At the nadir of Western civilization’s history, in a “no
man’s land” between the trenches that marked the
killing fields of World War I, British and German soldiers emerged from their fortifications during a Christmas cease-fire to bury their dead, plant a tree, and play
a game of soccer (association football). That match
represented something crucial about the nature of
sport. Sport and war have been inextricably linked
throughout human history.
In hunting and gathering cultures sports such as foot
races and contests of strength represented a form of
war game. Others, such as archery, spear and javelin
throwing, sling-shot competitions, and other sports using war implements, familiarized people with
weapons. Both types were important social institutions
and means of transmitting warrior craft from generation to generation.
War games adapted with the development of agricultural civilizations (ca. 15,000–10,000 B.C.E.) to match
newer cultural patterns of warfare. Most war games still
served to create the physical and psychological stamina
necessary for combat and to train people to use the increasingly sophisticated weaponry. The agricultural civilizations also used war games to build the communal
solidarity and to create the complex social organizations necessary for ancient warfare. These civilizations
created ball games, foot and horse races, and a variety of
other sports that celebrated warrior prowess.
While ancient sports certainly had religious, political, and social components not immediately related to
combat, most of them were related to war either directly
or indirectly. In ancient Mesoamerica and in ancient
Egypt, elaborate ball games served both as simulations
of war situations and as contests to curry favor with the
gods. In the Mesoamerican contests the losers, as in actual combat, sometimes faced death. Athletic champions and military conquerors were accorded similar
forms of hero-worship. Indeed, the classical Greek term
for an athletic contest, agon, also described military
The classical Greeks organized a sophisticated system of sports, which had important religious, political,
and military significance. Greek athletic festivals featured games with direct military applications—chariot races, foot races, wrestling and boxing matches, duels with spears, javelin throws, and archery contests.
These festivals and the Olympic Games they spawned
beginning in 776 B.C.E. served as important religious
ceremonies as well as celebrations of warrior prowess.
The Olympics included military-related events such as
foot races featuring armored runners and the violent
pankration—a brutal fight between athletes in which
almost any tactic was permitted and which sometimes
led to deaths of not only the vanquished but also the
victors. The Olympic Games continued until at least
Roman sports were more committed to training
soldiers than Greek games. They built coliseums
throughout the empire in which they staged particularly warlike contests such as chariot races, animal
combats, artificial naval battles, and, most popular of
all, gladiator contests. Such brutal spectacles lasted for
several centuries, although opposed by many Greek
critics, some Roman intellectuals, and early Christians
who were frequently martyred in the circuses. In the 5th century c.e., after the triumph of Christianity in the
Roman Empire, the pagan spectacles were effectively
banned. Even the Olympic Games, which the Christians
associated with paganism, slowly faded into extinction.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, elite
warrior classes of the medieval period—the feudal
knights—engaged in games that were directly related
to the dominant form of warfare—armored troops
fighting on horseback. Horse racing, organized hunts,
and mock combats at tournaments trained the aristocracy for battle. They marked their social position in the
war games organized by feudal rulers. Knights competed in melees—hand-to-hand combats on foot between varying numbers of combatants. They also competed in jousts—competitions in which two mounted
horsemen equipped with lances charged one another
in an effort to knock their opponent from his steed. The
medieval games were organized to reinforce chivalric
notions of honor, class, and duty. Knights fought for the
honor of ladies or regions. No one below the rank of
knight was permitted to compete, and chivalric conceptions of duty obliged knights to participate in these
sometimes fatal war games.
In early modern Europe (ca. 1400–1750) the monarchs
of emerging nation-states continued to patronize warlike sports, but melees and jousts were replaced with
more technologically up-to-date competitions such as
fencing and shooting contests. In Great Britain the
“manly art” of boxing was revived and organized for
the first time since the collapse of the Roman Empire.
As Europeans conquered and colonized the American continents, they encountered with indigenous peoples who also played sports related to their native styles
of warfare. Various forms of ball games, wrestling, foot
races, and spear-throwing and archery contests trained
Native American warriors in combat arts.
Contact with Europeans often transformed or destroyed indigenous cultures and their unique sports. In
Japan an elaborate feudal Samurai culture with sports
that trained the warrior classes—similar in many respects to medieval European chivalric sports—disappeared in the 19th century as Japan decided to modernize and Westernize. First played by the Japanese in
1873, “modern” baseball quickly replaced “traditional”
The industrial revolutions and rise of nationalism,
which transformed world civilizations from the late
18th century through the late 20th century, altered the
nature of both war and sport. The new technological
patterns of warfare made combat less of a contest of
physical prowess and more of a struggle of psychological stamina, social morale, and efficient machinery. Although modern armies and navies still needed physical
vigor and stamina, they also began to rely more on patriotic energy, mental endurance, and teamwork. The
new modern sports (which militarists around the
world insisted were essential for creating modern
armed forces) stressed social and psychological recreations of warfare rather than the practice of the actual
physical skills required by modern combat.
The mass gymnastics movement that swept through
the early 19th-century German and Scandinavian
states characterized one form of modern war games.
Instructors led groups through a series of exercises that
were designed as athletic versions of military drills; this
led to the creation of Turnen societies (as the German
clubs devoted to gymnastics were called) throughout
much of Germany and Scandinavia. The Turnen movement was quickly incorporated into military drills for
the new conscript armies that sought to repel Napoleon
Bonaparte’s (1769–1821) French legions.
In Great Britain and its colonies the modernizing
versions of traditional folk games were linked to the
production of national military might. The English
proclaimed that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the
playing fields of Eton.” The idea that modern AngloAmerican sports manufactured military might became
a powerful ideology in the industrializing world by the
mid-19th century. The colonial powers, including the
United States, also used sports in efforts to impose
Western styles of civilization on the peoples of Asia,
Africa, and the Pacific.
As national militaries adopted sporting war games
to prepare troops for the rigors of combat and to teach
martial skills through simulated war, debates developed
as to which system of athletics produced better warriors. France’s defeat in the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian
War convinced many French nationalists and militarists that they would have to adopt Germanic or Anglo-American sporting practices to revive their nation’s
martial talents and restore French prestige. Although
some observers, especially Anglo-American critics, sarcastically claimed the French failed to adopt any athletic style, France adapted Anglo-American games into
a uniquely French sporting culture. In the 1890s
France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) revived the Olympic Games. Anglo-American sports provided the foundation for most of the Olympic contests.
Paradoxically, Coubertin resurrected the Olympics to
lessen the chance of war between nations and to build a strenuous French nationalism in case the Olympics
failed to secure international peace. By encouraging
nationalism the modern Olympics have always been, at
least in part, a form of war game.
During the Meiji Restoration (1868) in the midst of
Japan’s late-19th-century race to modernize, Japanese
elites borrowed Western sports in order to reorganize
their educational and military systems. Inspired by
American ideas that linked the skills developed by
baseball to the execution of tasks required by modern
warfare, Japanese leaders thought that baseball would
teach the mass public the discipline, talent, and technological knowledge needed to fight modern wars.
In the United States modern American football
served as the war game for American martial culture.
Promoted by nationalistic militarists such as Theodore
Roosevelt (1858–1919), American football’s ethos and
structure simulated military organization. The annual
football match contested between the nation’s two oldest military academies, the Army and the Navy, has become an important ritual in American popular culture.
In the Commonwealth and in former colonies of Great
Britain rugby represents the same military organization and ethos exhibited in American football. In demilitarized modern Japan baseball still serves as a substitute war game.
For much of the world, militaristic ideologies find
expression through soccer (association football).
African, Asian, European, and Latin American nations
consider the World Cup a test of national vigor and an
indication of military prowess. In 1936, an Olympic
match between Peru and Austria created a firestorm of
South American ill will against Germany and Austria.
In 1970, El Salvador and Honduras engaged in a military conflict (the “Soccer War”) over a disputed World
Cup qualifying match.
In 1912 Olympic Games officials created the modern pentathlon, a war game that supposedly mimicked
a soldier’s duties in combat. It combined equestrian,
swimming, and running races; fencing combat; and
shooting contests. This contest is still part of today’s
Olympic Games and continues to be dominated by military competitors. Not until 1952 at the Helsinki
Olympics did a nonmilitary competitor, Sweden’s Lars
Hall (1927–), capture a gold medal.
The biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, originated during the early 20th
century in Scandinavia as a military ski patrol contest.
International championships began in the 1950s, and,
in 1960, the Olympic Games included the event on the
As the 21st century approaches, modern sports
continue to be used throughout the world in military
preparedness programs. International sporting events,
particularly soccer matches and the Olympic Games,
continue to create an intense nationalism that sometimes breaks out into armed conflict. Perhaps international sport will eventually contribute to global harmony. Perhaps the effort to make sports into games for
peace fails to recognize the ancient historical links between sport and war. Certainly, as long as sport continues to nurture nationalism, it will have a difficult time
lessening the potential for national conflict.
At the nadir of Western civilization’s history, in a “no