Individuals in a race compete with another or others to see who is fastest. But when the race competition was invented? It is reported that races were popular in the ancient Olympic games. Is this the first recorded example of a race competition in human history? Or there are older examples?

Two naked men leap forward to race, while two others cheer and officiate.

  • Seems like it (though the article is light, so there might be more to it): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprint_(running)#History Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 13:45
  • 9
    Do fictional descriptions of races count? Book 23 of the Illiad, written in about 800 BC, describes several races. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 13:52
  • 6
    Since human have been chasing prey and running from predators for hundreds of thousands of years before the first Homo sapiens, running speed has been important long before Homo sapiens, and it is probable that the first races were run a million years ago. But that is more like a guess than a historical statement.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 16:28
  • 1
    chariot racing is probably recorded earlier.
    – John Dee
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 20:22
  • 1

2 Answers 2


The earliest evidence of footraces may well be from Sumer around 2000 BC. You may also want to consider the Sed festival in Egypt which dates back to before 3000 BC and which involved the pharaoh having to complete a race after ruling for 30 years, this in order to prove his fitness to continue to rule.


Sumerian documents also record that some of the general population participated in organized running events. One month was known as the “footrace month,” during which there was an annual run as part of the festivities in the city of Umma, located between Nippur and Ur.

Source: Nigel Crowther, 'Sport in Ancient Times' (2007)

Specific examples are given in the article Running Phenomena in Ancient Sumer by Deane Anderson Lamont in the Journal of Sport History (vol 22, No. 3, 1995). In the city of Umma, two tablets have been found dating to the reign of Shu-Suen (about 2038 to 2030 BC). Both of them list provisions for 'city race-making' during the 8th month in Sumer (15th Oct to 15th Nov).

Lamont also cites a reference to "foot-race month" in a legal document dating to the Babylonian period from around 1800 BC.

The earliest mention of a run is recorded in a royal hymn dating to c. 2088 BC, and concerns a race against time by King Shulgi of Ur himself:

King Shulgi planned to appear at two far-distant festival locations (Nippur and Ur) in order to be seen in celebration with his subjects at each site. He was to celebrate the eshesh feasts in the important cities on the "same day"

Source: Lamont

Below is an excerpt from "Sulgi the King of the Road" (as labelled by Samuel Kramer):

Like a wild ass I galloped, With my heart full of joy, I ran onward. Racing like a solitary wild-donkey, (Before) Utu set his face toward his 'house', I traversed a distance of fifteen 'miles'. My sag-ur-sag priests gazed at me (with astonishment): In Nippur and Ur, in one day, I celebrated their e s e s-festival!

Source: Jacob Klein, 'The Royal Hymns of Shulgi King of Or: Man's Quest for Immortal Fame' (Transactions on the American Philosophical Society, vol. 71, part 7, 1981)

It is certainly possible that the king could have attended both events if he was in a "highly trained physiological state". Earlier lines in the verse suggest this was a round trip, a claim which has been treated with understandable scepticism; the round trip would have been over 200 miles, while the current world record for the longest distance run in a day is 188.59 miles (set in 1997). In a footnote, Klein also mentions a verse where Shulgi ran with other road racers:

Sulgi is praised in such terms as, for example, "a swift runner, a 'hurricane', the strength of his loins is never ending"; or "a runner who emerges in/from the country-sides," "who competes with the tireless (racers) of the road."


This was not a race in the sense you may interested in as it had only one participant (the pharaoh) and there's no clear time limit; the challenge was to complete the race distance. In the article The Sed-festival (Heb Sed) Renewal of the kings' Reign, Dr. Sameh M. Arab of Alexandria University writes:

The Sed festival (Heb Sed), named after the jackal god "Sed", was the most important celebration of kingship in ancient Egypt. Its origin rooted in the pre-dynastic times (before 3150 BC) and lasted until the Ptolemaic Period, celebrating the continued rule of the pharaoh.

The festival aimed to renew the reigning king's power that had become depleted over time, endangering the continued existence of the state. This was a replacement of the more ancient ritual of killing the king who became unable to continue his reign effectively because of ageing.

Thus, originally, the ruler was effectively running for his throne and even his life, though it is clear that later on it became much more of a ritual rather than an actual test of the ruler's physical capabilities.

enter image description here

"Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC. Top register depicts the king running in his Heb Sed festival as well as seated on a throne. Lower register depicts the destruction of enemy strongholds and the taking of captives." Attribution: British Museum [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]. Source.

  • What about the distance in the Sumerian King's Race makes it implausible? Do you have a link? Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 19:30
  • Are you suggesting the king ran from Ur to Nippur and back himself? Chariots appeared around this time. Also, it wasn't necessary to make the round trip in one day to attend both festivals, just one leg of it.
    – Spencer
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 0:48
  • 1
    I don't see anything about a run from Ur to Nippur in the Shulgi B praise poem but he does boast "I come first in the race, and my knees do not get tired."
    – Spencer
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 1:03
  • @Spencer 'There and back again' is basically what the hymn says even though, as you point out, he only needed to do one leg to attend both events. Scholar's interpretations of this vary, one suggestion being that the return leg may just be a later literary addition. I'm still working on this and hope to cite the exact hymn. Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 1:22
  • 1
    @Spencer According to one of the leading authorities on Shulgi's Royal Hymns, Jakob Klein, there are many such hymns so I think you've found a different one mentioning 'race' - congrats on that! Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 1:25

Mortuary complex of Sahure

Perhaps debatably, the first record of racing could come from the mortuary temple of Sahure where it is claimed on wikipedia that racing boats for the military are depicted.

Development of the Egyptian navy, wikipedia

The extensive nautical scenes from Sahure's mortuary complex are sufficiently detailed to show that specialized racing boats for the military and perhaps for ceremonial training were built at the time.[119]

Relief, by Neithsabes Relief from Sahure's mortuary temple showing the Egyptian fleet returning from the Levant

2465-2325 BC

The estimated time period for this event is thought to be somewhere between 2465 and 2325 BC.

Sahure, wikipedia

Sahure (also Sahura, meaning "He who is close to Re") was a pharaoh of ancient Egypt and the second ruler of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2465 – c. 2325 BC).

Sahure Head of a gneiss statue of Sahure in the gallery 103 of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.