The first Olympic Games were held in Greece 776 BCE as an appreciation of what the human body could achieve. Indeed, the ideal of human perfection for the Greeks was a muscular and athletic body, as seen in their sculptures. Later, during Roman times, blood sports emerged, such as with gladiators, reflecting Rome's focus on conquest. Native Americans preferred to illustrate their skills and speed with horses and weapons as an existential imperative, both to ward off rivals as well as for hunting.
In Muslim history, it is reported that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) threw the champion wrestler of Mecca, enjoyed sports, and encouraged parents to teach swimming, archery, and riding to their children. The ancient sport of polo hails from Central Asia and followed the nomads’ migration to Persia. Historical miniatures and manuscripts show women and men enjoying the sport.
Later in history, archery was the traditional sport of the Ottomans for centuries, and Sultan Mahmud 11 was a patron of the Archers Guild. And in Japan, according to Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, in his The Sacred Origins of Sports and Culture, expert Zen archers can hit a bull's eye with their eyes closed, as the sport has "as the ultimate goal the same 'spiritual dissolution' of the differences between subject, object and union, that is the hallmark of all mystic attainment unto the Heart and the Spirit." This is a notion that has parallels in Islamic mysticism. Similarly, Thomas Moore, a former monk, psychotherapist, and author of the bestselling Care of the Soul, has said that "A football game is like a religious ritual. You’re out of bounds if you step outside the marked borders. In religions, it’s the same. Sports follow almost all the rules of ritual."
Sports can be a beautiful and graceful spectacle, as in the choreography of a synchronized swim team, ice skating, a rugby team handing the ball down the line in a perfect linear movement or the actions of a rowing team gliding its oars through a river, as one composite body, and rowing is perhaps the most demanding of all sports as it is a constant sprint from start to finish, requiring all eight rowers to be in perfect unison throughout a race, lest a slower oar collides with another and capsize the boat. It is the ultimate test of teamwork, endurance, and strength.
In more modern times, sports have become more organized, at all levels in society, from schools and soccer leagues, to national tournaments and international events. This has also led them to be politicized, used as proxies for war, and to raise nationalistic fervor. The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games dashed Hitler's desire to illustrate the supremacy of the Aryan race, when a black American athlete, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals. Since then there have been numerous boycotts and other political disputes during these Games that are intended to show friendly competition between athletes. Author George Orwell's comment that "Serious sport is war minus the shooting," has a basis in political reality.
Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, in a 1931 broadcast in London, said that public health could be promoted "both by education thereon and by the encouragement of physical culture, hiking, sports, and games." He preferred golfing and horse riding, but in the 1940s he had also written that he wanted the Jamat to play sports "vigorously," for health reasons; and Jamats around the world went on to initiate such programs. Mawlana Hazar Imam himself was an avid skier, participating in the 1964 Winter Olympic Games on behalf of Iran, and played ice hockey and soccer as a student.
The importance of sports for the Jamat is underscored by the inclusion of Aga Khan Youth and Sports Boards in many Ismaili Councils, which encourage sport and wellbeing initiatives. The most recent examples of major sports events organized by Jamats were the Jubilee Games of 2008 and 2016, held in Nairobi and Dubai respectively.
Today, there are countless exercise and sports options to pursue individuals, such as running, bicycling, various gym machines, to aerobics, and yoga. Organized events such as basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, and cricket, are among the most common but even surfing, skateboarding and break dancing are now considered Olympic sports.
No matter the choice, exercise remains at the heart of all sport, the health benefits of which we are all aware. But organized sports have other advantages; they instill discipline, concentration, teamwork, understanding the skill and weaknesses of one's own team and of opponents, the need to put the team before the ego of the individual, respect for rules, and sportsmanship. It has been said that “it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” While many would disagree, as winning is important, the larger point being made is that competitive sports should accord respect to all players, and be played with integrity.
Famed US television commentator Bob Schieffer once remarked: "...sports teaches us how to handle failure, to get up and try again when we lose. That's the most valuable lesson since we lose more than we win in life. Somehow those lessons have been lost in modern sports. If we are blind to that and do nothing about it, then the core values which have been the strength of this country are changing. We cannot let that happen.”
Sports are also about values and can be useful for the psycho-social development of children. Obvious positive values sports can inculcate include respect for others, humility, patience, perseverance, commitment, the importance of physical health, resilience and dealing with loss, teamwork, and the pursuit of excellence. These traits usually affect one's character and how one leads one's life. In a 2014 article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, authors Dawes and Simpkins assert that "participation in sports creates character, builds character, and reveals character."
There is, of course, another side to sports, especially professional sports, which seem to occupy much of the public's leisure time as couch-surfing spectators. Winning is generally considered the ultimate goal, and negative traits are often displayed by players, such as boorishness, bending of rules, if not outright cheating, as seen in doping scandals and drug use, gambling, and brawls on court or field. These actions, as well as those of fans-turned-hooligans, reflect the denigration of sports' lofty values, which are encompassed in that of striving for excellence. One wag summarized it thus: “Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman's game played by beasts; football is a beastly game played by beasts.”
At the professional level much still needs to change in many countries but at the individual level things are changing, as fitness has become a lifestyle across the globe, for one's health. Sports are also recognized as an outlet for youth to channel their energy into positive activities when many less salutary alternatives exist in their neighborhoods. It is a way to engage them, socialize them, and to give them a sense of belonging to a group with similar constructive objectives and interests.
While many external facilities exist for exercise, our Jamati institutions have provided platforms for sports and recreation for our youth, as well as our seniors. It is for us to take advantage of them, and encourage our youth to participate - for our own health, and mental well-being.