What Was the World's First Sport?

Wrestling match

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To answer the question of what was the world’s first sport, it is useful to firstly define the exact definition of a sport. SportAccord, which is the worldwide umbrella organisation for all international sports federations, defines a sport using the following criteria:

  • A sport should have an element of competition
  • The playing of a sport should be not be harmful to any living creature
  • It should not rely on equipment provided by a single supplier
  • It should not rely on an element of ‘luck’
  • It can be primarily physical or mental

Was Hunting the World's First Sport?

Hunting, being an activity that was crucial to early humans, has often been lauded as the world’s first sport. Many still class hunting as a sport today (the term country sports covering lots of these different type of activities), but if we take the definition of a sport as the one from SportAccord above, then it’s difficult to class hunting as a sport.

There isn’t an element of competition (the animal being hunted may escape and survive, but it hasn’t defeated the hunter in any way) and by its very nature it is harmful to other living creatures. Therefore, we should see hunting primarily as an activity crucial to early human’s survival rather than a sport.

The Contenders for Being the World's First Sport

There really is no definitive answer to what was the world’s first sport, but there are two that stand out as the main contenders and have an equal claim to being the first ever sport. Both running and wrestling can equally lay claim to the title due to the fact that there are Palaeolithic cave paintings in the Lascaux caves in south-western France that depict both wrestling and sprinting.

These were painted over 17,000 years ago. Wrestling’s claim is further strengthened by the fact that Neolithic cave paintings in Mongolia from about 7000 BC clearly show a wrestling match being watched by spectators. Other early sports that evidence have been found of include depictions of archery and swimming in caves near Gilf Kebir in Libya from the Neolithic period and an early version of sumo wrestling being portrayed in prehistoric cave paintings in Japan.

Wrestling Was the World's First Sport

Although running has a strong claim to the world’s first sport, there is far more evidence that point to wrestling being practiced as a sport from the early days of man continuously through to the present day. Wrestling is referenced in early history across the world, from the ancient Indian Vedas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad.

Wrestling was an important part of life in ancient Greece and this carried on into the Roman times and beyond. Early European settlers in North America also witnessed Native Americans wrestling, so one can safely assume that wrestling was popular there for many, many years too.