The precise origins of many sports remain obscure, although all cultures have known physical contests. The ancient Egyptians swam, raced, wrestled, and played games with balls. The ancient Greeks held large athletic festivals, including the Olympic games, that drew athletes from all over the ancient world. The Greeks, and then the Romans, also competed in events (chariot races, throwing the javelin) that relied on the participation of animals or the use of mechanical contrivances, a tradition continued into modern times in sports such as dog racing, horse racing, and shooting.
During the Middle Ages, the cultural isolation imposed by the feudal system and religious doctrine that opposed the use of the body for play hampered the development of organized sport in the Western world. For many centuries, contests between knights in tournaments that emphasized military skill were among the only forms of approved, public sports. In the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, games and exercise attained renewed popularity. As had been the case in ancient times, however, politics and social class circumscribed activity. Sports that required wealth or leisure, such as polo or falconry, were the province of the upper classes, while inexpensive, massed sports, such as soccer, took root among commoners.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.