NBA, MLB & More: Tracing the Surprising Origins of Our Favorite Sports


| LAST UPDATE 08/31/2022

By Elizabeth Russo

For centuries, sports have played a part in our lives - whether we're playing on the courts or cheering from the bleachers. From Ancient Egypt to Native American tribes, here are the unexpected origins of our favorite pastimes.


Soccer is one of the most popular sports worldwide - and it could be due to a similar game dating all the way back to 2,500 BC. In Ancient Egypt, folks used to kick a ball around during the feast of fertility.

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Different cultures adapted their version of the sport until the middle ages, when modern-day soccer was invented in 1863. During that time, rugby and soccer came together, and the Football Association in England was formed - along with all the known rules we know and follow today. No wonder the Brits love their "football."


Despite basketball being one of America's favorite sports, a Canadian actually created the beloved game. Dr. James Naismith invented the sport in 1891 when he was attending the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and was tasked with coming up with an amusing activity to entertain students during a snowstorm.

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Considering he was in Springfield, Massachusetts, it was beyond freezing outside, so inside sport was mandatory. As a part-time gym teacher, Naismith decided to set up some peach baskets, grab a soccer ball and explain to his students the thirteen rules of the newest sport -and voila!

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The American football does not necessarily have an official inventor. It was generated sometime in the late 19th century by a Canadian university after Yale hosted McGill University in a good ol' sports match. The game was a mixture between English rugby and soccer, but more so mirrored rugby.

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Walter Camp, often regarded as the "Father of American Football," was the man who helped transition McGill's version of the sport to what we know it as today. Camp set the rules as we know them today, such as 11-men-per-side, the quarterback position, offensive signal calls, the scrimmage line, and the scoring system.

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Baseball might as well be embedded into the American constitution for as long as it's been around! The all-American sport dates all the way back to the 18th century when a group of New Yorkers (of course) established the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. And Alexander Joy Cartwright set up the rules and foundation of the sport.

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Before the modern-day sport was invented, baseball was a mixture of two English games known as rounders and cricket. However, once Cartwright got involved, things shifted and folks added the foul lines, three-strike rule, and of course, the diamond-shaped infield.

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The game of lacrosse takes the title of North America's oldest team sport, dating back to the Eastern Woodlands Native Americans and some of the Plains Indian tribes. The game was played to keep the members of the tribe nice and strong and helped build structured social conformity.

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Europeans showed interest in the game in the 1840s. Eventually, it blew up after the Montreal Lacrosse Club was formed, and it caught the Prince of Wales' attention in 1860. That same year, a dentist named William George Beers set the official rules and regulations and replaced the original deerskin ball with a rubber ball.

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So, there is some controversy behind the exact origins of golf and who the credit should actually go to. The modern game, how we know it, started in the mid-15th century in Scotland when the rules instructed its players to swing a club from one point to the other with the least amount of hits as possible.

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On the contrary, some believe the game began in a small town in the Netherlands a few hundred years before. Rumor has it, the game was called "cold" and played every Boxing Day when two teams of four players each took turns hitting a wooden ball with a wooden stick directed towards specific targets.

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Ice Hockey

Although we heavily associate ice hockey with Canadians, it appears the sport was actually invented in England! The game was quite popular among King Edward VII and Charles Darwin during the 18th century. But it is still unclear who exactly invented the popular sport.

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So how did Canada get all the credit for the sport? Well, the first organized game went down in March of 1875 in Montreal, Canada, and the people must have loved it for it to stick around this long. The sport is now recognized as the nation's official sport.

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Ice Skating

Speaking of ice sports, let's take a look at how ice skating got its start. The pastime dates back to the 14th century when the Dutch used wooden platform skates. With iron bottoms attached to their shoes, they deployed leather straps and poles to maneuver around the ice.

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A few hundred years later, the Dutch ended a double-edged metal blade to the shoe, eliminating the need for the pole and implementing the "Dutch Roll," which allowed the skater to just glide around the ice. Figure skating was then introduced to the world in 1908 during the Olympics and has been a part of the games since.

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Rumor has it that the sport was invented by 16-year-old William Webb Ellis, who was playing soccer at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, when he picked up a ball and ran with it. But even though he is credited with the invention, apparently, it was the school's headmaster, Thomas Arnold, who created the sport.

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Although it is unclear who decided to pick up the ball after it had been kicked around years prior, the first set of rules was written in 1845 and stem from its sister sport, soccer. The International Rugby Football Board was developed in 1884 when the boys from the school wanted to learn the game as adults. And here we are!

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To our surprise, cricket is actually the second most popular sport in the world, even though it may not be so well-watched in North America. However, for folks all around the world, it's as mesmerizing as watching LeBron dunk. The story goes all the way back to 13th century England when it was played by shepherds.

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The sports' first recorded match dates back to 1679 in Sussex when the prize was 50 guineas. And almost a decade later, the first intercounty match went down between Kent and Surrey. Although a set of informal rules were probably invented by that point, the oldest formal rules are dated back to 1744.

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Tennis dates back to around 1,000 AD, when French monks played the sport in a monastery using their hands and a wooden ball (similar to volleyball) with a stretched rope across their courtyard. The French also coined the name when yelling "tenez" to their opponent, which translates to "take" when they served the ball.

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The sport's popularity skyrocketed in the 14th century when wooden frame rackets were laced with sheet guts, and cork balls were invented. However, modern-day tennis didn't surge until the 1870s, and the rules were adopted during the sport's first Wimbledon tournament.

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Let's take a look at how the classic American high school sport was invented. The sport actually dates back to 1895 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, at the YMCA. Seems like a few sports are home to the YMCA - no wonder it's such an institution to this day.

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Anyways, who invented the sport? The gym's Director of Physical Education, William Morgan, takes the credit for this one - although it once helmed the name Mintonette before it was changed to volleyball. The sport eventually reached its name after a crowd member yelled out there was a lot of "volleying" going down on the court.

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This sport can actually be credited to the Norwegian island of Rodoy when researchers found a rock carving of a skier dating over 4,000 years. Vikings in Scandinavia completely worshipped the god and goddess of skiing, Ull and Skade, and eventually, the sport was brought over to the States by Norwegian gold miners.

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So how did water skiing become a popular sport? Well, that one is all thanks to 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson, who was determined to prove that someone could ski on water, just like one can ski on snow - and well, he was right. Trust an 18-year-old to be risky enough to solve that mystery.

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Competitive Swimming

Although swimming pools did not make it big until the middle of the 19th century, the sport didn't take long to pick up. In 1837, a handful of pools with diving boards had been built in England. And when the Olympics debuted almost 60 years later, competitive swimming was a part of the schedule.

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Following the first Olympic Games in Greece, swimming pools skyrocketed in popularity, and similar sporting events took place. Swimmers from the 20th century, such as two-time Olympian Buster Crabbe and three-time gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, even built successful Hollywood careers.

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Fencing goes all the way back to ancient civilization days, and it was used for two reasons: combat and self-defense. And honestly, that checks out. The earliest known swordplay dates back to circle 1190 BC in Egypt, but around the 15th century, fencing became a prominent European sport.

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Two centuries later, the French school of sword fighting perfected the sports strategy and rules. And later the practice sword, the foil, was invented. The French fencing master La Boëssière and infamous duelist Joseph Bologne eventually created the proto-type of the fencing mask, a very crucial part of the sport.

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Although the exact origins of surfing are unclear, evidence shows the sport dates back to ancient Polynesia and was brought to Europe's attention during a voyage to Tahiti in 1767. The surfboard was originally made from solid wood, was about 10 feet long, and could weigh up to 200 pounds! Imagine surfing on that thing.

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However, during the 20th century, a Hawaiian surfer, George Freeth, cut down the massive board to eight feet. And years later, the first hollow board and fin were added to the boards. In the 1940s, Bob Simmons transformed the board into what we know it as today, becoming the "Father of the Modern Surfboard."

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Similar but different to surfing, this is one of those sports that combines two ideas together, and voila, windsurfing! The cousin of surfing, windsurfing is a mixture of sailing and surfing in one, where a person uses a board called a sailboard, which is basically comprised of a board and a rig.

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The origins of the sport date back to 1948, when 20-year-old Newman Darby used a handheld sail and rig mounted on a universal joint to take control of a small one-person watercraft. Although he was not the one to patent the creation, he is credited with the invention.

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Tracing all the way back to Egypt in 3000 BC, boxing was even a part of the ancient Olympic Games in the 7th century BC. During that time, however, boxers' hands and forearms were wrapped with soft leather bands for protection. And during the Roman Empire, boxers adapted metal-studded gloves called cestus. Ouch.

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However, with the fall of the Roman Empire came the fall of boxing, and it wasn't until the 17th century that the sport picked up again. In 1880, the English determined the five amateur boxing weight classes, and in 1904 the sport was officially introduced to the Olympic games.

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Before it became one of the most popular Olympic sports, gymnastics got its start in ancient Greece as an exercise to increase strength, physical coordination, acrobatic skills, and tumbling. However, when the Romans conquered Greece, it became more formal, and gymnasiums were used as places to prepare for battle.

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However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, gladiators and soldiers became less interested in the sport. It wasn't until 1774, when physical exercise was added to schools in Dessau, Saxony, that modern gymnastics began to flourish again. Ludwig Jahm, the "father of modern gymnastics," added the balance beam, parallel bars, and more.

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Since people have been traveling by boat, rowing has technically been in existence. But the first recorded reference to the sport dates back to an Egyptian carving from the 15th century BC. The Roman poet Virgil mentioned the sport in the Latin epic poem, the Aeneid.

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Fast forward hundreds of years later, some of the country's top colleges, such as Harvard and Yale, have adapted the sport into some good ol' friendly competition. England's Oxford University Boat Club, and its rival, Cambridge, held their first men's competition, known as the University Boat Race, in 1929.

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The classic bar game, billiards, a.k.a. pool, dates back to sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe. The sport began very similarly to lawn croquet and then moved indoors with a wooden table and green cloth on the table - just like the green grass croquet was played on.

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The game was played by everyone, from commoners to kings, and evolved over hundreds of years to how we see it today. When it was first introduced indoors, balls were shoved with wooden sticks called maces. The cue stick was developed in the late 1600s, and around 1850, the billiard table had transformed into its current form.

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Though the details of the sport's origins are unclear, the credit all goes to the engineer, Sherman Poppen. In 1965 in freezing cold and snowy Michigan, the engineer invented the initial snowboard by attaching a rope to two skis bolted together for his daughters to play around on. And, well, magic happened.

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The invention was picked up by a sports equipment manufacturer, who then licensed the "Snurfer" and quickly began to mass-produce the new and very impressive snow-ready tool. Poppen became recognized as the "father of the snowboard" soon after for his invention.

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Archery dates back to around 2800 BC, when the Egyptians first developed the bow with an animal horn glued together with animal tendons and wood as the base. The bowstring was made from sheep intestines, and the arrows were light enough to be shot 400 yards in the distance.

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Egyptians used the machinery on the back of chariots when they were in battle in order to easily outwit an enemy. However, during the 16th century, the bow and arrow were replaced by firearms for those going to battle. And by the 19th century, the weapon had become more of a hunting tool.

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Field Hockey

Before there was ice hockey, there was field hockey - which dates all the way back to 1272 BC. There are quite a few different alternatives to the stick and ball game. But it really became popular in the early 19th century when the sport was played in English schools.

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The team sport is traditionally played on a turf or grass field with 11 players, including the goalie. The rules for the games were established in 1875, and over thirty years later, the sport appeared in the men's Olympics in London and only became a permanent game for men in 1928.

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Canoeing and Kayaking

The earliest evidence of a canoe dates back to approximately 6000 years ago, when the vessel was discovered at the tomb of a Sumerian king near the Euphrates River. The original canoe and kayak design was created to move through the water by single-bladed paddles, which were typically crafted of wood.

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South and North American Indians used the canoes for transportation, fishing, and going into battle. It wasn't until the 19th century when a British barrister, John MacGregor, designed a boat similar to the original design and took the vessel to explore many of Europe's great lakes and waters.

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Before badminton got its official name, a very similar game was played in ancient Egypt and Greece, known as battledore and shuttlecock. The game used a feathered shuttlecock back and forth with small rackets - so again, very similar to the modern game except with a few less rules.

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During the 18th century, the game was played in India, naming it "Poona," and years later was adapted by British Army officers who were stationed in Indiana and took the game back to England. The game became such a hit with the Duke of Beaufort in 1873 at his estate, the "Badminton" in Gloucestershire, and voila!

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Roller Skating

This fun sport dates back to 1735 in London when John Joseph Merlin brought out his new wheeled shoes at a party and famously crashed right on into a mirror. (Hence, the importance of a helmet). It was almost 100 years later when Monsieur Petitbled patented the roller skate with three wheels.

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However, James Leonard Plimpton added the fourth wheel, allowing skaters to twist and turn when needed! Skating lost its popularity during the early 1900s but hit its total prime during the disco era during the 70s and 80s with the fame of roller rinks.

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Although cheerleading is most commonly found in the US, the sport was actually founded in Great Britain during the 1860s and didn't make its way over to the US until two decades later. It was actually at Princeton University in 1884 where crowd chanting was developed to enhance school spirit - so they developed a catchy tune!

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The idea of chanting to a crowd of spectators flourished, and although the first cheerleaders were men, women currently dominate the sport. By the 1930s, women were using pom-poms and began including gymnastics and dance into their routines to cheer on their alma mater.

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Through artifacts found in the tomb of an Egyptian child buried in 5200 BC, researchers have dated the sport back years and years! In the ancient tomb, anthropologists found nine pieces of stone that a ball of some sort was thrown through and an accompanying marble archway. Sounds familiar!

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The game originated in Europe, but the bowling pins are credited to ancient Germany - though, used for a religious ceremony, not a sport. The earliest references to the game in the US date back to the early 1800s. But it was played throughout the world with all different rules until the American ruleset landed on tenpins.

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Karate, translating to "empty hand" in Japanese, developed in Eastern Asia over centuries and centuries and became organized in Okinawa in the 17th century. Although an ancient sport, Japan recognized karate as a martial art only 86 years ago - in addition to Judo, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, and more.

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When the hybrid martial art rose, there was no ranking system, colored belts, or typical style. Rather, the sport focused on complete and total self-disciple. It wasn't until the 1930s that karate adapted training uniforms, colored belts, and ranking from judo.

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