Sports today are tame by history’s standards. Ancient societies didn’t seem to think twice about spending blood and lives in the pursuit of great athletic entertainment. People have been hacked, poked, drowned, punched, cut, smashed, and skied to death, all in some of history’s greatest games. The good news, depending on your viewpoint, is a few of these games are still around, in one form or another. If you know where to go, you can still see these games play out the way they would have half a millennium ago, sometimes more.
Calcio Storico is an early form of football (soccer and rugby) that originated in 16th-century Italy. Once widely played, the sport is thought to have started in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. There it became known as the giuoco del calcio fiorentino (“Florentine kick game”) or simply calcio. In terms of rules, there aren’t many, neither have they changed much since 1580, when the game was established. You can’t sucker punch your opponents or kick anyone in the head. Otherwise, you can punch, headbutt, trip, wrestle and choke your way across the field. Seems like calcio was also the genesis of the soccer hooligan, because that’s their remit. By the way, the word “soccer” is a British invention that British people stopped using only about 30 years ago. There was an episode of Are You Being Served where a character references a pair of cleats as soccer boots. Players do seem adamant that Calcio Storico isn’t a sport, it’s a game. They might distinguish between the two by saying there isn’t really a season for the game. Players can only participate in a max of two games a year, so you don’t really have the multi-month processes of seasonal sports. Instead, you get a massive, energetic display of violence and tradition that pits the four quarters of Florence, Italy, against each other.
When you think of Japan, you may think the light and technology of Tokyo, or anime girl body pillows and tentacle monsters, which is a shame because neither of these even hints at Japan’s badass history. Bo-Taoshi, however, does. The rules are simple. It doesn’t have goals or nets, it has a pole. One team is defending the pole for two minutes. For the other, attack it and bend it to a 45 degree angle. Where the complications come in is in practice. Both teams attack and defend at the same time and contain 150 players, meaning there’s 300 guys beating each other to a pulp for two minutes. For protection, all you get is a padded helmet. Otherwise, it’s you and your clothed body smashing one human wall against the other. There’s no exact date for the first ever game of Bo-Taoshi, but it’s thought to have started sometime in 1945 with Japanese military cadets. That’s plausible enough for us, as the initial chanting and cries of the attacking charge sound a lot like the Japanese soldiers of World War Two. Plus, we imagine the game would be an excellent way to teach soldiers to work together in large groups, as well as withstand serious physical punishment. Not that we’re hoping the Army military starts using Bo-Taoshi at West Point. Just that it’s easy to see there might be some benefits here.
We haven’t had much cause to research Egyptian naval activities, so the Egyptian Fisherman Joust is really our first exposure to the ancient empire’s waterborne happenings and we’re alarmed to say the least. The only reason this qualifies as a sport is because archaeologists and historians haven’t found any examples of actual military forces using these techniques to solve problems. If they had, those problems would have stayed solved. Basically, a bunch of guys stood up in a small boat, each one of them carrying a long pole. Some of them would use the poles to pilot the boat, while a few of them used their poles to hit the people in the other boat. And these weren’t playful jabs. Carvings regularly depict the matches as extremely violent and malicious, most, if not all of them, drawing blood. If the other crew successfully knocked you into the water, it probably didn’t matter if you could swim or not, as the blood in the water had already attracted crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Your chances of becoming a meal were high, so we’d love to know how popular this game actually was. In fairness, we’re not 100% sure if competitors were participating for the love or the game or if that may have been a punishment, like the Roman Coliseum.
When Vikings decided to race each other in the water, they did it in their own special way. Basically, they turned Michael Phelps’s career into a contact sport. If Vikings were swimming competitively, assume they were hitting and shoving each other or dragging their opponent under the water in an attempt to slow them down. And sometimes all this was fully decked out in weapons and armor too, which means they’ve added a whole bunch of soaking wet cloth and leather, as well as pounds of metal to an already far too dangerous sport. There are even reports, albeit hard to confirm, that sometimes Vikings would strike the swimming altogether. If they did, the competition was to try and hold your opponent under the water for longer than he held you. It’s either an insane sport or Norsemen trying to force each other to develop gills and from what we know of the Vikings, they weren’t super concerned with evolution.
The Scandanavians were mighty seafarers, sure, but crossing the Atlantic in a biggish boat is nothing compared to crossing the Pacific in a canoe, as Polynesian people did. Not to downplay that, because that’s insanely dangerous in its own right, but it’s tame compared to the Hawaiian tradition of hee holua (sled riding). Hee holua is most closely related to bobsledding, only these Hawaiian sleds don’t speed down cushy tracks of soft snow, but enormous paths created by old lava flows or constructed out of lava rocks. Sledders routinely hit speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour coming down the stone paths, which is enough to shred faces, which is exactly what it’s done. As far as we can tell, the longest paths that exist went from the top of Hawaii’s volcano down to the ocean. From that, we can only assume Hawaiians only invented enough of the holua to go fast. There aren’t any descriptions of brakes or mechanisms for slowing down, which might be why the paths go to the ocean. The Pacific is the only thing Hawaiians could think of that would stop them after skiing on lava.
If all say “all-American” and you’re feeling wistful and not a bit cliche, you’ll say ‘baseball and apple pie.’ If you’re a bit of a social realist, you might answer the prompt “all-American” with
‘war for oil and the prison-industrial complex.’ Well I found a story for you that ticks both boxes — the Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars of 1910. The state of Wyoming, which according to my husband doesn’t exist because, and I quote, “you’ve never met anyone from Wyoming,” was all in on the classic wild west culture. Well into the late 1800s, working men caroused and gambled in saloons. Sheriffs were the principle law enforcement instead of a police department, bounty hunters did brisk business, people were hanged in the town square because the jail wasn’t big enough to incarcerate people long-term, and people were pretty accepting of frontier justice and vigilantism.
This was the same period when baseball was invented — not by Abner Doubleday, as is often reported — and it quickly grew in both popularity and geographical spread. It was a wholesome, family-friendly activity with their sons on the baseball field. People were mad for it, watching as well as playing, so there was a piqued demand for organized games. There were not, however, all that many pro teams. It’s hard to be an expert in something that only just came into being, or at least it used to be before everybody began declaring themselves experts in whatever’s trending on Twitter today and selling courses and certifications in it by tomorrow. In answer to the demand, many local businesses formed teams of their employees and competed against one another. I would absolutely make a big ‘trial by combat’ thing out of playing a direct competitor. Think of the publicity, even if your team loses.
The baseball building bug also bit Otto Gramm, a millionaire businessman looking to add “prison warden” to his CV for reasons that are, perhaps thankfully, not documented. He created a broom factory inside Wyoming State Penitentiary, where the free labor earned him a profit of over $6mil in today’s money over the first ten years. Life in the Wyoming state pen was already miserable, lacking both electricity, which had been available for years, and running water, which had been available since the Minoans of Crete 5 thousands years ago. And Gramm made life even worse, all in the name of maximizing profits. He measured how much food each person got, down to the number of beans. The government eventually cottoned on to the state of affairs and made it illegal for any warden to personally profit off of his prisoners. (We’ll skip over how the gov’t itself profits off prisoners now.) Gramm stepped down as warden, a far richer man than when he started. He was replaced by a man named Felix Alston, the former sheriff of Big Horn County.
Sheriff Felix Alston was more compassionate than his predecessor, allowing the men to exercise outside on the prison grounds. This was a significant change as many of the men had not been out in the daylight since the day prison opened a decade before. Now that recreation, even in a limited capacity, was an option, pick-up games of baseball [became a thing], and Alston noticed that some of these men were good at it. Like, really good.
Sheriff Alston was friends with Wyoming governor Joseph Carey and asked Carey for permission to let the men form their own baseball team. Governor Carey was a fond gambler and had dollar signs in his eyes at the chance to make a profit off of the convicts, so he agreed to the formation of a proper, bona fide baseball team, The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars. The team was given brand new uniforms, and they were treated like true athletes. The first team they played against, the only team initially willing to play the All Stars, was the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors — the All Stars gave them a royal beat-down, winning 11 to 1. For context for my non-US Brainiacs, final scores in pro ball are usually in the 2-4 point range, so 11 was nothing to sneeze at.
Before you throw your lot in with the All Stars, as a lifetime of underdog sports movies have conditioned us to do. Let’s meet some of these talented players. There was Joseph Seng, who hit home runs in nearly every game. He was on death row for murder, thought the public was sympathetic to him because he killed his girlfriend’s lover and was very good at hitting a ball with a stick, because apparently that’s all it takes to start a letter-writing campaign asking the governor for clemency. First baseman was Leroy Cooke, who was sentenced for the bludgeoning death and robbery of a barber. Third baseman was Jack Carter, sentenced for killing a man and trying to burn the dismembered corpse in the fireplace. Pitcher William Boyer stabbed his father to death with a letter opener. Catcher Horace Donavan shot and killed his brother-in-law. Outfielders William Boyer, Darius Rowan, and Lazlo Korda, between them racked up a number of rapes and eight murders. The captain of the team was second baseman George Saban, convicted of a murderer that resulted from a turf war between cattle herders and sheep ranchers. Told you it was the wild wild west. Alston actually allowed Saban to leave the prison with an armed escort, as long as he came back each night. While he’d be out, Saban would tell locals how much they were training behind bars, which fascinated people and encouraged betting on the All-Star team, which naturally, Sheriff Alston and Governor Carey profited from.
They played just four games, winning all, but every one was infused with more drama than a modern World Series. No team has ever taken the field the way the All-Stars did. The 12-inmate team marched onto the field, chained together and were unshackled in the dugout. Guards surrounded the field, shotguns leveled at the players. As soon as the game ended, all players lined up on the third base line, where they were again handcuffed and shackled. The ticket-buying public was fascinated!
Making money for the sheriff and governor brought the men perks like extra food at meal times, which didn’t sit well with the non-player prisoners. The other prisoners also wondered why Seng was still alive even though his execution date had come and gone, fueling a rumor that he’d escaped his death sentence, though Alston made up excuses, like bureaucratic delays. The reality seems to be that Alston was actively pushing back the scheduled executions to keep the gravy train chugging along. There was also a rumor that poor performance on the field meant the men would have time added to their sentence or have the date of their executions moved up. This may or may not have been a threat used by prison officials, but was definitely a threat used by Saban, shouting from the dugout, when the performance on the field wasn’t up to snuff. He also perpetuated the rumor that Seng might escape the death penalty. Neither of these things were true, but it was enough motivation to keep the players on-task.
All was going well for the prison, the players, and those who were betting on the inmates’ success… until the press got wind of the situation. Newspapers broke the story about the widespread gambling and the motivation for the players’ continued success. People quickly came to believe the governor was involved in this conspiracy. To defray these, Gov. Carey created an anti-gambling campaign and Sheriff Alston decided to scrap the baseball team and use the funding to create an education program instead.
With the cash cow dried up and the negative publicity from the exposure of the practice, the team was disbanded, and the teammates went back to Death Row. Seng, who got an extra year of life out of the arrangement, was hanged on May 22, 1912. Reporters wrote that he walked bravely, with pride, and without fear. Saban, on the other hand, managed to escape with help from a guard who’d made a lot of money betting on the team, and was never recaptured.
THE OLMECS STARTED IT, THE Maya tweaked it, and the Aztecs nailed it. The Mesoamerican Ballgame, played with a solid rubber ball — weighing at around 10 pounds — and teams of one to four people, makes a regular appearance throughout Pre-Columbian history. Though added later, stone ball courts have been found from Arizona to Nicaragua.
The Mesoamerican ball game makes its first appearance among the Olmec around 1500 BC in the central Gulf Coast of Mexico, an area known at the time for latex production. Many balls have been discovered in the region as part of burials and as ritual offerings at shrines, suggesting the balls and other ballgame accoutrements were a sign of status or wealth. In fact, this idea has been reinforced by the evidence of ball courts being found near chief’s homes in Olmec sites. The game the Olmecs played was associated with prestige and social standing, and only the wealthy and therefore upper class could afford to put on a game. The giant stone heads found in the region also depict chiefs wearing the ball playing helmet.
The game continued to be played throughout Mesoamerica when it was adopted by the Maya, who added their own special twist. Humans and the lords of the underworld battled it out by playing the game, according to the creation story the known as the Popol Vuh. In this way, the ball court was a portal to Xibalba — the Mayan underworld. The Maya used the game as a stand‐in for warfare, settling territory disputes and hereditary issues, and to foretell the future. Captives of wars were forced to play (undoubtedly rigged) games that resulted in their sacrifice when they lost.
The Aztecs continued this proud tradition of loser‐lose‐all, as many vases and sculptures depict the inevitable decapitation of the losing team. There are even some depictions of ball players playing with the heads of the losers in place of a ball. Whether this actually occurred is up to artistic speculation. The Spanish who observed the game reported horrendous injuries to those who played it — deep bruising requiring lancing, broken bones, and even death when a player was hit in the head or by an unprotected bit by the heavy ball.
For everyday Maya society, the ball game was simply a sport. The abundant number of courts in Maya ruins, both large and small show that this was a game that was played frequently both for official reasons and for fun. Just like you can’t compare pick-up street ball with an NBA stadium, you can’t compare every different ball court among the Maya.
However, the ball game was also a religious rite—an active play commemorating part of the drama in the ancient Maya creation story. The ball game is a running theme in the Popol Vuh (“Book of Counsel”—comparable to the Bible’s Book of Genesis) and is often portrayed as a way that humans interacted with the gods. The director’s cut of the Maya creation story is a fascinating saga not unlike the Hindu Ramayana, but (for the sake of shortness on the internet) the main action occurs when the famed Maya “Hero Twins” Hunahpu and Xbalanque (sons of the slain Maize God, Hun Hunahpu) use their athletic skills to beat the gods of the underworld at the ball game. The angry gods (the losers) then sacrifice both of the twins (the winners), but the gods of the sky bring them back to life. Resurrected vigilantes, the hero twins slay the gods of the underworld and then resurrect their father the Maize God, then escape from Xibalba in a canoe and then crawling through a small crack in the earth (very similar to the crack that I crawled out of in the cenote).
While the Maya probably played the ball game every day as sport, it was also performed as a ceremony to commemorate the creation story and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. As a sport, the ball game consisted of two teams, dressed in special gear—specifically protective belts around the waist and knee pads. The ball in play was a small, pure rubber ball, crafted from latex that was extracted from the rubber trees in the forest. (The Maya were playing with rubber balls long before anything like it existed in Europe).
The losers were not sacrificed—at least not all the time. If that were the case, the Maya civilization would have decimated itself fairly quickly. The more likely scenario is that ritual sacrifice was only performed after certain games specified for that rite. The most common scenario was the final play in the war ceremony—that after a city won a battle, rather than simply killing the vanquished leaders, they equipped them with sports gear and “played” the ball game against the conquered soldiers. The winners of the war also won the ball game, after which the losers were then sacrificed, either by decapitation or removal of the heart.
How frequently this happened is unknown, although historians have shown that the practice increased later on in Maya civilization and may have been a symptom of society’s decline. In any case, this method of sacrifice was tied entirely to warfare.
Another different theory is that it was not the losers of the ball game, but the winners who were sacrificed—that teams volunteered to play in the ceremony and that if you won, you would be sacrificed to the gods. The incentive was the great honor that was placed upon the individual and their families—typically leading to advancement in society. The losers, on the other hand, were demoted to a life or impoverished slavery. It is likely that both scenarios occurred to some degree, both winners and losers were sacrificed at some point, but this was not the essence of the ball game. What really mattered here was the symbolism of the creation story—and most of all, the story of how life began.
We have documented over 1000 sites where the game was played all across Mesoamerica. Some of the earliest ones, like those in Paso de Llamada, date back over three millennia to the 1600s BCE. There are even some preserved rubber balls from the original games. They were found in swamps, where the anerobic conditions in the mud keep the natural rubber from decomposing. So we’ve got a ball and a court, or field, or pitch if you’re from the home counties. Much of the rest, though, we have to try to fill in as best we can. Because the game was played for a long time, across a wide area, by a variety of people, it can be hard to tell if inconsistencies in the history are bad record-keeping –most written records come from the Spanish, who were none too fond of anything native — or if that’s down to variations in the game.
These ancient playing fields came in many shapes, sizes and angles, but most are in the shape of a capital san-serif I when viewed from above. The central play area is flanked on either side by walls that could be straight, sloped, or a combination of the two. On each of these side walls was mounted an ornate stone hoop…often; many fields didn’t have them. On either end of the court, it widens out into the end zone, which could be open or walled in. The significance of the games to their respective societies can be inferred, as dicey a prospect as that is, by how commonly they’re found alongside temples or in what one source called “sacred precincts.” Side note on interpreting ancient cultures, my father liked to ponder, back in the 90’s, that if aliens were digging around on earth 1000 years from now, they’d probably think CDs and cd-roms were religious artifacts based on how important and ubiquitous they were. He failed to predict the meteoric rise of digital media. Or look at Disney. How could future aliens not think this was a major force in our society, when you look at all the paraphernalia in nearly every household and the giant “temples” around the world. All glory to our mouse god! Anyway.
This was a spectator sport, so the whole thing might be ringed in with seating. It’s likely that the game drew in the rich and poor alike, though you’d probably only find the nobles at the bigger arenas or for the ceremonial games. For everyone else, there were pickup games and celebrity players, just like modern basketball. These nobles were known to bet jewels, land, slaves, and even mistresses on the outcome of the game. The arenas also hosted festivals, feasts, and
ceremonies, further acting as a bridge between the different levels of society. It was the venues’ use for religious ceremonies and the religious symbolism of the game that really tied the room together. The ball represented the Sun, which was passed between each side of the court, which symbolized the heavens and the underworld. This solar cycle was actually of huge significance to the Mesoamerican religion and tied closely to the cycles of death and rebirth. As such the equinoxes were very important dates and it appears that the ballgames were scheduled to mark the battle between celestial and infernal forces on these events
When players took the field, their uniforms would typically be loin cloths or short skirts, and in the more ceremonial games, elaborate headdresses or animal heads. Most importantly, they had strategic padding made of wood, leather or woven material. They may have gloves, but those were probably to protect their hands from the ground (or each other) because like modern soccer, they weren’t allowed to touch the ball with their hands. The exact rules of the ball game remain unclear, but it is believed that players were not allowed to hit the ball with their hands. Instead they used only their knees, hips and elbows (like Hacky Sack, I imagine) to pass the ball to one another, with the ultimate goal of passing the ball through the stone ring on the side of the court. Each team had five to eight players. If that number is too nebulous for you, you’re about to have a bad time. Like I mentioned, the game existed for a long time over a wide area. Records and their interpretation vary, so it’s hard to tell if we have different accounts of the same thing or the same evolving and adapting. You could score a point when an opponent
failed to return the ball or knocked the ball out of bounds, kind of like tennis. You could score
points if the ball was launched into the opposing team’s endzone, when special markers were hit, and of course when you pass the ball through one of those stone hoops. This was worth a lot of points, or an instant win, because the hoops weren’t much bigger than the ball and were way up in the air, sometimes with a slanted bit of wall leading up to them, sometimes not. It’s like the snitch in Quidditch, apparently. I don’t know, I never got into Harry Potter. If you asked me what house I was in, I’d probably say Lannister. One rule that is consistent is the prohibition on hand and even feet touching the ball. That means you have to move a 10lb/3.5kg solid rubber ball down the court with your knees, elbows, most popularly hips and even head.
We’re a bit nebulous on what actually brings about the end of the game, but there seem to be two general styles. In one variant, play ends when the ball hits the ground. According to friar Diego Duran, skilled players were able to keep the ball up in the air for up to an hour at a time. Again, a solid ball that weighs as much as a watermelon. The other version ended when the
ball comes to a stop, so a ball-hog is not only a bad sportsman but a real detriment to your team.
Now the big question — sacrifices. Were players sacrificed? Was that fate a punishment for the losers or were the winners a sacrifice of great value? Just like the rules, this also varied. The
Aztecs in particular believed that the machinery of the world was driven by vital energy held in blood. Hence the commonality of human sacrifice. Gotta fuel up creation. Murals at Chichen itzá which show a player representing the Sun being sacrificed on the vernal equinox and a
player representing the moon being sacrificed on the autumnal equinox. But it’s unclear after all these centuries to what degree this was actual practice or merely symbolic. One argument against the “fact” that all the losers or are the winners were sacrificed is simple numbers. While Aztec cities had large populations, smaller villages didn’t. Killing half a dozen people after every game would have an impact, especially since the players were fit young people. Not to mention, if you’re killing the winners, you’re going to run out of good players before long and the games will get really boring.