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We know that modern Olympics are very popular international sporting events. What is the earliest known (documented) instance of an international sporting event?

Let us define an international sports event as an event where teams or participants from different empires, countries, or far off regions within the same empire or country competed against each other.

"Far off" is subjective but let's define it to mean a distance large enough to prevent systematic movement of people on a regular basis --more regular than the event itself. So, Gaul and Italy would be far off regions in the same empire under the Roman period.

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Are you talking about the modern era Olympic Games? –  Yannis Rizos Nov 23 '12 at 21:22
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Hm, a world wide event in ancient times would be very impractical, don't you think? –  Yannis Rizos Nov 23 '12 at 21:44
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Just because a question is obvious does not mean it should be closed. I think that someone who does not know much history is entitled to ask this question and those who know history have a duty to answer it. I won't +1 to compensate because I really don't like the question but I'll vote to reopen. –  Monster Truck Nov 24 '12 at 9:11
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@Anixx Depends. It could be argued that the Olympic Games were international as, although Greek, city states of the era can be considered different nations. On the other hand, non Greeks couldn't compete (by law). –  Yannis Rizos Nov 24 '12 at 11:39
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Awesome edit @MonsterTruck, voted to re-open. –  Yannis Rizos Nov 24 '12 at 14:43

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

For the record, in terms of modern sporting events, the earliest recorded international sporting event is said to be a cricket match which was played between the United States of America versus the British Empire's Canadian Province in 1844:

It is one of cricket's curiosities that the oldest international rivalry is not, as many assume, England against Australia. That started in 1877, some 33 years after a side representing USA met a team from Canada at Bloomingdale Park in Manhattan. It is believed that it is the world's oldest international sporting rivalry, pre-dating the Americas Cup by seven years.

A large crowd, around 5000, was present on the first day and, as was customary, betting was to the fore. It is estimated that as much as $100,000 was bet on the match, close to $2 million in modern money. The game was scheduled to start at 10am but the teams were in no hurry and it eventually got underway at 11.40am.

A drawing of the world's first international match between USA and Canada in New York in September 1844 © NYC

"Cricket was by far the biggest sport [in the USA] in this period," Tim Lockley, an expert in American history at Warwick University, told the Guardian in 1999. "Then the civil war started in 1861, just when it was reaching its peak of popularity. The sport became a victim of that war."

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The Mesoamerican Ballgame was played in more-ancient times than the Grecian games (1600 BCE) - but there is not a strong opinion about whether it was played as an inter-nation event in such ancient times.

Certainly, for the Aztecs, the ballgame had a ritual significance, also we know that their conduct of ritual was a political stage that hierarchically organized tributes. Those tributes often involved people, that were ultimately used for human sacrifice – and such sacrifice did sometimes occur after these sporting events.


There are other examples of inter-nation games in the Native American nations, though not as ancient as the Grecian games. Also, I have heard pro and con arguments on the idea that these sporting events were used to solve disputes and other 'inter-national' planning without deadly warfare.

One example of such an inter-nation game is Pasuckuakohowog. It was like football, and involved thousands of players (e.g. many nations).

Other games, like Chunkey, were played as far back as the 600's CE.

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+1 For adding non-European information. –  astabada Jan 10 '13 at 17:37

The obvious answer is the ancient Olympic Games, first established in 776 BC (according to legend), when Herakles1, Paeonaeus, Epimedes, Iasius and Idas raced at Olympia to honour Zeus. Olympia has been a site of religious activity since as early as the 10th century BC:

Extensive deposits filled with ash and votive offerings from the sanctuary of Olympia indicate the existence of an early long cult tradition dating back to the 10th century and on. Since no buildings have survived from this early period, we must assume that these earliest offerings were placed directly on the altars, or displayed in open.

The region of Elis organized the first Olympic festival in the 8th century BC. According to the tradition, the Olympic games were first held in 776 BC. They included one single athletic event, the one-stade race, won by Coroebus of Elis, the first victor of the Olympic games we know of. Around 700 BC, the site was subject to major reorganization: the ground was levelled off, and many wells were dug to the east. Changes were made at the northern borders of the sanctuary too. Gradually, the programs of the Olympic festivals expanded to include other athletic events for boys.

Do the ancient Olympic Games count as international though? Participation was restricted to free born Greek males2, the judges were called "Ἑλλανοδίκαι"3 and Alexander I of Macedon had to prove his Hellenic ancestry before being allowed to compete as Herodotus reports in Τερψιχόρη (22):

Now that the men of this family are Greeks, sprung from Perdiccas, as they themselves affirm, is a thing which I can declare of my own knowledge, and which I will hereafter make plainly evident. That they are so has been already adjudged by those who manage the Pan-Hellenic contest at Olympia. For when Alexander wished to contend in the games, and had come to Olympia with no other view, the Greeks who were about to run against him would have excluded him from the contest- saying that Greeks only were allowed to contend, and not barbarians. But Alexander proved himself to be an Argive, and was distinctly adjudged a Greek; after which he entered the lists for the foot-race, and was drawn to run in the first pair. Thus was this matter settled.

Alexander had also proclaimed his Hellenic heritage when acting as an emissary for Mardonius, prior to the Battle of Salamis:

"Men of Athens, that which I am about to say I trust to your honour; and I charge you to keep it secret from all excepting Pausanias, if you would not bring me to destruction. Had I not greatly at heart the common welfare of Greece, I should not have come to tell you; but I am myself a Greek by descent, and I would not willingly see Greece exchange freedom for slavery. Know then that Mardonius and his army cannot obtain favourable omens; had it not been for this, they would have fought with you long ago. Now, however, they have determined to let the victims pass unheeded, and, as soon as day dawns, to engage in battle. Mardonius, I imagine, is afraid that, if he delays, you will increase in number. Make ready then to receive him. Should he however still defer the combat, do you abide where you are; for his provisions will not hold out many more days. If ye prosper in this war, forget not to do something for my freedom; consider the risk I have run, out of zeal for the Greek cause, to acquaint you with what Mardonius intends, and to save you from being surprised by the barbarians. I am Alexander of Macedon."

The key word in both passages is "barbarian", a word that at the time was a colloquial description of non Greeks. The most common theory for the word's origin is the "bar bar" sound that Greeks claimed non Greeks sounded like. This is what "Greek" mostly meant at the time, a common language, and not so much a common ethnicity or nationality, at least not by today's definitions.

While speaking Greek was a requirement for participating in all four Panhellenic Games, the competing city-states were independent and autonomous entities, often at war with each other. The Olympic Truce and the tradition of announcing alliances between city states during the Games are further evidence that, at least for the era's definition, the Games were international.

Interestingly, the first recorded case of a naturalized athlete was in the 100th Games, when Sotades competed as an Ephesian citizen, while having won the δόλιχος long distance race for his birthplace, Crete, in the previous games. Pausanias in Ἑλλάδος περιήγησις reports that Sotades was bribed by the Ephesians to run for them (effectively changing citizenship) and was banished from Crete afterwards.

The Games became decisively international after the Roman conquest of Greece, with Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero and Armenian Prince Varazdat being recorded as Olympic victors.

1 Not the well known demigod, but an Idaean dactyl.
2 But see: Cynisca
3 Literally "Judges of the Greeks"

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If speaking Greek was enough to be counted as Greek, why Alexander had to prove anything? –  Anixx Nov 25 '12 at 22:33
    
Regarding Roman emperors you should account for that the Julii (to which gens both Tiberius and Nero belonged) counted their origin from Aeneas, whom they considered to be son of Venus and Anchises. Regarding Christian Varazdat, you should consider that all Christians upon baptism received a Greek name thus symbolically becoming part of the Greek people (at least not barbarians). –  Anixx Nov 25 '12 at 22:43
    
@Anixx Alexander was subjugated by the Persians, as I mention before the second quote, he was acting as an emissary for Mardonius. Please read all my references. Also your second comment doesn't make much sense, especially the part about Christians receiving a Greek name (references please?). Even if they did, what do Christians have to do with the Olympic Games (or... Ancient Greeks)? And I can't find any reference that Varazdat was indeed Christian (or that he had a Greek name, not that it would matter) –  Yannis Rizos Nov 26 '12 at 12:45

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