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: (see https://www.olympic.org/ancient-olympic-games/the-sports-events). Is this the first recorded example of a race competition in human history? Or there are older examples?

enter image description here

  • Seems like it (though the article is light, so there might be more to it): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprint_(running)#History – Denis de Bernardy Aug 5 '19 at 13:45
  • 9
    Do fictional descriptions of races count? Book 23 of the Illiad, written in about 800 BC, describes several races. – kimchi lover Aug 5 '19 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 Aug 5 '19 at 16:28
  • 1
    chariot racing is probably recorded earlier. – John Dee Aug 6 '19 at 20:22
  • 1

The earliest evidence of a footrace 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". However, completing the round trip (over 200 miles) in 24 hours seems less plausible given that the current world record for the longest distance run in a day is 188.59 miles (set in 1997).


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? – Pieter Geerkens Aug 7 '19 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 Aug 8 '19 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 Aug 8 '19 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. – Lars Bosteen Aug 8 '19 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! – Lars Bosteen Aug 8 '19 at 1:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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