Games with pebbles, in spaces roughly drawn out on the ground, are a pleasant way of passing spare time – of which hunters and gatherers have more than one might imagine. In a settled community a flat and permanent surface is a clear improvement on the rough ground; and pleasantly carved pieces are much preferable to pebbles.
The development of board games is an inevitable part of human history. The earliest known example – the senet of the Egyptians – is being played by 3000 BC and is still popular in a recognizable form in Egypt 5000 years later. Beautifully made boards for senet and other such games (with built-in drawers for the pieces) survive from Egyptian tombs.
Backgammon in Mesopotamia: 2500 BC
Among the treasures found at ur is a board laid out as if for the game of backgammon – which remains to this day one of the most popular board games in the Middle East.
Like senet and other board games of antiquity (but unlike, chess, draughts or the Japanese game of go), backgammon involves a large element of luck – since the movement of the pieces along the board depends on the numbers thrown. At this period a number is established by throwing sticks and counting those which fall with a given side upwards. The more economical method of six-sided dice is developed by about 2000 BC.
Egyptian sports: from 2000 BC
Games of throwing and catching, or contests in running, jumping and fighting, are likely to be as old as humanity. But surviving traces of competitive sports are first found among the relics of settled communities.
Wall paintings in an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hasan, dating from about 1850 BC, include numerous pictures of wrestlling with most of the holds and falls still used today. In the tomb of an Egyptian child, probably of a slightly earlier date, a set of skittles has been found which are no different in principle from ten-pin bowling. But not until the heyday of Greece does sport play the central role which it occupies in modern society.
The ancient Greeks, whose admiration for the healthy human body is revealed in their sculpture, make almost a religion of competitive athletics. It is their custom on solemn occasions, including even funerals, to engage in races. This passion results in the world’s first athletic fixture – the games at Olympia, established according to tradition in the year 776 BC and held every four years.
At first this is just a one-day athletic meeting with a single competitive event. The entire day is taken up with heats for a running race – a sprint the length of the stadium, the equivalent of about 200 metres. In later years more events are added.
The extended games: 7th century BC
The competitive events added to the Olympic games include throwing the discus and the javelin, the long jump, boxing, wrestling, chariot and horse racing and a challenge to test all-round ability – the pentathlon. The ancient pentathlon begins with competition in four disciplines – running, jumping, throwing the discus and the javelin. The winners emerging from these encounters then meet in a fifth and decisive contest, wrestling.
The champions receive a simple token of their victory, a garland of fresh olive to wear on the head. This is essentially a religious festival, in honour of the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus, whose sanctuary is at Olympia.
Boxing from Homer to the Olympic games
Both boxing and wrestling are particularly associated in the ancient world with the Greeks (though wrestling in Egypt is depicted much earlier). Their inclusion as sports in the Olympic games guarantees them a high profile from the 7th century BC onwards. By then they are already a familiar part of Greek tradition.
In the games which follow the funeral of Patroclus, in the Iliad, a boxing match is followed by a bout of wrestling. Both are described in some detail by Homer.
The prizes in the boxing match are a sturdy mule for the winner and a two-handled mug for the runner-up (wrestling must be more highly regarded, for the prizes on offer in that bout are far more valuable). In this particular fight in the Iliad the loser is Knocked out. His supporters even have to collect his mug for him.
Boxing contests in Greek games are a test of strength and stamina rather than skill. There are categories for different ages (boys, adolescents, men) but no allowance is made for weight, so the larger contestant is likely to win. The bout consists mainly of trading blows to the head, and it goes on until one fighter either gives up or is unable to continue.
Greek boxers tie thongs of soft leather round their fists and wrists, more to protect their own hands than to lessen any damage to the opponent’s face. The boxing ring in this context is merely the circle of spectators. Footwork and tactics play little part, though it is accepted policy to try and make the opponent face into the sun. Swinging blows, rather than more subtle jabs, are the boxer’s stock in trade.
Boxing is added to the sports of the Olympic games in 688 BC. From 652 a terrifying form of contest known as pankration is also included.
Wrestling from Homer to the Olympic games
The wrestling match in the Iliad has a first prize of a big three-legged cooking cauldron, valued at twelve oxen; the second prize is a woman well-trained in housework, a female slave, worth only four oxen. Odysseus and Ajax are the two contestants. They Heave and struggle, but neither is able to achieve the clean throw (flinging the opponent to the ground without falling oneself) which is necessary for victory.
Wrestling is added to the Olympic games in about 704 BC, and a form of all-in wrestling called pankration in 652. Contestants fight in the nude (unlike Homer’s heroes, who wear a loincloth of some kind), after smearing their bodies with olive oil and then rubbing on a fine sand to provide a better hold.
Pankration (meaning ‘all-strength’), is an extreme version of all-in wrestling. In addition to the forms of aggression already familiar in boxing and wrestling, it is permitted to kick the opponent anywhere on his naked body, to twist his limbs out of their sockets, to break his fingers and apply a stranglehold to his neck.
Only biting and gouging are out of bounds, in this most alarming of Olympic sports.
Polo: 6th century BC
The earliest organized team sport, of a kind recognizably surviving today, is polo. The game originates in Persia and probably derives from the training of the imperial Persian cavalry. The traditional date for its emergence is the 6th century BC, when Persian horsemen are an important element in the rapid expansion of the empire – both on the battlefield and in a network of long-range communication.
Many centuries later the game takes hold in India, particularly under the Moghuls (ruling from the 16th century AD) whose cultural roots are Persian.