The Sports Arena as a Reflection of Culture and History
How Sporting Venues Reflect Cultural Change
No one really knows when humans began to compete against each other in public athletic contests. Cultural anthropologists can trace competition to many different origins and sources. But by the time of the ancient Greeks, athletic games were regularly scheduled. Indeed, the Greeks would suspend wars between their city-states in order to hold their quadrennial games at Olympia, beginning in 776 BC. This is in striking contrast to the modern tradition, when the games were suspended in 1940 and 1944, in order to prosecute the Second World War. But geopolitical difficulties aside, there has been a continuum of competition throughout history, acted out in a variety of different sports. This article seeks to trace the actual venues of competition in order to illustrate that there has in fact been little change over several millennia.
Perhaps the best known of the ancient venues was the town of Olympia in Greece, the site of the first Olympic Games. Here, competition was restricted to males, who participated in only a limited number of athletic endeavors, such as wrestling, running and hurling the discus and javelin. In addition, they played the games while naked! This was presided over by a forty-foot statue of Zeus, the king of the gods, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After a fire, no trace of this majestic figure survived, except in the memory of the oral tradition and in reproductions on coins. In addition to ancient Greece, the Romans contributed to the world athletic culture with two memorable sites of their own, the Colosseum--also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre--and the Circus Maximus. The former venue was best known for gladiatorial combat, with pairs matched to the death, while the latter is remembered as the site of the famous Roman chariot races. Although there were other sites used for athletic games, these Greek and Roman locations were the largest of their time, and attracted the largest crowds in the ancient world.
As the Roman Empire sank into disarray and eventual collapse during the Fourth and especially the Fifth Centuries of the Common Era, the major spectacles of the earlier times tended to disappear from the cultural scene. Some centuries passed before the medieval world could find a cultural direction for outdoor festivals and tournaments. As the Middle Ages came into high relief by the Thirteenth Century, tournaments tended to cluster around knights--and occasionally kings--who liked to prove their mettle on horseback to the roar and approval of crowds. This was the medieval joust, the first real large gathering of publics for sporting purposes since Antiquity. Typically, knights in heavy armor would charge each other with long lances toward the object of knocking the opponent off his horse, while decked out in all the finery of the period. This would delight the crowd, and also endear the hero to admiring ladies, a not insignificant motive. The joust became the defining moment of medieval sports, although the nobility also liked to pursue other pastimes such as falconry. With the generally slow cultural pace of those times, jousting became an important bridge between earlier athletic contests and the multitude of modern sports available since the Renaissance.
The Modern Tradition
The variety of organized sports that have taken over the modern world are almost too numerous to list in a confined space. There are the big team sports, such as football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball. Even individual sports such as tennis and golf attract huge crowds. To take the Olympic Games just as one example, consider the difference between the ancient competition and the games as presented today. Everything from water polo to synchronized swimming has entered the agenda in those two short weeks held every four years, not to mention the winter games. Many of these sports are entirely the product of the modern era, with no antecedents dating to earlier times. As the roster of organized sports has grown, so too has the size of the playing fields. Many large stadiums today can accommodate over 100,000 spectators at one seating. It is uncertain if any really new sporting events will fill these venues in the future, but the levels already reached indicate the growth potential of the large athletic locale.
What really attracts large numbers of spectators to sporting events? Obviously, the individual sport has its followers and passionate fans, but there seems to be something else that lures the crowds. It just may be the atmosphere and the feeling of solidarity with a large group setting, putting organized sports into a kind of social category with ancient tribal origins. Sports have also matured into extremely big business, especially in the United States, and quite a few billionaires have been created in the process of ownership of sports teams. Also, salaries in America have grown to gargantuan proportions, leading to what the late Howard Cosell referred to as the "Jockocracy." Whether the individual athlete earns or deserves such generosity is of course debatable, but as far as the professional goes, it has become a source of acute social criticism. This is obviously less of a concern at the collegiate and amateur levels of competition. In the end, it seems as though humans will continue to patronize the large sporting venue, as they have done for thousands of years.