Known as the Mesoamerican ballgame, pitz in Classical Maya, or”El juego de la pelota” in modern Spanish, the exact rules of this game are not known, but courts and rubber balls left behind by Mayan tribes reveal what the sport entailed. It is believed to be similar to modern-day racquetball, but with the players using their hips to hit the ball back and forth. The biggest difference between today’s version of racquetball is that the losers were sacrificed to the gods. Some historians have even suggested that dismembered heads were used as balls in some ritualistic games.
Gladiators are still often depicted in movies and media today, and this sport was one of the most popular throughout the Roman era. In it, gladiators would face off against each other and fight, often to the death. While the risk levels with the sport were high for participants, who were often slaves, some people chose to fight because substantial sums of money could be won through victory. This sport remained popular until the 4th century, when the increased need to protect the empire from outside invaders as well as the rising influence of Christianity led to a decline and the eventual disappearance of it entirely.
Venatio was similar to gladiator combat, but it pitted men against animals. The odds were not often fair however, and many days would result in a handful of “hunters” killing hundreds of animals. Most often lions, tigers, bears, and elephants were featured in Venatio, but the warriors also hunted and killed non-aggressive creatures, such as rabbits and deer. Sometimes the animals would also be used to simply punish a criminal, who would be tied down while the animals were released into the ring.
Polo was first played by Persians starting in the 5th century to train and hone in their warrior’s horseback battle skills. The games would often have as many as 100 men on a side, and was a brutal, intense match meant to simulate war. The game followed the nomads’ migration to Persia (modern Iran) some time between 600 B.C. and 100 A.D. where it became a national sport, played by the nobility and military men.
Jousting, a sport where heavily armed combatants ride at each other at full speed and attempt to knock the other off of his horse, is a sport that is often depicted in movies and books. However, losing often did not result in just a loss of pride, it would often result in death of serious injury.
This sport originated in ancient Egypt and is still played today, but the results are quite a bit different. Fisherman’s Jousting works just like regular jousting, except instead of horses the competitors are on boats. Today, the event is safe, but in the days of pharaohs, most people didn’t swim. Therefore the loser would often drown.
Standard wrestling, a sport that dates back to 13th century BC, is a relatively safe sport. While participants used to wrestle in the nude, resulting in more pinched and grabbed skin, it wasn’t all that dangerous. However, an alternate version used to be popular called Pankration, which was more similar to today’s MMA fighting. There were virtually no rules on what you could do, outside of no gouging or biting.
Lacrosse was originally played by Native Americans as far back as 2,500 years ago as a way to simulate war. The game was not meant to be fun, but rather was meant to honor the gods and to introduce young warriors to warfare. The games could last days and have hundreds of warriors on each side. The players carried ornately decorated skin made from wood or deer skin and no protection was worn.
People marvel at the gigantic salaries professional athletes pull in today, but the best paid athlete of all time was a chariot racer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles. The salaries for competitors were so large because the sport generated massive audiences, despite (or maybe because of) the danger involved. Chariot Racing was an incredibly popular sport in ancient Greece and later in Rome, but was very dangerous, with the participants frequently being killed or injured. Most charioteers died at a young age.