Athletics have transformed since their inception. In Greece, the first Olympic Games was held in 760 B.C. and consisted of a simple footrace. Later the traditional field events of discus, javelin and jumping were added along with an early predecessor of wrestling called pankration. Among the Greek city-states, the most militant of all, Sparta, was obsessed with sport. In China, there is evidence of soldiers inventing a soccer-like game in the second and third centuries B.C. All these early sports shared a martial component, some more explicitly than others, and this begs the question: have modern sports transcended their violent roots?
Certainly, explicitly violent sports still exist today. As someone who picked up martial arts at four years old, I’ve witnessed the positives and negatives of such brutal competitions up close. Jujutsu bouts are scored, but forcing your opponent to submit legally is the equivalent of a checkmate. In the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), judges score fights, but again, knocking your opponent unconscious acts as the end-all. UFC President Dana White likes to say “Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges,” meaning the most sure victory is an unequivocal knockout.
These sports are individual, one-on-one fights, and are all about dominating your opponent. The only difference between the modern versions and their predecessors are some rules outlawing the most dangerous techniques, to prevent as much severe bodily harm as possible.
The point of ball sports where physical contact is permitted, like rugby and football, is no longer simply to incapacitate your opponent. There is a ball and an end zone that deflect the objective from purely inflicting damage on an opponent. However, what these sports lack in brutal combat they make up for with military tactics. If martial arts are to train individual warriors, then physical ball sports are designed to coordinate these human weapons. Many wrestlers and football players in the United States cross-train because the skills are transferrable.
Football terminology includes commonly used gems such as: point of attack, bomb, blitz, trenches, no man’s land, red zone and safety. The objective of a football team is to safely deliver a ball across 100 yards of hostile territory while opposing forces attempt to impede that progress. As I detailed in my last column, this type of sport was invented in the West as a means for the wealthy to train their bodies in anticipation of class struggle. Certainly these sports have evolved today and offer important benefits such as character and team building, but it is important to acknowledge their militant and classist roots to maintain context.
The conclusion to draw here is not that these sports are necessarily ‘bad.’ It is that the positive lessons of sports such as teamwork, responsibility and perseverance must be separated from the militaristic ideals leftover from the sports’ founding. These include aggression, overcompetitiveness and intolerance. As long as we recognize the basic humanity of the person lining up to oppose us, then sport can transcend its roots. If not, then why play?