass-shaped court suggested by Wingfield and established a set of rules which was close to modern tennis. By 1882, the specifications had evolved to the current form with rules as of today.


By 1913, tennis had gained popularity all over the world. The national tennis associations came together and created the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) in Paris. Tennis was a part of the Olympics until 1924. Then it was dropped due to a dispute between the IOC and the ILTF. The concept of Grand Slams started in the 1930s that meant winning the four major tournaments – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. 1973 saw the beginning of the ATP and WTA global and weekly rankings.


The earliest form of soccer dates to 2000 years ago, where soldiers in ancient China used to play as a part of military training. Though soccer-like sports were being played in many other nations, the credit for establishing uniform rules goes to the English. Soccer, widely considered the most popular sport in the world, traces its modern roots in England in the mid-1800s, leading to the creation of the Football Association (FA) in London in 1863. As part of the final ruleset for football, the FA prohibited the use of hands or arms to touch the ball. They also disallowed obstructing opponents by tripping or holding them or kicking them on their shins.

Those who did not agree with this set of rules withdrew from the FA and later formed the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Rugby Football came to be known as Rugger, while Association Football was also called soccer. In Europe, Association football or soccer started gaining more popularity.

The current governing body in international soccer is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, which was formed in 1904, though the rest of Europe did not take up the game till the mid-1920s. FIFA decided to organise an international tournament for football for men in 1930. It was the first FIFA World Cup, and they invited 13 teams to participate. Its popularity and participation have grown immensely since then.


The game of volleyball, originally called mignonette, was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan. He was a physical education director with the YMCA at Holyoke, Massachusetts. Mostly inspired by sports like tennis, and handball, William designed a mignonette as an indoor sport to be played by any number of players. The first exhibition match was played at the International YMCA Training School (now called Springfield College) in 1896. At this time, most of the rules were established by the International YMCA Training School, but as its popularity spread, it evolved. Due to the Volleying nature of the ball, it soon caught on and spread with the name of volleyball.

The USVBA (United States Volleyball Association) was formed in 1928. The first beach volleyball association appeared in California (1965), and the professional players united under the auspices of the AVP (American Volleyball Professionals) in 1983. During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, American men and women took gold and silver medals in indoor volleyball competitions. In 1996, the two-men beach volleyball was introduced officially to the Olympics. Volleyball is also a sport at the Paralympics managed by the World Organization Volleyball for Disabled.


The origin of Golf is a much-debated topic. The Roman game of paganica involved participants using a bent stick to hit a leather ball. It was back in 100BC. Again, there is a record of apocryphally, a golf-like game, being played on 26th February 1297, in Loenen aan de Vecht, where the Dutch played a game with a stick and leather ball. The winner was whoever hit the ball with the fewest strokes into a target several hundred yards away. But the origin of the modern game traces back to 15th Century Scotland. The first documented mention of Golf in Scotland appeared in 1457 when King James II of Scotland prohibited the playing of the games of Golf and football as they were a distraction from archery practice for military purposes. The first recorded reference to Golf in the USA was in 1729. In 1744 the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers set the rules of Golf.

In 1894, the United States Golf Association (USGA) was formed in New York. One of its most important functions was to arbitrate for questions of amateur status. The five charter members of the newly formed USGA were the St. Andrew’s Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y., Newport (R.I.) Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, III. Golf was introduced in the Olympics in 1900. The Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) was formed in 1916 and is the governing body of Golf today.

Ice Hockey

It is believed that Ice hockey evolved from the games played during the pre-Christian times in Europe like the Irish hurling and the Scottish shinty and versions of field hockey. But the origin of the modern game is traced back to the 1800s in Canada. Montreal played a significant role in the development of Ice Hockey in the late 1800s Montreal.

The first organized indoor game was played at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink between two nine-player teams on the 3rd March in 1875. The games played in 1876 in Montreal were based on the rules of the English field hockey organization, the Hockey Association. The first Ice hockey club, The McGill University Hockey Club, was formed in 1877.

In the United States, Yale University and Johns Hopkins University held their first ice hockey matches by 1893. American financier Malcolm Greene Chace is credited with being the father of hockey in the United States. In 1892, Chace met some Canadian hockey players while touring Niagara Falls as an amateur tennis player. Soon afterward, Chace put together a team of men from Yale, Brown, and Harvard, and toured across Canada as captain of this team.

The Western Pennsylvania Hockey League (WPHL) was the first to employ professionals in 1902. In 1904, they the International Professional Hockey League (IPHL), along with teams in Michigan and Ontario. It was the first fully professional league. In 1910, the National Hockey Association (NHA) was formed in Montreal. The NHA established a few rules like dropping the rover position, dividing the game into three 20-minute periods, and introducing major and minor penalties. After re-organizing the National Hockey League in 1917, the league expanded into the United States, starting with the Boston Bruins in 1924. Hockey is another sport in which early development took place as much in college as it did in professional leagues.


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