sports, athletic games or tests of skill undertaken primarily for the diversion of those who take part or those who observe them. The range is great; usually, however, the term is restricted to any play, pastime, exercise, game, or contest performed under given rules, indoors or outdoors, on an individual or a team basis, with or without competition, but requiring skill and some form of physical exertion.
Some sports, such as hunting, fishing, running, and swimming, derive from the rhythms and work requirements of primitive everyday life. Some, such as riding, shooting, throwing the javelin, or archery derive from early military practices. Still others, like boxing, wrestling, and jumping, arose from the spontaneous challenges and occasional hostilities that accompany human interaction.
Development of Sports
The precise origins of many sports remain obscure, although all cultures have known physical contests. The ancient Egyptians swam, raced, wrestled, and played games with balls. The ancient Greeks held large athletic festivals, including the Olympic games, that drew athletes from all over the ancient world. The Greeks, and then the Romans, also competed in events (chariot races, throwing the javelin) that relied on the participation of animals or the use of mechanical contrivances, a tradition continued into modern times in sports such as dog racing, horse racing, and shooting.
During the Middle Ages, the cultural isolation imposed by the feudal system and religious doctrine that opposed the use of the body for play hampered the development of organized sport in the Western world. For many centuries, contests between knights in tournaments that emphasized military skill were among the only forms of approved, public sports. In the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, games and exercise attained renewed popularity. As had been the case in ancient times, however, politics and social class circumscribed activity. Sports that required wealth or leisure, such as polo or falconry, were the province of the upper classes, while inexpensive, massed sports, such as soccer, took root among commoners.
The late 19th cent. witnessed an expanding belief in sport as useful recreation, and in industrialized societies equipment was standardized, local and national organizations were set up to govern play, and a doctrine of character-building declared sports to be a necessary endeavor for men. The revival of the Olympics in 1896 and the blossoming U.S. intercollegiate athletic system boosted many forms of amateur, or unpaid, sports at the same time that professional sports (such as baseball, boxing, and bicycle racing) drew large numbers of spectators. Sports that were traditionally played in various countries became, by legislative act or general acceptance, national sports—baseball in the United States, bullfighting in Spain and Mexico, cricket in England, and ice hockey (see hockey, ice) in Canada.
During the Great Depression, Americans sought inexpensive outlets for their energies; mass participation in sports such as softball and bowling resulted. At the same time, spectator sports burgeoned, and the commercialism that accompanied them gradually engulfed both amateur and professional sports. By the late 20th cent., the televising of athletic events had made sports big business. On the other hand, expanding public concern with personal physical health led to mass participation, not necessarily competitive, in sports like running, hiking, cycling, martial arts, and gymnastics. Athletic activity by women expanded, especially after political action in the 1960s and 1970s opened doors to many forms of competition and an increased share of public funding for sports.
During the 20th cent., sports took on an increasingly international flavor; aside from the world championships for individual sports, like soccer's World Cup, large-scale international meets, such as the Pan-American games and the Commonwealth games, were inaugurated. Sports have correspondingly become increasingly politicized, as shown in the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games by Western nations and the retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games by Soviet-bloc nations, an exchange brought on by Soviet actions in Afghanistan.
See A. Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (1978); J. A. Cuddon, The International Dictionary of Sports and Games (1979); W. J. Baker, Sports in the Western World (rev. ed. 1989); B. G. Rader, American Sports (2d ed. 1990); R. A. Smith, Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics (1990).