Our modern craze for competitive sports may be noteworthy in its scale, with top athletes being paid enough to put them firmly among the economic elite, but the passion for sports in general is nothing new. We’ve always liked to watch physically fit people do impressive things.
In many cases, though, the original point wasn’t entertainment. It’s easy to lose sight of this now, when the nature of combat has changed so much . . . but quite a lot of sports started out as practice for war.
This is noticeable when you consider the activities we specifically label “combat sports,” like boxing, wrestling, and the variety of traditions that go under the broad header of martial arts. They’re literally about fighting your opponent, after all. But if you look beyond direct person-to-person combat, you find a lot of things with clear military applicability. In the tournaments of the Middle Ages, for example, you had jousting and riding at the quintain — or, if you weren’t the sort of person who could afford a horse, running at the quintain, or floating at it in a boat. The ancient Olympic games had javelin throwing, and the Roman arena had chariot races, an archaic holdover from the days when chariots were useful on the battlefield. Archery is still a sport today, long after bows have ceased to be a major weapon of war; the modern biathlon, which requires skill at skiing and shooting, explicitly began as a form of military training for Norwegian regiments.
And this isn’t just true of individual sports, either. The South Asian game kabaddi involves one player from a given team crossing the line into the opponent’s territory, tagging out as many defenders as possible, and then returning to their own territory without being tackled — and in case that doesn’t look enough like a raid for you, the player on offense is referred to as the raider. Medieval football was more or less a free-for-all in which teams of unlimited size would compete to drag an inflated pig’s bladder to their own goal; even modern American-style football pits an offensive army against a defensive one in order to claim territory until they’re close enough to make a strike into the enemy base. Is that how we normally describe it? No . . . but it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to see a war metaphor in how the game is structured.
I’m not attempting to claim that all sports are, at their heart, stylized combat. In fact, even when they are stylized combat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out an aspect almost completely missing from sports in the modern West, which is their religious significance. The piety of individual players and jokes about a given sport being “the national religion” aside, our athletic games are profoundly secular in nature. This is not always the case, though.
If you’ve ever watched a sumō match, you may have noticed that the referee wears colorful silk robes and an archaic-looking hat, the wrestlers throw handfuls of salt, and women are not permitted into the ring. These all point to the connections between sumō and the Shintō religion. The original Olympics in ancient Greece grew out of a festival in honor of Zeus. The Mesoamerican ballgame (which sometimes may have been used as a proxy for actual war) features prominently in the Popol Vuh, a Maya mythological tale, and both the iconography of the game and the offerings found buried alongside game equipment suggest that it often carried significant ritual meaning. In the most important matches, this even extended to the sacrifice of the losing team — but it’s worth noting that this aspect seems to have been a relatively late development, rather than a standard feature in all periods, much less of all instances of play.
But not everything is that deep and meaningful. Sure, you can point out the military advantages inherent in being fleet of foot, and recall that the race type known as a marathon is named for the (likely invented) incident of the courier Pheidippides running to Athens to announce victory at the Battle of Marathon, and of course footraces featured in the ancient Olympics . . . but in the end, some people just like to run. It isn’t always sacred or training for war; sometimes it’s just an easy way to engage in friendly competition.
Which is apparently something we really like to do. Our inner monkey enjoys being on the top of the heap, and so people will find a way to compete over pretty much anything. This is true in games as well — I refer once more to last week’s mention of iris root comparisons in Heian Japan — and it takes some equally absurd forms in athletic competition. I’ll grant that there may be some practical purpose to the Tuvan tradition of performing back squats with a sheep held across your shoulders, but I’m dubious that there’s any such thing at the root of caber-tossing. Talk all you like about bridging chasms or throwing logs into streams for transport; I suspect that particular sport owes its existence to lumberjacks + beer + boredom.
And that, of course, is one of the threads running through this set of topics. Our leisure activities, from childhood until old age, are ways of entertaining ourselves and our friends. But they’re also useful practice — whether it’s a mock tea party with your dolls or mock warfare with Go board, or making sure you’re strong enough to carry an injured sheep home — as well as a way of getting one up on a rival. They have spiritual significance, helping us win the favor of the gods through victory or divine their will through a throw of the dice. They have benefits for both our psychological and physical health.
Oh, and they can also make us rich.
Because of course we bet on everything. For that, tune in next week!