Stories of how world’s most popular sports originated
The word ‘sport’ has its origins in Late Middle English, derived from shortening of the word ‘disport’, which meant ‘a pleasant pastime’ or ‘an activity for the purpose of entertainment or amusement or relaxation or fun’. How apt indeed!
Numerous sports exist today ranging from single contestants to hundreds of simultaneous contestants, playing either in teams or competing individually. Running has the distinction of being the most accessible and practiced sport while Football is the most popular spectator sport.
But how did these sports originate and evolve? Of course, these sports weren’t “invented” in a single day and truly, many of these sports have a long history as we shall soon learn. Man’s love for sports may have begun as early as 2000 B.C., as suggested by artifacts and structures in China. Sports became an integral part of many ancient cultures such as the Chinese, Egyptians, Persians and Greeks. In fact, sports became such an important part of ancient Greece that they created the Olympic Games in as early as 776 B.C!
In this article, we look at the origins of some of the popular sports played around the world such as Football, Cricket, Tennis and Basketball. After reading this, it would seem a wonder how these sports transformed from their humble origins to their current-day commercialized and highly professional avatars. But that’s a discussion for another time!
Origin of popular sports | History of sports
Origin: China, 255 – 206 B.C.
While the contemporary form of Association Football can be traced back to 1863 when the Football Association was formed in England, the first recognized sport resembling football originated during the Han Dynasty in China around 255-206 B.C. The sport, named Tsu’ Chu or Cuju (literally meaning ‘kick ball’) entailed players to use any part of the body apart from hands to gain “possession” of a ball with the objective of kicking it through an opening (30-40 cm wide) into a small net. Of course, the players couldn’t aim at the target without impediment and had to withstand the attacks of their opponents. The ball itself was made of panels of leather sewn together and filled with feathers and hair. Cuju was originally intended as a military exercise but as it became popular, the sport improved with feather-stuffed balls being replaced by air-filled balls and the emergence of two different kinds of goal posts.
There were other versions of the sport played in different parts of the world such as Kemari in Japan, Episkyros in Greece and Harpastum in the Roman empire. However, FIFA, the international governing body of Association Football, recognizes Cuju as the first version of football with regular rules.
Origin: U.S.A., 1891
The sport of basketball was invented in 1891 by a Canadian physical education instructor named James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts. He came up with the sport in his quest to create an indoor game to condition young athletes during the cold winter months. To play the game, he used a soccer-style ball and set up two peach baskets (that he found in the janitor’s closet of the school) on the railing of the gym balcony at a height of 10 feet. He devised 13 rules to play the game and having explained them to his class of 18 students, divided them into two teams of nine players each. The objective of the game was simple- to throw the “basketball” into the fruit baskets. The problem was that each time someone scored a point, the janitor had to use a ladder to climb up and retrieve the ball. So, the bottoms of the baskets were cut and the sport of basketball was born. Initially, it was proposed to call the game “Naismith’s Game” but Naismith suggested that since the game had a ball and baskets, it should be called basketball. The first public game was played on March 11, 1892.
The exact origin of cricket is not quite known. A number of experts believe that the sport may have originated as a children’s game during the Saxon or Norman times (500-1100 A.D.) in the Weald, an area of woodlands that lies across Kent and Sussex. However, the first definite reference to cricket was in a 1597 court case concerning a land ownership dispute that mentioned the game of “creckett”. The game was similar to another sport called bowls, where the objective of a batsman was to stop the ball reaching its target by hitting it. Played on sheep-grazed land, in its original form it may have consisted of lump of sheep’s wool serving as a ball, farm tools or tree branches as bats and a stool or gate as the wicket.
It became popular as an adult sport in early 17th century and by the end of the century it had started becoming an organized sport with betting playing a major role in the growth of the game as rich patrons started picking select players and assembling their teams. In mid-18th century, rolling the ball by bowlers was replaced by pitching the ball, which led to a revolution in bat design. More than a hundred years later, the first-recognized test match was played between England and Australia in 1876-77.
Origin: France, 12th century
The sport of lawn tennis (or simply tennis) has seen a spike in popularity in recent years with the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and the Williams sisters raising the bar considerably. But the sport has a long history tracing back to a 12th century French court game called jeu de paume. Jeu de paume (or “game of the palm”) was a ball-and-court game played in a modern tennis style, except that there were no racquets and players used their palms to hit the ball. It gradually evolved into the sport called real tennis (also called court tennis or royal tennis) that is still played on some courts in the U.K., Australia, U.S.A and France. Gradually, gloves came to be used to hit the ball but it wasn’t until the 16th century that racquets started being used to play the sport.
The modern form of tennis started evolving and gaining impetus in the late 19th century when rules were formalized and proper sets comprising of net, poles, racquets and balls started being produced in Britain. Many croquet lawns started being designated to play tennis and the game was popularized worldwide leading to the world’s oldest tennis tournament, the Wimbledon, to be first played in 1877.