The history of sports, abridged

End times edition

Feel like a little Naumachia? Caesar built an artificial lake in which to wage real sea battles.
  • Feel like a little Naumachia? Caesar built an artificial lake in which to wage real sea battles.

The plan was to write an end-of-the-year column about the biggest sports stories of 2012. And it would have been a boffo piece of work. But, that was before I learned the world was going to end on December 21 or 23.

There’s an early deadline this week due to a Christmas that’s never going to happen, so I’m writing this before Earth has actually expired. I know you’ll understand why I’m a little short on details, but we all know one of the following events caused Earth’s die-off: the Mayan prophecy, Hopi Indians, massive solar storms, galactic alignment, Planet X, Timeway Zero (everything imaginable will occur at the same time), I Ching, or news-starved cable networks. One of them got us, it really doesn’t matter which one. So, this is it, the end-of-the-world sports wrap-up column giving a final tip of the hat to the biggest sports stories Earth has ever known.

I’m short on space, so I’ll skip the first 4,500,000,000 years and take us straight to the Phanerozoic Eon, Cenozoic Era subdivision, and then skip forward 65 million years to a sport known by it’s rather lifeless name, Mesoamerican Ballgame. Supporters call it the first team sport in human history. Think 1500 BCE dodgeball played in Mexico and Central America.

It was a little rough, even by NFL standards. Action centered around a rubber ball. The contest was held on a large court; some courts were larger than a football field. Special stone rings hung near the top of high walls. The objective was to pass the ball through one of the impossible-to-get-to rings. To add sporting zest, players could not touch the ball with their hands. Winning team members were honored during an extravagant after-game party. Government officials, priests, citizens of the highest rank celebrated with the winners. Sacred songs were sung, spiritual rituals were performed, and as the show-stopping, bring-the-audience-to-its-feet finale, losers were sacrificed to the gods.

For the good of all.

Jumping to 776 BCE and the first recorded Olympic Games. The games, normally held every four years, continued until 394 CE. That’s 1170 years of sports action! If Earth could have survived another 1170 years, the Chargers might well be playing the 49ers in Super Bowl MCCXVIII. I’d pay to see that.

Time passes. It’s 46 CE. Feel like a little Naumachia? Should be a good one — Julius Caesar is hosting. Caesar built an artificial lake in which he placed real ships and real crews and had them reenact historical sea battles. Here’s the hook: real blood and guts and death. But, credit where credit is due, it was Emperor Claudius who put on the definitive show, using 100 ships and 19,000 fighting men. Even so, the game had to evolve, and you can see why: fans were seated too far away from the action.

What to do? Easy, build amphitheaters, fill their bottoms with water, insert the real ships, with the real crews numbering in the thousands of sailors, and have them go at it unto death in front of tens of thousands screaming fans. According to the noted naval war antiquities site, “As if watching the team you bet on literally sink right in front of you would not have been bad enough, it was not out of the ordinary to see many of these men slipping around on their own blood in the process....

“Naval warfare in Ancient Rome also featured a lot of flamethrowers armed with a type of napalm called Greek Fire, which combusted the instant it contacted oxygen. So, with the waters red with blood and thick with bloated corpses, you were also likely to see a few thousand would-be sailors get burned alive as well.”

It’s hard to top that kind of red-blooded sports action, and even making allowances for the increasing difficulty recruiting that many people to kill or be sacrificed, medieval sports never came close to the Roman gold standard. Medieval World was an era of courtly sports. Sports of the day included embroidery, poetry writing, lawn bowling, croquet, dancing, chess, and playing cards. What can I say, it was like the fourth quarter of a Detroit/Jacksonville game that went on for 300 years.

Things picked up in 1776. The place: Staines-upon-Thames. Harry Sellers thrashes Peter Corcoran to take the Championship of England boxing title. Boxing insiders say Corcoran took a dive, and they make a persuasive case.

Baseball, college football, and basketball came along a couple centuries later, but that was mere prelude to the 20th Century and the crown jewel of human sportsdom, the sacred, transcendent NFL. I will miss their blood sacrifice Sunday services.

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