All animal sports have their roots in historical customs: religious rituals; contests staged for audience entertainment; and warfare, hunting, and herding practices.
Use of Bulls
Centuries ago the Minoans of Crete practiced religious rituals in which they grabbed running bulls by the horns and flipped or jumped over them. Many ancient religions had rituals that involved bull slaughter. Roman gladiators also fought against bulls in the Coliseum. The Moors (tribes of Arab and African descent that conquered Spain in the eighth century) fought bulls from horseback, a practice that evolved into bullfighting during the Middle Ages.
Blood sports, such as animal fighting, may have their roots in animal sacrifice, but were really popularized by the Romans as entertainment. Thousands of wild animals died in Rome's Coliseum while doing battle with each other or with gladiators. These events were often more like slaughters than sports. The animals were usually tortured with hot spikes or even dabbed with burning pitch to make them fight more ferociously and violently.
Blood sports surged in popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages. These included bears, bulls, and dogs or cocks (roosters) fighting with each other in various forums. Baiting involved a large animal, such as a bull or bear, being set upon by a group of dogs. Originally, baiting did have a practical, if superstitious, purpose. Medieval people believed that whipping a bull before it was slaughtered tenderized the meat. Mauling by dogs was considered the same as tenderizing. In fact, many customers refused to buy bull meat unless they knew the bull had been baited.
Some baitings were held in small arenas, but many occurred in front of shops and pubs. These events were staged by merchants, particularly pub owners, to attract a crowd. Baitings provided so much public entertainment that they were expanded to include other animals. Witnesses at some medieval baitings described instances of donkeys and other farm animals being tied to bulls and bears and being attacked by the dogs. Baitings were imported to the United States with the colonists.
When legislation was passed in England and the United States outlawing bear- and bull-baiting, cockfighting and dogfighting became more popular. These blood sports required less space than baiting and could be conducted without drawing as much public attention.
Sporting events involving horses have their origins in warfare, hunting, and herding practices, in which fast horses were a necessity. Archaeological records indicate that horse racing occurred in ancient Babylon, Syria, and Egypt. It was an event in the Greek Olympic Games as early as 664 B.C. Selective breeding of horses dates back thousands of years and was practiced by ancient Arabs and Romans.
Organized horse races were the inevitable outcome of human efforts to breed ever-faster horses that performed well in battle. The Romans held chariot races in huge arenas called hippodromes, the most famous of which was the Circus Maximus.
Horse racing with riders became widespread during the Middle Ages, particularly in England. Knights returning from the Crusades brought back fast Arabian stallions that were bred with sturdy English mares to produce a new line of horses called Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbred racing was popular with the aristocrats and royalty of British society, earning it the title "Sport of Kings." Human dependence on the horse during hunting and herding led to the creation of many other competitions in which horses excelled, such as jumping over obstacles or chasing lost cows. Rodeo sports thus were born.
Greyhound racing probably began several millennia ago with the Bedouin tribes of Africa and Asia. It was popular with the Egyptian pharaohs and in ancient Greece and Rome. Aristocrats of the Middle Ages used greyhounds to hunt rabbits, deer, and foxes. During the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I is credited with inventing a hunting sport called coursing in which greyhounds were used to pursue hares. Greyhound racing came to be called the "Sport of Queens." It did not become popular in America until the 1800s.