Long known as the Entertainment Capital of the World, Las Vegas is becoming known as a global sports hub as it adds events like the Formula 1 Heineken Silver Las Vegas Grand Prix and yet another pro team (who's ready for some baseball?) to its portfolio. The boom in the city’s sports industry and related events just goes to show that sports have, since ancient times, been an integral part of human culture and entertainment.
So, it’s par for the course that UNLV offers a class on the history of sports. Taught by history professor John Haberstroh, the Topics in Ancient History (Sports) course culminates — not with a typical exam — but with an ode to Olympic-esque events. For their final project, students are tasked with recreating an one of the sports covered in the course. Or, boldly, invent one of their own!
HIST 456: Topics in Ancient History
This course explores sport and athletic cultures throughout the ancient world, explains Haberstroh. The course focuses on ancient sports in Greece and Rome, but also examines the topic in China, Japan, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mesoamerica.
"We engage with a variety of primary sources for ancient sports including literature, material culture, and art in order to reconstruct ancient perceptions of athletic virtues, philosophical reflections, military connotations, professionalism vs. amateurism, and dangerous encounters," he says. "We pay close attention to how sports and athletic culture intersected with politics, religion, gender, and identities."
Why is it being taught?
With the ever-growing presence of professional sports in Las Vegas and continual global interest in the modern Olympics and other global sporting events like the FIFA World Cup, it is important to recognize the ancient origins of sport and athletic cultures. "Students in the course seek to find the humanity in sports despite the world’s growing obsession with artificial intelligence and virtual reality," Haberstroh says.
Who’s taking it?
This course is primarily for juniors, seniors, and graduate students. No prior knowledge of ancient history is required.
Who’s teaching it?
Haberstroh, an assistant professor-in-residence in history, has playing and coaching experience in soccer, cross-country, and marathon running. He has done research on ancient Greek long-distance runners and wrote his dissertation on ancient Greek athletic festivals.
How does it work?
The course is offered as an in-person experience with regular student-led discussions of modern scholarship on ancient athletics, as well as ancient objects and texts in English translation from around the world.
"Students also design creative final projects rather than taking exams or writing essays," says Haberstroh. "One of the highlights of the course is an outdoor experience where students try to recreate an ancient sport from written and visual descriptions, or they can come up with their own."
What students might be surprised to learn?
Students will discover there are tons of bizarre factoids about ancient sports.
"The most surprising of all is probably that the human body evolved over tens of thousands of years to excel at endurance running," he says. "That’s right — a physical activity that many modern people despise is what our ancestors perfected, thus allowing homo sapiens to rise to the top of the food chain."
What excites instructor the most?
The most exciting aspect of the course for Haberstroh is the ability to use play and recreation as an object of critical thinking. It is rewarding, he says, to see students thoughtfully critique modern theories, propose their own analyses, and reconstruct ancient experiences. There is no shortage of modern parallels to connect ancient and modern experiences, however different they might be.
What even laypeople should know from this course?
"The main takeaway of this course is that sport is a global phenomenon. The realm of athletics reminds us that ancient people were not so different from us," says Haberstroh.
Where do students go next?
Students who take this class might feel inspired to revive an old interest in sports they used to play, connect with friends, train for something serious, or maybe just get outside a little more than usual. The best case scenario would be that every student comes to appreciate the mind-body connection of sport as part of a well-rounded liberal arts education.