8 Oldest Sports in the World

Most of mankind’s earliest sports evolved out of the activities and equipment used for early humans’ survival. The beginnings of most of the sports we participate in today developed tens of thousands of years ago during some of the world’s earliest civilizations.

Many of these activities developed simultaneously in different parts of the world out of natural human movement, which makes the origins of some of these sports hard to trace. All of these ancient sports, in some form, are still practiced around the world today.

8. Gymnastics 

Year Invented:  c. 500 BCE
Country of Origin:  Ancient Greece

Gymnastics photo source: Wikimedia Commons 

Gymnastics was developed by the ancient Greeks around 500 BCE as a method to prepare men for warfare. During the Greek Hellenistic period (c.323 BCE – 31 BCE), the sport became popular with everyday citizens and it was eventually included in the Olympics. After the Romans invaded Greece, the Roman army adopted gymnastics for training purposes. When the Olympics were outlawed in 393 AD, interest in gymnastics declined and the sport was almost lost.

Interest in gymnastics was revived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when two German doctors – Johann Friedrich GutsMuths and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn – created exercises for boys and young men including modern pommel horse, horizontal bar, parallel bar, balance beam, ladder, and vaulting horse.  


7. Mesoamerican Ballgame 

Year Invented:  c.2500 BCE
Country of Origin:  Ancient Mesoamerica (the area extended from modern-day central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica)

Mesoamerican Ballgamephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mesoamerican Ballgame, which does not really have an official name, was a popular sport across ancient Mesoamerica and was played by all of this region’s major civilizations including the Olmecs, Aztecs, and Maya. The game was most likely invented by the Olmec sometime between 2500 – 100 BCE.

In addition to being a sport, the game was an important part of Mesoamerican mythology and religion – some cultures used the game to choose the human sacrifices for religious ceremonies. Over time, different versions of the game were developed and more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played by the indigenous population of the area.  


6. Tsu Chu or Cuju   

Year Invented:  c.2500 BCE  
Country of Origin:  China

Tsu Chuphoto source: Wikimedia Commons 

Tsu Chu is a ball game from ancient China, which emerged sometime around 2500 BCE. The objective of Tsu Chu is to kick a ball through an opening in a small net and it is recognized by FIFA as the earliest form of football (soccer). According to FIFA, Tsu Chu was first mentioned as an exercise in a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BCE.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD), Tsu Chu became popular among the royal courts and upper classes and the Han emperor Wu Di supposedly also enjoyed the sport. Tsu Chu began to decline in popularity during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).  


5. Boxing   

Year Invented:  c.3000 BCE   
Country of Origin:  Ancient southern Mesopotamia (by the Sumerian civilization) – modern-day Iraq

Boxingphoto source: Wikipedia 

The origins of boxing can be traced back to the Ancient Mesopotamia from the Sumerian civilization. The earliest known depiction of boxing comes from a Sumerian relief from the early third or second millennium BCE. It depicts two men without gloves, facing each other with their arms bent and fists clinched.

Other ancient cultures boxed bare fisted and the Minoans appear to be the first civilization to use boxing gloves. Boxing first appeared in the Olympics at the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BCE and the boxers wound leather thongs around their hands for protection. Modern boxing evolved from 16th and 18th-century prizefights in Great Britain.  


4. Swimming 

Year Invented:  c.6000 BCE  
Country of Origin:  Unknown – oldest depictions from Libyan Desert; as a competitive sport, England 

swimmingphoto source: Wikipedia 

Humans have been swimming for thousands of years and one of the earliest depictions of the activity can be found in the Cave of Swimmers in the Gilf Kebir plateau of the Libyan desert. Archaeologists believe that these prehistoric drawings show people using the breaststroke or doggy paddle (it is possible that these movements are unrelated to swimming). Although people have been swimming since the prehistoric era, swimming did not become a competitive sport until the 1800s. 

England is credited as the first country to participate in swimming as a recreation and competitive sport and the National Swimming Society of England organized these early competitions, which were immediately popular. Swimming first appeared at the Olympics in 1896 as a men’s sport.


3. Archery

Year Invented:  c.20,000 BCE  
Country of Origin:  Unknown – oldest evidence found in Africa  

Archeryphoto source: Wikipedia 

Evidence suggests that the bow and arrow were invented by the end of the Upper Paleolithic era (around 20,000 BCE), which makes archery an important part of early human history – it was used for hunting and is present throughout the mythologies of many different cultures. Ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to regularly use archery for hunting and warfare.

In addition to the Egyptians, other ancient civilizations – the Persians, Parthians, Indians, Chinese, and Japanese – had a large number of archers in their armies. Archery made its Olympic debut in 1900 and was featured in the next 1904, 1908, and 1920 before returning in 1972; it is still currently a part of the Olympics.  


2. Wrestling  

Year Invented:  Upper Paleolithic era c. 15,300 years ago
Country of Origin:  Unknown – oldest depictions from France  

Wrestlingphoto source: Wikimedia Commons 

Wrestling is another ancient sport whose origins are difficult to trace as it is depicted throughout the art of several early civilizations. Along with running, wrestling was first depicted by the people who lived near the Lascaux caves in France over 15,300 years ago. Some of the first depictions of wrestling as a sport can be traced back to the Sumerians, who lived around 5,000 years ago.

Wrestling was also practiced by the ancient Egyptians as evidenced by the several wrestling scenes found in tombs at Beni Hasan. Historians believe that wrestling has been featured as an Olympic Sport since at least 704 BCE.  


1. Running/Sprinting    

Year Invented:  Upper Paleolithic era c.15,300 years ago  
Country of Origin:  Unknown – oldest depictions from France

Runningphoto source: Wikimedia Commons 

Running is believed to be the world’s oldest sport as it requires no equipment. Although its hard to pinpoint exactly when running developed as a sport, its believed that human running evolved sometime around four and a half million years ago. One of the earliest depictions of sprinting is found in the Lascaux caves in France, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic era (about 15,300 years ago).

The first event in the first ever Olympics in 776 BCE was a foot race. Although this date is often cited as the start of running as a sport, one of the earliest recorded running competitions was held in Ireland in 1829 BCE.  

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