The following is a list of some of history’s old sports from before the current era, ordered roughly by probable dates of origin. Below the table, more information is given for each sport in order.
An asterisk (*) denotes that the listed date is debatable. See Origins and History in the relevant article for more information.
|Mesopotamian wrestling||21st century BC||early Mesopotamian wrestling|
|Greek boxing||17th century BC||early Greek boxing|
|Mesoamerican ball game||16th century BC||a volleyball-style game using the hips|
|Mesoamerican pelota purépecha||16th century BC*||a field hockey game – ball sometimes lit on fire|
|Greek stadion, diaulos, and dolichos||8th century BC||footraces of increasing distance|
|Greek wrestling||8th century BC||early Greek wrestling|
|Greek pankration||7th century BC||a brutal combat sport with few rules|
|Greek hoplitodromos||6th century BC||a sprint wearing pieces of armor|
|Greek episkyros||6th century BC*||a ball game with similarities to football|
|Roman harpastum||5th century BC*||the Roman adaptation of episkyros|
|Chinese cuju||3rd century BC||a ball game with similarities to soccer|
|Chinese jiao di||1st century BC*||early Chinese wrestling|
The history of wrestling can been traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, notably in the 21st century BC Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humankind’s earliest literary works. On the second tablet of twelve in the standard version of the story, the king Gilgamesh wrestles with the wild man Enkidu, leaving a destructive path in the wake. When Gilgamesh finally throws his opponent, Enkidu concedes. It’s clear that the wrestling depicted here is a competitive contest as opposed to a battle for life, suggesting that the goal of ancient Mesopotamian wrestling was to throw the opponent – at least in this variation. Though no other specific rules here are known, this story serves as one of the earliest historical anchors for wrestling, one of the most widespread old sports before the current era.
The history of boxing in ancient Greece can be traced back over 3,500 years ago in wall mural from ancient Crete, pictured here. This painting, dated to the 17th century BC, depicts two young boys fist fighting with hand wraps or gloves. This is the earliest known evidence of boxing in the ancient Mediterranean region.
Though it is unknown what name the Greeks may have used to refer to this sport during this period, by the 8th century BC boxing in Greece was known as pygmachia. This was a very popular sport in ancient Greece for many centuries, featured at all four of the primary Panhellenic festivals throughout the region; the ancient Olympic Games, Isthmian Games, Nemean Games, and Pythian Games.
Mesoamerican Ball Game
The Mesoamerican ball game is one of the most widespread of old sports in the Americas, played among several societies in the Mesoamerican region from around 1600 BC. In this game, two teams standing in a canal-shaped structure would knock a ball back and forth to each other volleyball-style, typically striking with the hips. As the game was played within several different cultures throughout several millennia, it took on some variations. For example, between 1000 and 1500 AD the Maya began attaching stone rings to the uppermost slanted walls of the court, through which they would attempt to pass the ball. The sport has a rich history, heavy with symbolic and ritualistic importance throughout many societies in the region.
Mesoamerican Pelota Purépecha
Pelota purépecha is a field hockey sport that may have a history as far back as the 16th century BC. Murals at the Palacio de Tepantitla, located in the ancient city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, seem to depict the sport, though this is the only piece of evidence to suggest the sport dates back so far. The game is a standard field hockey sport in which two teams attempt to pass a ball into the goal of the opposing team. A twist fairly unique to pelota purépecha is its nighttime variation, in which players light a specially crafted ball on fire, illuminating itself and its immediate area.
Greek Stadion, Diaulos, and Dolichos
The Greek stadion, diaulos, and dolichos were separate races held at Panhellenic festivals (such as the Olympic Games) in ancient Greece. These old sports are ordered above by the date they were added to the Olympic Games and by their distance; approximately 200 meters and 400 meters for the stadion and diaulos, respectively. The length of the stadion track could vary by up to 150 feet among different Greek stadiums, which is why these measurement are approximate. The dolichos race was much longer, somewhere between 3,200 and 5,400 meters – between 18 and 24 laps on the stadion track.
Greek wrestling, palé, is one of many old sports traced back to ancient Greece, first recorded as part of the 18th Olympic Games in 708 BC. This sport was typical of wrestling in this corner of the ancient world, wherein the goal of each competitor was to score a fall. To win a palé match, the wrestler had to score three throws on his opponent, either by touching his back or shoulders to the ground or by forcing him out of the skamma (wrestling pit).
Pankration was a Greek combat sport featured in the Olympic Games from 648 BC, as well as other Panhellenic festivals around the same period. Its brutality went beyond Greek boxing and wrestling; competitors fought until one conceded, was incapacitated, or was killed. Besides prohibiting eye gouging and biting, there were no rules with regard to fighting styles or techniques.
Due to pankration‘s brutality, deaths were not uncommon. One of the more notable examples is pankratiast Arrhichion of Phigalia, who actually died the moment he won a match, forcing the judges to declare his lifeless body the victor.
The hoplitodromos was a running event in the ancient Olympic Games from 520 BC and in the Nemean and Pythian Games around the same period. This sprint down the stadion track was unique from other footraces in that competitors wore heavy pieces of hoplite armor, sometimes weighing over 50 pounds total. Besides the required helmet, shield, and greaves, athletes were completely nude, as was standard for old sports and athletics competitions in ancient Greece.
Episkyros was an ancient Greek ball game that may have borne some similarities to modern American football (though not connected to its history). Due to a lack of detailed sources, the rules for episkyros have not been able to be recreated in full, though some details have been determined. It appears that the goal was to move a ball past the opposing team’s back line, similar to scoring a touchdown in football. In addition, it appears that running the ball, passing, intercepting, and tackling were all parts of the game.
This 6th century BC marble mural relief, located in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, seems to depict episkyros, which would suggest that this is the earliest rugby- or American-football-esque sport recorded. It should be noted, though, that there are no known links between episkyros and medieval European football games, old sports that directly led to the development of modern football games.
Harpastum was the ancient Roman adaptation of episkyros. Its origins likely date around the 5th century BC, as the rise of the Roman Empire and the subsequent increased mixing of Greek and Roman culture would have likely attributed to the development of the sport. Being a successor to episkyros, the two old sports bore similarities. However, the Romans introduced a greater level of violence to the game, allowing players to physically wrestle their opponents in an attempt to incapacitate the opposing team.
Cuju was an ancient Chinese sport played from the 3rd century BC (at the latest) to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD). There were two primary variations of the game throughout its history, and the most common of the two, zhuqui, was fairly similar to modern soccer. Two opposing teams would attempt kick a ball through a goal in order to score. However, in contrast to soccer, this goal was a single ring in the middle of the field, and each team would try to kick the ball through the ring from their side of the field. Early in the sport’s history, each team had their own ring in the middle of the field, but for the majority of its history a single ring was used.
Chinese Jiao Di
Jiao di was a form of grappling or wrestling in ancient China. Its earliest literary reference lies in the 1st century BC, though oral tradition claims it dates back to the 3rd millennium BC, making the true origin of the sport difficult to determine. While it is known jiao di was a combat sport, its specific rules are difficult to ascertain as well. Some sources suggest that competitors wore horned headgear and attempted to butt or force the opponent out of a defined zone. (Jiao di translates literally as “horn clashing.”) Others suggest that the sport may have been a more traditional grappling or wrestling competition in which athletes attempted to pin or throw the opponent. Regardless, the sport appears to be the earliest of its kind in ancient China, and one of the last widely-recorded sports before the turn of the current era.
This is a list of only the main sources for these sports. For the full bibliographies used for each sport, see their respective articles.
Anonymous, & George, A. (2003). The epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics.Miller, C. (2004, May).
Miller, S. G. (2006). Ancient Greek athletics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Whittington, E. M. (2001). The sport of life and death: The Mesoamerican ballgame. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Crowther, N. B. (2007). Sport in ancient times. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Harris, H. A. (1972). Sport in Greece and Rome. Cornell University Press.
Chennault, C., Knapp, K., Berkowitz, A., & Dien, A. (2015). Early Chinese texts: A bibliographical guide. Institute of East Asian Studies.
Tong, Z., & Cartmell, T. (2005). The method of Chinese wrestling. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.