"That was a deed that had never been done before and which man had never heard of...except in the case of the King who is rich in glory" Engraved on a stone from Giza.

Athletics and the spirit of competition in contests sprang in the Mediterranean long before the Olympic games became an institution in Greece of the 8th century BC.

A number of literary and iconographic sources from Egypt and Mesopotamia, starting approximately about 3000 BC and on, indicate the existence of athletic activities.

Egypt and Mesopotamia did have regular sport meetings, in some even food was granted to the athletes. Although the competitive spirit was not unknown in such events, there is hardly any evidence that the aim of these contests was the recognition of outstanding individuals.

The pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of Mesopotamia have recorded their interest in athletic activities on the walls of their temples and tombs. Sports in Egypt included wrestling, stick fighting, boxing, acrobatics, archery, equestrian events, boating and ball games.

The oldest reliefs with wrestling scenes, dated from 2400 BC, decorated the tombs of Ptahotep and Akhethotep. There, the wrestlers are depicted naked.

At Beni Hasan more than 4000 wrestling scenes were found, dated from 2000 BC. There, we attend a number of athletic movements and postures of athletes in pairs. The wrestlers, wearing belts, attempt to turn their opponents to their back by back or shoulder movements.

In a relief in the temple of Ramses III at Madinet Habu, dating from the 12th century BC, Egyptians and foreigners competing in wrestling and stick-fighting in front of the pharaoh. Whenever a score in falls is achieved, the Egyptian is proclaimed the successful competitor. In one case, there is evidence of interference by an official. In another scene, the Egyptian wrestler applies a choking neck hold to his opponent, possibly a foreigner. An inscription below refers to him warning: "Take care! You are in the presence of pharaoh". The defeated lays on the ground, whereas another raises his hands in victory.

Most likely, athletic festivals were limited to the court and athletic activities were mainly the concern of the members of the higher class. Egyptian texts reveal the importance of physical training for the pharaoh and the members of the court. In one case, we are told that the king of Mesopotamia demonstrated his hunting abilities in front of his nobles. An inscription about pharaoh Amenophis II describes how he challenged other nobles to excel in bow shooting. A stone from Giza boasts: "that was a deed that had never been done before and which man had never heard of...except in the case of the King who is rich in glory". We are also told that Thutmoses' III achievements in bow shooting "fulfil the wish of his followers for success in might and victory".

Wrestling scenes were also common in Mesopotamia. Wrestling scenes, carved on seals and reliefs of all periods, show wrestlers wearing belts and grasping their opponents by them. Cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia refer to different postures and holds on the limbs and belt. According to one view, belt wrestling was an essential part of a warrior's or hero's life. In the known epic of Gilgamesh, the divine hero meets Enkidu in a wrestling match, whereby "they seized each other, they bent down like expert [wrestlers]". On a seal, dated from 1800 BC, a hero and a bull man fight wearing belts.

Minoan Crete | Mycenean Greece | Homeric Age

Athletism & Polis | Why Olympia?