sports, physical contests pursued for the goals and challenges they entail. Sports are part of every culture past and present, but each culture has its own definition of sports. The most useful definitions are those that clarify the relationship of sports to play, games, and contests. “Play,” wrote the German theorist Carl Diem, “is purposeless activity, for its own sake, the opposite of work.” Humans work because they have to; they play because they want to. Play is autotelic—that is, it has its own goals. It is voluntary and uncoerced.
There are at least two types of play. The first is spontaneous and unconstrained. Examples abound. A child sees a flat stone, picks it up, and sends it skipping across the waters of a pond. An adult realizes with a laugh that he has uttered an unintended pun. Neither action is premeditated, and both are at least relatively free of constraint. The second type of play is regulated. There are rules to determine which actions are legitimate and which are not. These rules transform spontaneous play into games, which can thus be defined as rule-bound or regulated play. Leapfrog, chess, “playing house,” and basketball are all games, some with rather simple rules, others governed by a somewhat more complex set of regulations. In fact, the rule books for games such as basketball are hundreds of pages long.
No one can say when sports began. Since it is impossible to imagine a time when children did not spontaneously run races or wrestle, it is clear that children have always included sports in their play, but one can only speculate about the emergence of sports as autotelic physical contests for adults. Hunters are depicted in prehistoric art, but it cannot be known whether the hunters pursued their prey in a mood of grim necessity or with the joyful abandon of sportsmen. It is certain, however, from the rich literary and iconographic evidence of all ancient civilizations that hunting soon became an end in itself—at least for royalty and nobility. Archaeological evidence also indicates that ball games were common among ancient peoples as different as the Chinese and the Aztecs. If ball games were contests rather than noncompetitive ritual performances, such as the Japnessfootball game kemari, then they were sports in the most rigorously defined sense. That it cannot simply be assumed that they were contests is clear from the evidence presented by Greek and Roman antiquity, which indicates that ball games had been for the most part playful pastimes like those recommended for health by the Greek physician Galen in the 2nd century CE.
Traditional Asian sports
Like the highly evolved civilizations of which they are a part, traditional Asian sports are ancient and various. Competitions were never as simple as they seemed to be. From the Islamic Middle East across the Indian subcontinent to China and Japan, wrestlers—mostly but not exclusively male—embodied and enacted the values of their cultures. The wrestler’s strength was always more than a merely personal statement. More often than not, the men who strained and struggled understood themselves to be involved in a religious endeavour. Prayers, incantations, and rituals of purification were for centuries an important aspect of the hand-to-hand combat of Islamic wrestlers. It was not unusual to combine the skills of the wrestler with those of a mystic poet. Indeed, the celebrated 14th-century Persian pahlavan (ritual wrestler) Maḥmūd Khwārezmī was both.
Typical of the place of sport within a religious context was the spectacle of 50 sturdy Turks who wrestled in Istanbul in 1582 to celebrate the circumcision of the son of Murad III. When Indian wrestlers join an akhara (gymnasium), they commit themselves to the quest for a holy life. As devout Hindus, they recite mantras as they do their knee bends and push-ups. In their struggle against “pollution,” they strictly control their diet, sexual habits, breathing, and even their urination and defecation.