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A sport consists of an everyday activity carried out with a purpose and in an environment different from everyday: for competition, enjoyment , to attain excellence, for the development of skill, or some combination of these. The difference of purpose is what characterizes sport, combined with the notion of individual (or team) skill or prowess. Therefore jumping over a hurdle in front of thousands in an indoor arena is a sport, whereas jumping a stream during a country walk is simply an attempt to keep one's feet dry. There are many kinds of sports, and they take up a substantial proportion of people's time, money and interest, if not as participants then as spectators.

The line between sports, games, exercise and play is certainly not clear; games are often redefined as sports when they involve particularly skilled participants, which gives them appeal to non-participants. This is especially true in the modern age, which gives much weight to the spectator aspect of sports. Similarly, play is usually understood as less purposive activity, but can become more like a game or sport as it conforms more to external rules or patterns of behaviour. Exercise is action to develop skill or ability, and may be a forerunner of both sport and games.

History of sport

The development of sport throughout history can teach us a great deal about social changes, and about the nature of sport itself.  Sport seems to involve basic human skills being developed and exercised for their own sake, in parallel with being exercised for their usefulness. This suggests that sport is probably as old as the existence of people as purposive beings, and that it was a useful way of people learning and developing, increasing their mastery of nature and the environment.  Of course, as we go further back in history the dwindling evidence makes this more difficult to support.


There are many modern discoveries in France, Africa and Australia of cave art (see e.g. Lascaux) from prehistory which provide evidence of ritual ceremonial behaviour. Some of these sources date from over 30 000 years ago, as established by carbon dating. Stone-age drawings were discovered in the Libyan desert depicting among other acitivities, swimming and archery. The art itself is an example of interest in skills unrelated to the functional tasks of staying alive, and is evidence of there being leisure time available. It depicts other non-functional activities such as ritual etc.. Therefore, although there is scant direct evidence of sport from these sources, it is reasonable to extrapolate that there was some activity at these times resembling sport.  It is reasonable to assume from these and other historical sources that sport has origins which lie in the beginnings of mankind itself.

Ancient China

There are artifacts and structures which suggest that Chinese people engaged in activities which meet our definition of sport as early as 4 000 years BC. The origin and development of China's sports activities seem to have been closely related to the production, work, war and entertainment of the time. Gymnastics appears to have been a popular sport in China's past. It certainly remains so today, as the skill of Chinese acrobats is internationally recognized. China has a Beijing Museum which is dedicated to the subject of Chinese sport and its history. See Chinese Sports Museum

Ancient Egypt

Monuments to the Phaorohs indicate that a range of sports were well developed and regulated several thousands of years ago, including swimming and fishing. These are perhaps not surprising given the importance of the Nile in the life of Egypt. Other sports included javelin throwing, high jump and wrestling. See the reference to Ancient Egyptian sport. Again, the nature of the sports popular at the time suggests close correspondence with everday non-sporting activities.

Ancient Greece.

A wide range of sports were already in operation at the time of the Ancient Greek Empire. Wrestling, running, boxing, javelin, discus throwing, and chariot racing were prevalent. This suggests that the military culture of Greece was an influence on the development of its sports and vice versa.

The Olympic Games were held every four years in Ancient Greece, at a small village in Pelopponisos called Olympia. The games were held not simply as a sporting event, but as a celebration of individual excellence, cultural and artistic variety, and a showplace for architectural and sculptural innovation. During the games a ceasefire occurred in all battlefields, if there was an undergoing war somewhere in Greece, a move called Olympic Truce. Because the games where sacred, Greeks considered hostilities at the time the games where held as an insult to the Olympic Movement.

Fundamentally, it was a time of gratitude and respect for the Gods of the Greek religion. The games are named after Olympia, the village where they were held. A time of truce was declared during the Olympic Games, as military actions and public executions were suspended. This was to enable people to congregate peacefully and to compete in a civilised and respectful atmosphere.

Modern European and global developments

Sport has been increasingly organized and regulated from the time of the Ancient Olympics up to the present century. Activities necessary for food and survival became regulated activities done for pleasure or competition on an increasing scale, e.g. hunting, fishing, horticulture. The Industrial Revolution and mass production brought increased leisure which allowed increases in spectator sports, less elitism in sports, and greater accessibility.

These trends continued with the advent of mass media and global communication. Professionalism became prevalent, further adding to the increase in sport's popularity. This perhaps contrasts with the noble Grecian ideal, where victory at the Games was much sought after, and rewarded with an olive branch. (Perhaps not only with an olive branch, some writers record.)

Perhaps in a reaction to the demands of contemporary life, there have been developments in sport which are best described as post-modern: extreme ironing being a notable example. There is also a move towards adventure sports as a form of escapism from the routines of life, examples being white water rafting, canyoning, BASE jumping, and the more genteel orienteering.

A classification of sports

One system for classifying sports is as follows, based more on the sport's aim than on the actual mechanics. The examples given are intended to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive




A combination of all categories

  • (Athletics) (Human-powered, Team, Strength)


It is interesting that the motivation for sport is often an elusive element. For example, beginners in sailing are often told that dinghy racing is a good means to sharpen the learner's sailing skills. However, it often emerges that skills are honed to increase racing performance and achievements in competition, rather than the converse. 'Sportsmanship' expresses an aspiration or ethos that the activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, but often the pressures of competition, individual achievement, or introduction of technology can seem to work against enjoyment by participants.

People responsible for leisure activities often seek recognition and respectability as sports by joining sports federations such as the IOC, or by forming their own regulatory body. In this way sports evolve from leisure activity to more formal sports: relatively recent newcomers are BMX cycling, snowboarding, wrestling, etc. Some of these activities have been popular but uncodified pursuits in various forms for different lengths of time. Indeed, the formal regulation of sport is a relatively modern and increasing development.

Sportsman ship, within any given game, is how each competitor acts before, during, and after the competition. Not only is it important to have good sportsmanship if one wins, but also if one loses.

Art and sport

Sport has many affinities with art. Ice skating and Tai chi for example are sports which come close to artistic spectacles in themselves: to watch these activities comes close to the experience of spectating at a ballet. Similarly, there are other activities which have elements of sport and art in their execution, such as performance art, artistic gymnastics, Bodybuilding etcetera.

The fact that art is so close to sport in some situations is probably related to the nature of sport. The definition of "sport" above put forward the idea of an activity pursued not just for the usual purposes, e.g. running not simply to get places, but running for its own sake, running as well as we can.

This is similar to a common view of aesthetic value, which is seen as something over and above the strictly functional value coming from an object's normal use. So an aesthetically pleasing car is one which doesn't just get from A to B, but which impresses us with its grace, poise and charisma.

In the same way, a sporting performance such as jumping doesn't just impress us as being an effective way to avoid obstacles or to get across streams. It impresses us because of the ability, skill and style which is shown.

Art and sport were probably more clearly linked at the time of Ancient Greece, when gymnastics and calisthenics invoked admiration and aesthetic appreciation for the physical build, prowess and 'arete' displayed by participants. The modern term 'art' as skill, is related to this ancient Greek term 'arete'. The closeness of art and sport in these times was revealed by the nature of the Olympic Games which, as we have seen, were celebrations of both sporting and artistic achievements, poetry sculpture and architecture.


Sporting activity is probably as old as mankind itself, being related to learning through removal from everyday goals and purposes, competition and entertainment. All of these are valued aspects of modern life by most people, and this perhaps explains why sport is such an enduring part of our culture.



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