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Professional Athletes, Individual Sports


The origin of the first recreational activity—or sport—is not known. It can be assumed, however, that the notion of sport was born the first time anyone attempted to fish, hunt, or wrestle, simply for the pleasure of it or to compete against another person, rather than for self-preservation. Wrestling matches, for example, are believed to have taken place 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria; archaeological excavations there turned up cave drawings depicting men wrestling one another while others looked on. Like the skills associated with hunting and fishing, wrestling and other hand-to-hand combat skills were developed in order to survive. Competitions to see who had the best skills in these areas inevitably resulted in a love of and devotion to the skill, or sport, itself.

The ancient Greeks established the Olympic Games, a sporting event that is considered to be the first instance of organized sports. While the first written mention of them dates back to 776 B.C, historians believe that the games may actually have begun two centuries before this date. Rome’s conquest of ancient Greece didn’t put an end to the games, but instead expanded them: Popular Roman sports, such as chariot-racing and gladiator battles, were added to the list of events, and special arenas were built to stage them. Evidence of these venues still exists, from the amphitheater to the famed Colosseum in Rome. The Olympic Games, however, ended in 394 A.D. and were not brought back until 1896.

In the absence of the Olympics, other organized sports began to develop throughout the world. The French became fond of tennis in the 1400s, and historical records show that the English participated in track-and-field competitions in 1510. The influence of royalty also helped raise awareness of different sports; Mary, Queen of Scots, popularized golf during her reign (1542–1567), and her successor, James I of England, repealed a ban on soccer. Horse racing also rose in prominence in England in 1714 with the introduction of the first sweepstakes in the sport.

The difference between sports from before and after the 19th century is organization. Before the 19th century, most sports did not have official rules, competitions, or standards of play. During the 19th century, however, many sports changed from being a pastime or a hobby to an official, organized sport. Organizations established rules governing play, the field of play, and competitions. In 1825, for example, the first modern track-and-field meet was held in England. Meanwhile, the English game of rugby evolved into American football in the United States. The first game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.

Leading up to World War II, sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, and boxing began to grow in popularity and attracted large audiences. Governing bodies and organizations were formed to oversee the fair play of each of these sports. Gradually, coverage of sporting events on radio and in newspapers began to grow until sports became the national pastime for Americans. Sports stars became as renowned as movie stars or politicians, sometimes even more so.

Sports, both individual and team, have often provided the first opportunity to break political and social prejudices. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, before a primarily German crowd that included Adolph Hitler, an African American, Jesse Owens, won the 100-yard dash; won the long-jump and set a record that stood for 25 years; won the 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles; and was a member of the winning 4 x 100-yard relay team, which Hitler had previously predicted would be a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Until the 1940s, professional sports remained segregated in the United States, with occasional exceptions in boxing and track and field. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke racial lines when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him.

Today the number of professional team sports is growing, but the numbers still favor male athletes. Only a few professional teams exist for female athletes, none of which are currently promoted or supported by the media and public to the degree that male teams are. Professional sports have long remained closed to women athletes for a number of reasons, from outright prejudice to finances. For centuries women weren't allowed to exercise strenuously or play a sport, much less devote the time necessary to excelling in a specific sport. It was simply believed to be unappealing and unseemly for a woman to exert herself. The bias against women in sports went so far as to question the femininity of female athletes.

Women first made their entree into the sports world in individual sports, such as golf (Babe Didrikson Zaharias) and tennis (Suzanne Lenglen). These two women alone established standards for both male and female athletes. Didrikson Zaharias is considered the greatest woman athlete of the first half of the 20th century. At 16, she was named an All-American high school basketball player, and then proceeded to international fame in track and field, winning several U.S. titles and, in the 1932 Olympic Games, gold medals in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles, and a silver in the high jump. She became a professional golfer in 1948 after great success as an amateur. That year she captured the U.S. Women's Open title, which she won again in 1950 and 1954. Didrikson Zaharias was the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in 1932, 1945–1947, 1950, and 1954. Lenglen, who lost only one match between 1919 and 1926 and who won Wimbledon's single's title a record six times, was also the first tennis player to ever sign a contract and undertake a professional tour, which she did in 1926.

The success of these women did not necessarily pave the way for more women—the road would continue to be rough—but their presence in the world of sports certainly made admittance to it for other women a little easier. The stunning play of tennis stars Margaret Court Smith, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams, as well as golfers Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley, Amy Alcott, Annika Sorenstam, Inbee Park, and Michelle Wie proves that women athletes can excel and entertain as well as their male counterparts.

Today, athletes who compete in individual sports at the professional level earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries or prize money at professional competitions. The top players or athletes in each individual sport earn as much or more in endorsements and advertising, usually for sports-related products and services, but increasingly for products or services completely unrelated to their sport.

In early 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak brought the entertainment industry, including all kinds of sports, to an unprecedented standstill. Beyond team sports, the pandemic impacted competitions featuring individual athletes as well. For example, the 2020 Boston Marathon was canceled and the 2020 Summer Olympics were rescheduled for 2021. Moving forward, athletes faced an uncertain future that depended on the status of the outbreak and measures to protect public health.