What is The Oldest Sport?

greek wrestling

Sports have intrigued the human spirit since ancient times. The first recorded Olympics began in 776 BC at Olympia in Greece. The accepted fact is that they were being held for 500 years by then.  

Many of the disciplines like athletics, javelin, and discus throw and wrestling held at the early Olympics are still alive. But what is the oldest sport?

You may think it is ‘Running’ as running is the most natural human activity. Running has been a part of the earliest known sporting event like the Olympics. However, if you trace signs of early human existence, you’ll learn that wrestling is the oldest known sport!

History of Wrestling

To seek an answer to, ‘what is the oldest sport?’, you’ll have to visit France. The famous Palaeolithic cave paintings found in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France, dating back more than 15000 years, depict wrestlers. 

If you further explore human history, you’ll find cave paintings across the world depicting wrestling as an integral part of human life.

Cave paintings in Mongolia dating back to Neolithic age depict two naked men grappling with each other in a combat. This 7000-year-old painting shows the two men surrounded by a crowd. Wrestling as a sport holds high esteem in Mongolia in current times as well. 

Early Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations too portray wrestling through the ancient relief forms found on the walls of tombs.

The 6000-year-old Neolithic cave paintings in Libya also provide proof of the existence of wrestling as a sport.

Prehistoric cave paintings found in Japan refer to a sport similar to Sumo wrestling.

Ancient Greeks loved the sport. It was a method developed by the Greeks to train soldiers in a hand to hand combat. The Romans borrowed from Greek wrestling but removed the brutal aspects of the sport.

Literary references to Wrestling

You can find a mention of wrestling in various literary works of the world. Reference to wrestling can be found in the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis. 

In the ancient Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, there are references to wrestling.

The Greek poem Iliad written around 8th century BC mentions wrestling, too.

Why wrestling has been popular throughout the ages? 

Any sport involves and entertains like no other activity. Excellence in sports has encouraged mankind to push its limits and perform superhuman feat. The desire to do the impossible has enabled human beings to find unknown reserves of courage and strength. 

It is a matter of finding the physical perfection as well as mastery over the mind. It is also about mastering the physical laws that govern the human body. 

Wrestling served the purpose of combat training as well as a display of physical prowess. Throughout the history of the existence of the sport, there is folklore written about wrestling.

Historic Wrestling Styles and Evidence by Country

Wrestling has existed as a sport since early human settlement. During the middle ages, it was patronised by the Royals of France, Japan, and England. The early American settlers of British descent brought the sport with them to America. The sport was popular with the Native American tribes, too. 

Throughout history, references can be found where each nation had its version of the sport. 

China: Shuai Jiao or Chinese wrestling has a history of 4000 years. It was developed to train for combat. It is considered to be the foundation of Chinese martial art.

Egypt: Visual documentation of wrestling can be found in Egypt during the 5th Dynasty, around 2400 BC in the tomb of Ptahhotep. Over 400 scenes of wrestling belonging to the Middle kingdom (2000-1780 BC) show the popularity of the sport in Egypt.

Greece: Greek wrestling was more of martial art used to train soldiers. Evidence of it exists between 1100 to 146 BC

Rome: Romans adopted Greek wrestling after defeating the Greeks. It became a part of the Roman culture during their rule between 510 BC to AD 500.

Arabia: As per Arabic literature, Mohammed is depicted as a skilled wrestler.

France: At the Field of Cloth of Gold event, King Francis I of France defeated King Henry VIII of England during a wrestling match held in 1520.

Scotland: The folk wrestling style of Lancashire gave birth to Catch wrestling or “catch as catch can”. The Scots created a variant of Catch wrestling.

Modern Day Wrestling

Right from the ancient days the popularity of wrestling has only grown. The modern-day wrestling is managed by FILA, the Federation Internationale des Luttes Associees. FILA is based in Lausanne, Switzerland and was founded during the Olympic Games held in Stockholm in 1912.

There are two defined categories of wrestling disciplines, international and folk wrestling.

United World Wrestling manages wrestling at the Olympics. There are six defined wrestling disciplines according to UWW. 

Three Olympic disciplines are: Greco-Roman wrestling, Men’s freestyle wrestling, female wrestling (women’s freestyle wrestling)

Remaining three disciplines are: amateur pankration, belt wrestling alysh and beach wrestling. 

The folk styles of wrestling are the traditional form of wrestling, unique to a country or region. FILA does not define any rules for folk style of wrestling. These wrestling styles have become a form of art belonging to a particular region or country. 

Some of these forms are

Backhold Wrestling from Europe

Cumberland Wrestling and Catch-as-catch-can from England

Kurash from Uzbekistan

Gushteengiri from Tajikistan

Khuresh from Siberia

Lotta Campidanese from Italy

Koshti Pahlavani from Iran

Naban from Myanmar

Pehlwani from India

Penjang Gulat from Italy

Schwingen from Switzerland

Tigel from Ethiopia

Shuai Jiao from China

Ssireum from Korea

Though folk styles are not recognized as international styles, they are still loved and enjoyed in various parts of the world. There are festivals held to celebrate these styles of wrestling. Some of these festivals like the National Nadaam Festival of Mongolia include up to 1024 wrestlers.

The long-standing history of the sport has not taken the sheen off from what is the oldest sport. It has been transformed according to modern sensibilities. 

Wrestling may no longer be practiced for combat; the pursuit of perfection and strength still pull the athletes and the viewers alike. 

As much as it did in the past – some 15,300 years back!

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