Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ancient Athletes

By Analea Styles

As summer quickly approaches and the weather continues to improve, outdoor sports and leisure activities become ever more common; soccer camps for the kids, volleyball at the beach, marathons through the cities, and swimming at the lake on weekends. We love our recreational activities! Did you know that in ancient times people enjoyed sports and various forms of exercise just like we do?

Sometimes as we study ancient man, we can get so focused on the incredible monuments they built, the intriguing methods they employed, the fascinating examples of their intellect and skill, and their overwhelming focus on pagan religion that we forget these men, women, and children had time to play! The mainstream view of ancient people doesn’t include a lot of time for leisure activities and fun either, but the truth is, there is evidence that many cultures enjoyed various forms of athletic entertainment as part of daily life.


Of course, the most obvious example of ancient sports is the Olympics of Greece. They can be traced back to 776 BC and continued until AD 393. The Olympics were closely tied with the Greek religious practices, dedicated to their Olympian gods, especially Zeus.

The athletes would gather every four years to show off their physical prowess and compete in various sports including running, jumping, discus throwing, wrestling, boxing, and horse racing. The Olympics promoted friendly civil relations among the cities of Greece and provided entertainment to both the athletes and spectators.
Athletes were immortalized by their success in the games and became heroes and legends among their countrymen. Many of the best Olympians in ancient times might have even surpassed the skill of our present day athletes![1]


Roman sports were highly influenced by the Greeks but with a few twists. Romans focused more on the spectacular and violent aspects of sport rather than the more artistic approach of the Greeks. But the Romans also valued sports for leisure.[2]

Swimming was common among young Roman boys as well as horseback riding. Romans also enjoyed boxing, wrestling, and running footraces against each other. There were also a variety of ball games played in Rome, some resembled our present-day version of handball, field hockey, soccer, and various games of catch.[3]


China is credited with the oldest form of soccer (traced back over 2000 years ago)! “Cuju” as it was called, means “kick the ball with foot”. It started as a military exercise to keep soldiers in shape but later became a popular pastime of the general public as well. They had regulated games with rules, organized teams, and even a referee. As the sport grew in popularity, a few fixed cuju play grounds were established in residential areas.[4]
The Chinese also wrested, competed in chariot races, and even had a version of polo, which was popular among nobles and women.[5]

Archeologists found an ancient pottery basin, apparently dating back 4000 years, depicting groups of dancers, runners, and acrobats. This indicates that sports such as these played a part in even the earliest of Chinese history. [6]


The infamous “Mesoamerican Ball Game” is considered by many to be the oldest organized team sport. The game was probably invented by the Olmecs sometime around 1000 BC. It was played in stone courts, which became a prominent feature of a city’s sacred complex. The game commonly had religious significance and was known to be a competition of life or death – it was regularly accompanied by human sacrifice.

The ball courts were flat surfaces set between two tall stone walls. Later versions of the game included stone rings set high on the wall. The goal was to get the solid rubber ball (weighing up to nine pounds!) through the one of the rings without using your hands. The skilled athletes used elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders to direct the ball.[7]


Ancient Egypt is also credited with some of the earliest athletes. Egyptians played a form of hockey, handball, gymnastics and tug-of-war. They also competed in boxing, marathons, and archery and enjoyed swimming, rowing, and weightlifting.
Drawings on several monuments indicate that the Egyptians had laid down basic rules for their sports and chose referees and uniforms for teams.[8]

The Egyptians seemed to have a high standard of physical fitness and many of their leaders participated in sporting activities in order to train and strengthen their bodies, as well as for pleasure. The evidence of ancient Egyptian sport is carved and painted in murals and on monuments, indicating its high place in their culture. [9]

Sport as Religion

It is quite evident that the ancient people participated in sports, perhaps just as much as we do today. It is interesting that for many ancient cultures, sports were linked to religion, much like in our society sports have become religion for athletes and spectators alike!

Sports and recreational activities are not evil – in fact, they can be very healthy! Furthermore, the existence of ancient sports indicates that ancient man’s time was not entirely consumed by food collection, pyramid building, and going to war. The people had time to have fun and to explore other interests. Organized sport reveals intelligence and planning, and friendly competition signifies maturity of culture. But for the ancient people, sports also became a means for sin – whether it was dedication to pagan gods, a focus on brutality and violence, or the tragic death of the losing competitor, many of their recreational activities were not honoring to God in the slightest.

 But we can’t just sit back and judge the ancient athletes. What about us? Have we made a sport (watching or playing) more important than God? Has our exercise schedule become more essential than our Bible reading?

God designed man with incredible bodies with which to cultivate, care for, and enjoy the earth, but most importantly they are to honor and glorify Him. Do you honor Him in your sport?

[1] “Ancient Olympic Games”. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[2] “Roman Sports”. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[3] Fife, Steven. “Athletes, Leisure, and Entertainment in Ancient Rome”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[4] “Cuju”. Cultural China. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[5] Jue Liu, “Sport in Ancient China”. The World of Chinese. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[6] “Embryonic Forms of Primitive Sports”. Official Website of the Chinese Olympic Committee. Accessed May 20, 2014.
[7] Cartwright, Mark. “The Ball Game of Mesoamerica”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. May 20, 2014.
[8] “Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Sports”. May 20, 2014.
[9] Touny, Ahmed. “History of Sports in Ancient Egypt” Accessed May 20 2014.

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