A Brief History of Sports

From Rocks and Spears to Laser Tag

The documented history of sports goes back at least 3,000 years. In the beginning, sports often involved the preparation for war or training as a hunter, which explains why so many early games involved the throwing of spears, stakes, and rocks, and sparring one-on-one with opponents.

With the first Olympic Games in 776 BC—which included events such as foot and chariot races, wrestling, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing—the Ancient Greeks introduced formal sports to the world. The following by no means exhaustive list takes a look at the beginnings and evolution of some of today's most popular sporting pastimes.

Games with Bats & Balls: Cricket, Baseball, and Softball

An Early SF Baseball Team
SF baseball team, circa early-1900s. Underwood Archives / Getty Images
  • Cricket: The game of cricket originated in south-east England sometime in the late 16th century. By the 18th century, it had become the national sport, making inroads globally in the 19th and 20th centuries. The prototype for the modern cricket bat featuring a willow blade and a cane handle layered with strips of rubber, and then tied with twine and covered with another layer of rubber to form a grip was invented around 1853. (The longest recorded game of cricket took place in 1939 and spanned a period of nine days.)
  • Baseball: Alexander Cartwright (1820-1892) of New York invented the baseball field as we know it in 1845. Cartwright and the members of his New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club​ devised the first rules and regulations that became the accepted standard for the modern game of baseball.
  • Softball: In 1887, George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, invented softball as a form of indoor baseball that was first played on a cold winter day inside the warm Farragut Boat Club.

Basketball

Portrait of Early American Basketball Teammates
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The first formal rules for basketball were devised in 1892. Initially, players dribbled a soccer ball up and down a court of unspecified dimensions. Points were earned by landing the ball in a peach basket. Iron hoops and a hammock-style basket were introduced in 1893. Another decade passed, however, before the innovation of open-ended nets put an end to the practice of manually retrieving the ball from the basket each time a goal was scored. The first shoes specifically designed for the game, Converse All Stars, were introduced in 1917 and were soon made famous by legendary player Chuck Taylor who became an early brand ambassador in the 1920s. 

Rugby and American Football

Team Portrait of Early Oklahoma University Football Team
Football team in typical team pose of the early 1900's at Oklahoma University. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
  • Rugby: The origins of rugby can be traced back over 2000 years to a Roman game called harpastum (from the Greek for “seize”). Unlike soccer, in which the ball was propelled by means of the foot, in this game, it was also carried in the hands. The game made its modern debut in 1749 at a newly built school in Rugby in Warwickshire, England, which boasted “every accommodation that could be required for the exercise of young gentlemen.” The eight-acre plot on which the game evolved was known as "The Close." Between 1749 and 1823, rugby had few rules and the ball was kicked rather than carried to move it forward. Games could go on for five days and often more than 200 students participated. In 1823, player William Webb Ellis was the first to took pick up the ball and run with it. This was the beginning of the modern version of the sport as it’s played today. 
  • Football: American football is a descendant of rugby and soccer. While Rutgers and Princeton played what was then billed as the first college football game on November 6, 1869, the game did not come into its own until 1879 with rules instituted by Walter Camp, a player/coach at Yale University. On November 12, 1892, in a game that pitted the Allegheny Athletic Association football team against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, AAA player William (Pudge) Heffelfinger was paid $500 to participate—marking him as the first-ever professional football player.

Golf

Golfers at St. Andrew's Golf Club in Yonkers
St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers founded by Reid in 1888. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The game of Golf is descended from a game that originated in the Kingdom of Fife on the eastern coast of Scotland in during the 15th century. While there were similar games in other parts of Europe at the time that involved swatting a rock with a stick around a predetermined course, the game as we know it—including the innovation introduction of the golf hole—was invented in Scotland.

  • During the mid-15th century, the games of golf and soccer suffered something of a setback. As Scotland prepared to defend its borders against English invasion, the rising popularity of the games was thought to be responsible for men neglecting more useful pursuits such as archery and swordsmanship. Golf and soccer were officially banned in Scotland in 1457. The prohibition was lifted in 1502 with the signing of the Treaty of Glasgow.
  • In the 16th century, King Charles I popularized the golf in England and Mary Queen of Scots, who was French, introduced the game to her homeland. (In fact, it’s possible that term “caddie” is derived from the name given to the French cadets who attended Mary when she played).
  • The first reference to golf at Scotland's most famous golf course, St Andrews, was in 1552. The clergy allowed public access to the links the following year.
  • The golf course at Leith (near Edinburgh) was the first to publish a set of rules for the game, and in 1682, was also the site of the first international golf match during which a team pairing the Duke of York and George Patterson playing for Scotland beat two English noblemen.
  • In 1754, the St Andrews Society of Golfers was formed. Its annual competition relied on the rules established at Leith.
  • Stroke play was introduced in 1759.
  • The first 18-hole course (now standard) was constructed in 1764.
  • In 1895, St Andrews inaugurated the first women's golf club in the world.

Hockey

Thompson Defends The Net
B Bennett / Getty Images

While the exact origin of ice hockey is unclear, the game likely evolved from the centuries’ old Northern European game of field hockey. The rules of modern ice hockey were created by Canadian James Creighton. The first game was played in Montreal, Canada 1875 at Victoria Skating Rink between two nine-player teams, and featured a flat circular piece of wood that served as a prototype for what would eventually evolve into the modern hockey puck. Today, barring penalties, each team has six players on the ice at a time, including the goalie, who guards the net.

Lord Stanley of Preston, Governor-General of Canada, inaugurated the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup—known today as the Stanley Cup—in 1892, to recognize the best team in Canada each year. The first award went to the Montreal Hockey Club in 1893. The awards were later opened to both Canadian and American league teams.

Ice Skating

Pond Skaters
A frozen pond in Central Park, New York City, 1890s. Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection / Getty Images

Around the 14th Century, the Dutch started using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottom runners. The skates were attached to the skater's shoes with leather straps. Poles were used to propel the skater. Around 1500, the Dutch added a narrow metal double-edged blade, making the poles a thing of the past, as the skater could now push and glide with his feet (called the "Dutch Roll").

Figure skating was introduced at the 1908 Summer Olympics and has been included at the Winter Games since 1924. Men's speed skating debuted during the 1924 Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France. Ice dance became a medal sport in 1976, with a team event debuting for the 2014 Olympics.

Skiing and Water Skiing

Skier Off A Jump
Underwood Archives / Getty Images
  • Skiing: Although the sport of skiing in America is little more than a century old, researchers have dated a rock carving of a skier, found on the Norwegian island of Rodoy as more than 4,000 years old. Skiing was so revered in Scandinavia that the Vikings worshiped Ull and Skade, the god and goddess of skiing. Skiing was introduced to the United States by Norwegian gold miners.
  • Water Skiing: Water skiing came about on June 28, 1922, when 18-year-old Minnesotan Ralph Samuelson proved the theory that if a person could ski on snow, a person could ski on water.

Competitive Swimming

1890s 1900s TURN OF 20TH...
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Getty Images

Swimming pools did not become popular until the middle of the 19th century. By 1837, six indoor pools with diving boards had been built in London, England. When the modern Olympic Games were launched in Athens, Greece, on April 5, 1896, swimming races were among the original events. Soon after, the popularity of swimming pools and the related sporting events began to spread.

Several famous 20th Century swimmers, including three-time gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller who competed in the 1924 Paris Games, two-time Olympian Buster Crabbe, and Esther Williams, an American competitive swimmer who set multiple national and regional swimming records (but did not compete in the Olympics due to the outbreak of WWII) went on to have successful careers in Hollywood.

Tennis

Family rests after a tennis match, ca. 1900.
Resting after a tennis match, ca. 1900. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

While there’s evidence to suggest that ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians played some version of a game that resembled tennis, court tennis as we know it is descended from a game enjoyed by 11th-century French monks called paume (meaning "palm"). Paume was played on a court and the ball was struck with the hand (hence the name). Paume evolved into jeu de paume ("game of the palm") in which racquets were used. By 1500, racquets constructed of wooden frames and gut strings were in play, as were balls made of cork and leather. When popular game spread to England, it was played exclusively indoors, but rather than volley the ball back and forth, players attempted to hit a ball into a netted opening in the roof of the court. In 1873, Englishman Major Walter Wingfield invented a game called Sphairistikè (Greek for "playing ball") from which modern outdoor tennis evolved.

Volleyball

1920s WOMAN IN BATHING...
Woman holding volleyball on beach, ca. 1920s. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Getty Images

William Morgan invented volleyball in 1895 at the Holyoke, Massachusetts, YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) where he served as Director of Physical Education. Originally called Mintonette, after a demonstration match during which a spectator commented that the game involved a great deal of "volleying," the sport was renamed volleyball.

Surfing and Windsurfing

  • Surfing: The exact origins of surfing are not known, however, most research suggests the activity dates back to ancient Polynesia and was first observed by Europeans during a 1767 voyage to Tahiti. The first surfboards were made of solid wood, measuring between 10 and 10 feet, and weighing from 75 to upwards of 200 pounds. Solid boards were designed for forward-motion only and were not meant to cross waves. At the dawn of the 20th century, a Hawaiian surfer named George Freeth was the first to cut a board down to a more manageable eight-foot length. In 1926, American surfer Tom Blake invented the first hollow board and later introduced the fin. During the late 1940s through the early 1950s, inventor and surfing aficionado Bob Simmons began experimenting with curved boards. Thanks to his innovative designs, he is often referred to as the "Father of the Modern Surfboard." Later designs would aim for lighter, more maneuverable boards. Boards carved from balsa wood, then laminated with fiberglass and coated with epoxy resin became popular, but as technology advanced, balsa core boards were eventually eclipsed those constructed of foam core.
  • Windsurfing: Windsurfing or boardsailing is a sport that combines sailing and surfing and uses a one-person craft called a sailboard. The basic sailboard is composed of a board and a rig. In 1948, 20-year-old Newman Darby first conceived of using a handheld sail and rig mounted on a universal joint, to control a small catamaran. While Darby did not file for a patent for his design, he is recognized as the inventor of the first sailboard.

Soccer

According to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), more than 240 million people around the world play soccer on a regular basis. The history of the game can be traced back more than 2,000 years to ancient China, where it all began with a bunch of players kicking an animal-hide ball around. While Greece, Rome, and areas of Central America claim to been seminal to the development of the game, soccer as we know it—or football as it’s called in most places other than the United States—came to the fore in England during the mid-19th Century, and it’s the English who can claim credit for codifying the first uniform rules for the sport—which made tripping opponents and touching the ball with the hands are forbidden. (The penalty kick was introduced in 1891.) 

Boxing

The earliest evidence of boxing can be traced back to Egypt circa 3000 BC. Boxing as a sport was introduced to the ancient Olympic Games in the 7th century BC, at which time, boxers’ hands and forearms were bound with soft leather thongs for protection. Romans later traded in leather thongs for metal-studded gloves called cestus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, boxing died out and did not make a comeback until the 17th century. The English officially organized amateur boxing in 1880, designating five weight classes: Bantam, not exceeding 54 kilos (119 pounds); Feather, not exceeding 57 kilos (126 pounds); Light, not exceeding 63.5 kilos (140 pounds); Middle, not exceeding 73 kilos (161 pounds); and Heavy, any weight.

When boxing made its Olympic debut at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, the USA was the only country entered, and as a result, took home all the medals. Since its initial admittance in the Olympic program, the sport has been included at all of the subsequent Games, with the exception of the 1912 Stockholm Games, since boxing was outlawed there. But Sweden wasn't the only place where fisticuffs were illegal. For a good deal the 19th century, boxing was not considered a legitimate sport in America. Bare-knuckle boxing was outlawed as a criminal activity and boxing matches were regularly raided by the police.

Gymnastics

Gymnastics began in ancient Greece as a form of exercise for both men and women that combined physical coordination, strength, and dexterity with tumbling and acrobatic skills. (The translation for the word “gymnasium” from the original Greek is “to exercise naked.”) Early gymnastics exercises included running, jumping, swimming, throwing, wrestling, and weight lifting. Once the Romans conquered Greece, gymnastics became more formalized. Roman gymnasiums were mostly used to prepare their legions for the rigors of battle. With the exception of tumbling, which remained a fairly popular form of entertainment, as the Roman Empire declined, the interest in gymnastics, along with several other sports favored by gladiators and soldiers dwindled as well.

In 1774, when prominent German educational reformer Johann Bernhard Basedow added physical exercise to the realistic courses of study he advocated at his school in Dessau, Saxony, modern gymnastics—and the Germanic countries’ fascination with them—took off. By the late 1700s, German Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (the "father of modern gymnastics”) had introduced the sidebar, the horizontal bar, the parallel bars, the balance beam, and jumping events. German educator Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths (also known as Guts Muth or Gutsmuths and the "grandfather of gymnastics") developed a more graceful form of gymnastics focusing on rhythmic movement, opening the Jahn's school in Berlin in 1811. Soon after, gymnastics clubs began to spring up in both continental Europe and Great Britain. As gymnastics evolved, the Greco-Roman events of weight lifting and wrestling were dropped. There was also a shift in emphasis from simply beating an opponent to the pursuit of excellence in form.

Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, a pioneering Civil War-era physical education teacher, athletic proponent, lecturer, and prolific inventor of gymnastic equipment (with more than 30 pieces of apparatus to his credit) introduced the sport to the United States. Thanks to a wave of immigration at the end of the 19th century, an increasing number of turnverein (from the German “turnen,” meaning to perform gymnastic exercises + “verein,” meaning club) sprang up as recently arrived Europeans sought to bring their love of the sport to their new homeland.

Men’s gymnastics debuted at the Olympic Games in 1896, and have been included in all Games since 1924. An all-around women’s competition arrived in 1936, followed by a competition for separate events in 1952. During early competitions, male gymnasts from Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Switzerland, dominated the competition, but by the ’50s, Japan, the Soviet Union, and several Eastern European nations were turning out top male and female gymnasts. The widespread coverage of Olympic performances by the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut in the 1972 Olympics and Nadia Comaneci of Romania at the 1976 Games raised the profile gymnastics dramatically, resulting in a major promotion of the sport, particularly for women in the China and the United States.

Modern international competition has six events for men—the rings, parallel bars, horizontal bar, side or pommel-horse, long or vaulting horse, and floor (or free) exercise, and four events for women—vaulting horse, balance beam, uneven bars, and floor exercise (which is performed with musical accompaniment). Tumbling and trampoline exercises are also included in many U.S. competitions. Rhythmic gymnastics, a non-acrobatic performance of graceful choreographed moves incorporating the use of a ball, hoop, rope, or ribbons, have been an Olympic sport since 1984.

Fencing

The use of swords dates to prehistoric times. The earliest known example of swordplay comes from a relief found in the temple of Medīnat Habu, near Luxor that was built in Egypt by Ramses III circa 1190 BC. In ancient Rome, swordplay was a highly systemized form of combat that both soldiers and gladiators had to learn. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire and through the Middle Ages, sword training became less systematic and sword fighting took on a seedy reputation as criminals increasingly used the weapons to further their illicit pursuits. As a result, communities began outlawing fencing schools. But even in the face of such obstacles, including a 1286 London edict passed by King Edward I condemning the practice, fencing flourished.

During the 15th century, guilds of fencing masters came to prominence throughout Europe. Henry VIII was one of the sport’s earliest supporters in England. The English convention of using a cutting sword and with a buckler (a small shield worn on the free arm) was replaced by the rapier combat more prevalent in continental European countries. It was the Italians who first began using the point rather than the edge of the sword. The Italian fencing style emphasized speed and dexterity rather than force and was soon adopted throughout Europe. When the lunge was added, the art of fencing was born.

By the end of the 17th century, the changes in men’s fashion dictated by the court of Louis XIV changed the face of fencing as well. The lengthy rapier gave way to the shorter court sword. Initially dismissed, the lighter court sword soon proved an effective weapon for a variety of movements impossible to achieve with earlier blades. Hits could be made with sword-point only, while the side of the blade was used for defense. It was from these innovations that modern fencing evolved.

The French school of sword fighting focused on strategy and form, and specific rules were adopted to teach it. A practice sword, known as the foil, was introduced for training. The first fencing masks were designed by French fencing master La Boëssière and infamous duelist Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-Georges in the 18th century. Basic fencing conventions were first organized codified by French fencing master Camille Prévost in the 1880s.

Men’s fencing has been an Olympic event since 1896. After numerous disputes, the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime was founded in 1913 as governing body of international fencing for amateurs (both in the Olympics and in world championships) to ensure uniform enforcement of rules. Individual foil for women was introduced at the 1924 Olympic Games. The women’s foil team event debuted at the 1960 Games. Women’s team and individual épée arrived for 1996 Games. The women’s individual saber event was added for the 2004 Games, and women’s team saber followed in 2008.

Rowing

Rowing has been in existence as long as people have traveled by boat, however, the first historic reference to rowing as a sport dates to an Egyptian funerary carving from the 15th century BC. Roman poet Virgil mentions rowing in the Aeneid. In the Middle Ages, Italian oarsmen zoomed across Venice’s waterways during Carnevale regatta races. Beginning in 1454, London’s early water taxi drivers battled it out on the Thames River hoping to win monetary prizes and bragging rights. A race between London Bridge and Chelsea Harbor has been held annually since 1715. America’s first recorded rowing event took place in New York Harbor in 1756, and not long after, the sport took hold in the athletic programs at many of the country’s elite colleges.

England's Oxford University Boat Club, one of the oldest established college teams, and its perennial rival, Cambridge, held their first men’s competition, known simply as the University Boat Race, in 1929. The event has been held annually since 1856. Similar rowing rivalries, most notably those between Harvard, Yale, and the U.S. service academies, soon surfaced across the pond. Yale challenged Harvard to its first intercollegiate boat race in 1852.

Rowing became an Olympic sport in 1900. The United States took gold that year, and again in 1904. The English won gold medals in 1908 and 1912, after which the United States ditched professional rowers, and instead, tapped the best college team to compete at the 1920 Games. The U.S. Naval Academy went on to beat the British team, recapturing the gold medal. The trend continued from 1920 to 1948, however, by then, the nature of American sports was changing. As the immense popularity of collegiate basketball and football grew, interest in rowing waned. While still wildly popular at some schools, rowing will likely never regain its former widespread audience.

Sports Miscellany: Wiffleball, Ultimate Frisbee, Hacky Sack, Paintball, and Laser Tag

David N. Mullany of Shelton, Connecticut invented the Wiffle ball in 1953. A Wiffle ball is a variation of a baseball that makes it easy to hit a curveball.

While Frisbees date back to 1957, the game of Ultimate Frisbee (or simply Ultimate) is a non-contact team sport that was created in 1968 by a group of students led by Joel Silver, Jonny Hines, and Buzzy Hellring at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Hacky sack (a.k.a. "footbag") is a modern American sport invented in 1972 by John Stalberger and Mike Marshall of Oregon City, Oregon.

Paintball was born 1981 when a group of 12 friends playing "Capture the Flag" added the element of firing at one another with the tree-marking guns. After investing with a tree marking gun manufacturer called Nelson, the group began promoting and selling the guns for use in the new recreational sport.

In 1986, George A. Carter III became the "founder and inventor of the laser tag industry," another variation of "Capture the Flag," in which teams equipped with infrared and visible light-based guns tag each other out until one side is victorious.

As anyone writing a compendium on the history of sports can tell you, there's a staggering amount of information to sift through and only so much time. Sports is such a huge topic (with events such as horse racing, wrestling, track & field, and mixed martial arts—to name only a few—that are more than deserving of coverage), it would take an encyclopedia to do it justice. That said, the ones included in this list should give you a fair sampling of the popular athletic endeavors that continue to fascinate sporting enthusiasts around the globe.