a pottery piece featuring greek art

Anthropology: The Evolution of Sports as a Social Phenomen and its Significance

a birds-eye view of a large open stadium with green grass and fans seated around it
Aerial stadium view. Credit to: Unsplash

A stadium full of screaming fans, adrenaline rushing through your veins as you hold your breath and wait for the players to make the next move, the white noise of the commentators, the sheer passion, hope, anticipation…

This is what sports do for us. They bring us closer, together. Physical activities play a big role in our society and help us manage our stress, socialize, and spend time together as a community. Taking part in a sports competition brings pride to not only the players, but also the spectators who support the players.

“In fact, sports in society are so vital that the United Nations (UN) has declared them a human right: “Sports and play are human rights that must be respected and enforced worldwide; sport has been increasingly recognized and used as a low-cost and high-impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts.” The role of sports in our society.

Now that we all know just how vital sports are for the functioning of our physical and social well-being, let’s take a look at the history of sports and how sports have shaped us as a society. We will see how the word ‘sport’ was formed, how certain games were popularised in different countries and a chronological account of the evolution of sports!

Men;s running competition

Men’s running competition. Athletics championship 1940. Credit to: Unsplash

Why is it called ‘sport’?

In simple words, sport is a physical activity or a game. Sports are played either professionally or for leisure.

The word “sport” comes from the Old French de sport meaning “leisure“, with the oldest definition in English from around 1300 being “anything humans find amusing or entertaining”.There are certain criteria which help us decide what a sport should be. It should have an element of competition, should not be harmful to any being, “not rely on equipment provided by a single supplier (excluding proprietary games such as arena football), not rely on any “luck” element specifically designed for the sport.”.

According to Council of Europe, European Sports Charter, article 2.i, “‘Sport’ means all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.”

Now what makes sports so special, you ask? It is because they have rules. Playing any sport without rules and regulations might be fun, but it would not be the proper way. Rules make any sport meaningful.

Winning any game fair and square will satisfy the winners and their supporters. But not only that, it would sooth the losing side as well. Knowing that the teams or players have done their best to win/lose the game will increase the support and admiration they receive by tenfold.

a boy and people celebrating
credit to: Unsplash

Significance of Sports

Sports are a social phenomenon. The concept was invented by the people, for the people. Ritual, warfare and entertainment are three foundations of sports around the world.

Sociology of sports is an area of study which focuses on the relationship between sociology and sports, and also various socio-altered structures, patterns, and organizations or groups involved with sports.

Do you know why sports are truly a magical experience for both the player and the spectator? It is because these games mirror our real life. The player’s loss feels like your own loss. If a team wins, the viewers feel a spark of joy as if it is their own win. Anger, sadness, passion, love, excitement, disappointment, almost every human emotion can be felt while humans are engaged in sports.

Most importantly, sports hold great significance to us as the human race because it is an activity that is borderline unreal. At the end of the day, the players and their coaches, team managers are all human. But their achievements are almost unreal. That 2020 Euro-cup final penalty shoot-out between Italy and England felt unreal. It had every football fan around the globe holding their breath. And yet, it was over in the span of a second. This just proves that sports have the ability to transport us to a different realm.

Read to know more about Sports as a social phenomenon

Painting of men in a cave
Painting of men in the Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Gilf Kebir, Western Desert, Egypt

Sports in Pre-History

As mankind progressed, our sports progressed too. This modernization of sports that we see today is solely due to man’s technological advances. “Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia dating back to the Neolithic age (c.  7000 BCE) show a wrestling match surrounded by crowds.”

Throughout pre-historical times, becoming a hunter was a primary role for men. Whoever joined the hunting team had to be physically fit for the role. But as soon as mankind switched hunting animals to farming or gathering food, these hunters did not have much to do. “So instead, they entered a form of perpetual preparation for hunting and practicing the skills required. Which then led to competitive bouts intended to indicate whomever was the most “prepared” for the different elements of the hunt.”[6]

Ancient Sports

During ancient times, gymnasiums were considered to be an essential part of a city. Every ancient city, especially during the Greek and Roman civilizations, included a gymnasium in their city plan. Running, wrestling, riding, chariot racing, jumping and boxing are known as some of the oldest sports in the world. They were either played in groups or solo. Most sports were played by aristocrats and playing a sport made you appear wealthy and powerful.

a young cricket player
A young cricketer by W.G. Grace, 1891. Credit to: Wikipedia

European Colonisation and Sports

European colonization has played a big part in spreading various sports to their colonies and, ultimately, around the world.

In the beginning, sports were only played by the elite members of society. Hunting, rowing, cricket etc. were known as fancy games. But soon enough, things changed.  Sports became more accessible after the industrial revolution. Ordinary, middle-class men started taking part in sports and changed the whole dynamic.

The industrial revolution brought a feeling of satisfaction and leisure into the minds of the people. Factories had started mass producing everything. Immense workload that was on factory workers decreased exponentially. Since mass production was in practice, the machine took care of the manufacturing. The workers did not have to worry about perfecting their products.  At first, they started by watching and gambling, then finally they began engaging in sports.

Sports and the British Empire

Almost all of the team sports that we see today, be it basketball, football, cricket, hockey, rugby and many more. All hold their origins in the western countries. Western countries took a big part in inventing group sports. They embraced team work and took pride in holding competitions where groups of players would play to win the ultimate trophy.

Naturally, the British were very proud of their inventions. They have mentioned time and again how the British empire laid the foundation of team sports for the rest of the world. In one of his interviews in 1995, British prime minister John Mayor said: “We invented the majority of the world’s great sports… 19th century Britain was the cradle of a leisure revolution every bit as significant as the agricultural and industrial revolutions we launched in the century before.”

The British empire is also known for founding and popularising soccer, or football. With an estimated global following of 4 billion people, it is easily the most popular game in the world. The influence of football on our world is extraordinary.

a pottery piece featuring greek art
The foot race was one of the events dedicated to Zeus. Panathenaic amphora, Kleophrades painter, circa 500 BC, Louvre museum.
Credit to: Wikipedia

Sports in Greece

It is a well-known fact that Greece was the country that built the foundation of sports. The Greek sports and sports system were known as the model for the modern Olympics. Some people even say that almost every sport in the world has its classical roots in Greece.

Being an athlete in Greece had its perks. It was an important position, and they received a similar amount of respect as the royals. “In Greece, male athletes were treated like gods. Not only did they earn immense fame and fortune, but they were deemed as icons of physical beauty and objects of desire. The time, effort and attention lavished on athletics earned condemnation from Greek intellectuals such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And while these philosophers did not object to athletic competition in principle, they disparaged the narrow focus on bodily prowess to the exclusion of all other characteristics of good citizenship required of elite athletes.”[7]

Greece wasn’t just ahead of its time in terms of sports, but in politics as well! Click here to read more about the country where democracy was born!

pantheon, ancient roman structure
The Pantheon, a landmark of Campus Martius since ancient Rome. Credit to: Unsplash

Sports in Rome

The Romans valued their leisure time. In order to spend their free time wisely and in a fruitful manner, they invented many games. Their leisure activities ranged from board games, swimming, wrestling, chariot racing, spear fighting, to more artistic activities such as poetry and theatre plays. Roman youths spent their afternoon on Campus Martius, a large playground built solely for sporty activities. The River Tiber flowed next to this area where Roman men spent their time challenging each other to swim.

Every male Roman citizen was given extensive horseback riding training. It was believed that every man should be capable of riding a horse and defending himself against enemies. Sadly, Roman women and young girls were not allowed to take part in sports.

Sports in Africa

When the British empire colonised the African continent, they did not just promote their religion and political values, but also their sports and other leisurely activities. However, the African people successfully managed to put their own spin on these western games. And then these games shaped the African continent socially, politically, culturally and economically as well.

Athletics, football, cricket and rugby are the most popular sports in Africa. Most of these sports varied according to specific tribes.  Not everyone was allowed to participate in African sports, similar to Greece and Rome. You had to be a male who is over 12 years old and belongs to a higher class.

Boxing and wrestling were played in hopes of measuring a warrior’s worth and physical strength. Men wore minimal clothing so the opponent would not yank them from their clothes. Touching or grabbing an opponent’s private parts was prohibited.

Ta Kurt Om El Mahag is an ancient sport which resembles baseball. People from the Berber tribe invented this sport. Players would use a long stick to bat a ball made out of rock wrapped in animal leather.

In general, we can find many similarities in Greek, Roman and African sports. Their sports were physically challenging and required the participants to be in excellent shape. The players were supposed to have a strategic mind and muscles that would lead them to victory.

Collective ritualized performances are the key as a means to studying happiness.

men on the finishing line of a running race
Credit to: Unsplash

Cheating in Sports

It is difficult to determine when cheating became such a prominent phenomenon in sports. Over the years, there have been several cheating scandals which have shaken up the world of sports.

The question, “what makes people cheat in sports?” has a couple of answers. Psychologists around the world have tried to understand why players cheat.

An important factor about sports is that they are competitive. And this competitive flair can blur an athlete’s judgement. Athletes whose only focus is on winning a game can actually make it difficult for them to focus on other aspects of the game. In any sporting event, the stakes are high. It could be the prize, or glory, or simply the satisfaction of winning. All these factors reflect how an athlete will perform.

 For further reading: Examining language-based racism in American sports.

a woman teaching child archery
Credit to:Unsplash

The Future of Sports

In the post-pandemic world, the future of sports seems to be shaky. While people are confident that the love and passion for sports will not decrease, the industry surrounding it will.

As we discover new technologies, our experience with sports will change. There is a high chance that it will improve for the better. We are already seeing a change in the way the common man enjoys sports. Sports fans are able to watch a certain match happening halfway across the world just by sitting on our couch.

The Euro-cup finals between England and Italy which occurred a couple of weeks ago proved that the public, the organisers and also the players are more than ready to get back to the sports that they love. But we will see a new approach towards sports in sports. Social distancing and other precautionary measures will be a top priority for the organisers. The Corona virus has surely changed our way of living. But it need not put a full stop to our lives. With everyone’s contribution, sports events will become fun again!

Read more: The creation of Euro-cup! 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Since sports play such an important part in our lives, it’s obvious that we need to preserve the traditions surrounding sports. People all around the world have a chance of coming together in the name of sports. It is an activity that promotes unity and teamwork.

Every culture around the world has certain sports connected to it. Some cultures started playing games as part of religious rituals, some introduced them as just ways to pass time. Playing sports helped mankind overcome their innate differences, helped them create dialogue around the sport they were participating in. Humans have enhanced their lives by engaging in sports. It helped them keep away their differences, prejudices and conflicts.

Some physical activities are only performed by one cultural group, while others are universal. The Olympics are one such event which has participants from all around the world. This yeam The 2020 Olympic games have already begun in Japan and every nation that is participating deserves unconditional support! With over 300 events in 33 sports categories, it is a multi-sport treat for sport lovers! Joining the Olympic team for your nation is a matter of pride for every player and their country. No matter the sport, it is essential that we let these games remain stress free and enjoy them to the fullest!


[1] https://nowcomment.com/documents/97820

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sport

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sport

[7] Traditional cultures: Jrank, https://science.jrank.org/pages/11322/Sport-Sport-Traditional-Cultures.html


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