The Origins of Team Sports

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All over the world, regardless of race, religion or social status, there’s something truly primal and tribal about team sports.

Supporting a sports team is like having another family or another tribe. Teammates work together and fans cheer their heroes, celebrating the good times and keeping each other sane through the bad.

Although it’s rather easy to identify when modern inventions like rugby or basketball began, pinpointing the earliest of team sports is a bit more difficult. Did Paleolithic tribes challenge one another to hunting contests? Did Neanderthal children play dodge rock?

Today, there is much disagreement over the true origin of team competition. Respected historians, such as Bernard Lewis, claim that team sports in their purest sense are a modern construct of Western society, primarily disseminated by the British Empire, as late as the 16th century.

However, such a view ignores completely much earlier group activities practiced elsewhere in the world. According to a Tang dynasty book called “The Notes of Feng,” a Chinese sport referred to as “hook pulling” was used by military commanders to train warriors between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE. We know that sport today as “Tug o’ War.”

There’s also evidence from playing courts discovered by archeologists in Mexico that a form of quasi-religious Mesoamerican ball game was played as long ago as 1000 BCE. Apparently, the losing side had to sacrifice one of their players—which gives an indication why this team sport did not survive.

While it seems likely that the rise of the British Empire did indeed play an important role in the dissemination of modern team sports, their true origin most likely lies in a game which many believe to be over 2,500 years old—hurling.

Hurling is widely considered the fastest and oldest, field-based team sport in the world. The Irish game is played by two teams of 15 players on a large pitch, with goals at either end. All players hold sticks, called hurleys, and try to score at either end by putting the ball, or sliotar, into the back of the net.

While written historical evidence is somewhat hazy regarding the exact timing of the birth of the sport, most historians agree that the earliest account of hurling can be found in the 12th-century Tain Bo Cuailgne, a story that describes the adventures of famous Ulster man Cú Chullainn. Much compelling evidence suggests that the tale itself dates back to the Iron Age, somewhere between 500 BCE and 400 AD.

Hurling was originally a sport that was played by competing villages. Hundreds of players would congregate to battle it out against each other, often over a number of days; it was the epitome of team sport, endowed with a passion and competitive spirit that matches anything known today.

While modern day team sports may be almost unrecognizable, in terms of their organization and image, when compared to their ancient counterparts, at their core, team sports still retain the original principles upon which they were founded.

Beyond the competition for grandiose trophies, prizes and bragging rights, the air of tribal competitiveness that once filled the hurling fields of Ireland can still be found emanating from sports fields the world over.

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