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Sports History

Sports, physical contests pursued for the goals and challenges they entail. Sports are part of every culture past and present, but each culture has its own definition of sports. The most useful definitions are those that clarify the relationship of sports to play, games, and contests. “Play,” wrote the German theorist Carl Diem, “is purposeless activity, for its own sake, the opposite of work.” Humans work because they have to; they play because they want to. Play is autotelic—that is, it has its own goals. It is voluntary and uncoerced. Recalcitrant children compelled by their parents or teachers to compete in a game of football (soccer) are not really engaged in a sport. Neither are professional athletes if their only motivation is their paycheck. In the real world, as a practical matter, motives are frequently mixed and often quite impossible to determine. Unambiguous definition is nonetheless a prerequisite to practical determinations about what is and is not an example of play.

There are at least two types of play. The first is spontaneous and unconstrained. Examples abound. A child sees a flat stone, picks it up, and sends it skipping across the waters of a pond. An adult realizes with a laugh that he has uttered an unintended pun. Neither action is premeditated, and both are at least relatively free of constraint. The second type of play is regulated. There are rules to determine which actions are legitimate and which are not. These rules transform spontaneous play into games, which can thus be defined as rule-bound or regulated play. Leapfrog, chess, “playing house,” and basketball are all games, some with rather simple rules, others governed by a somewhat more complex set of regulations. In fact, the rule books for games such as basketball are hundreds of pages long.

As games, chess and basketball are obviously different from leapfrog and playing house. The first two games are competitive, the second two are not. One can win a game of basketball, but it makes no sense to ask who has won a game of leapfrog. In other words, chess and basketball are contests.

A final distinction separates contests into two types: those that require at least a minimum of physical skill and those that do not. Shuffleboard is a good example of the first; the board games Scrabble and Monopoly will exemplify the second. It must of course be understood that even the simplest sports, such as weightlifting, require a modicum of intellectual effort, while others, such as baseball, involve a considerable amount of mental alertness. It must also be understood that the sports that have most excited the passions of humankind, as participants and as spectators, have required a great deal more physical prowess than a game of shuffleboard. Through the ages, sports heroes have demonstrated awesome strength, speed, stamina, endurance, and dexterity.

No one can say when sports began. Since it is impossible to imagine a time when children did not spontaneously run races or wrestle, it is clear that children have always included sports in their play, but one can only speculate about the emergence of sports as autotelic physical contests for adults. Hunters are depicted in prehistoric art, but it cannot be known whether the hunters pursued their prey in a mood of grim necessity or with the joyful abandon of sportsmen. It is certain, however, from the rich literary and iconographic evidence of all ancient civilizations that hunting soon became an end in itself—at least for royalty and nobility. Archaeological evidence also indicates that ball games were common among ancient peoples as different as the Chinese and the Aztecs. If ball games were contests rather than noncompetitive ritual performances, such as the Japanese football game kemari, then they were sports in the most rigorously defined sense. That it cannot simply be assumed that they were contests is clear from the evidence presented by Greek and Roman antiquity, which indicates that ball games had been for the most part playful pastimes like those recommended for health by the Greek physician Galen in the 2nd century.




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