Natural movements at the Olympic Games

HUN blog from 16/10/2016

The XXXI Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the sporting world’s biggest event, has just ended. This quadrennial event brings together the world’s best athletes from 35 sports and 380 events, including the Summer and Winter Games. Without a high level of physical fitness, modern humans could not have evolved, as it was a fundamental requirement of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in our evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. So it is from ancient, natural movements that today’s sports have evolved, with elite athletes now pushing the limits of human performance.

Let us draw a parallel!

The purpose of sport was different in the past and today. Whereas in the past it was almost all about survival (foraging, migration, defence), today we no longer necessarily need to move to survive. Sure, some people do physical work for a living, or at least walk a lot to work or school. Nowadays, you can even order food and water from your sofa at home, the car will take you anywhere, the elevator will take you upstairs, etc. This has its negative effects: there have never been so many musculoskeletal problems as there are now in our sedentary, ‘movement-poor’ western civilisation, but that’s another story… So today’s people move for pleasure, for their looks, for their health or to maximise the performance of a sporting discipline.

What are natural movements?

The simplest and most commonly used natural movements are walking, running, swimming, crawling, climbing and balancing. In some places, terrain conditions may require the use of jumping. We are not plants, we are capable of moving around and this was often necessary in the past and still is today. In the previous list we have only used our own body, but we can also move objects or our partner. This happens when lifting, carrying, throwing, catching. In addition, ancient complex movements are various forms of attack and defence (punches, kicks, ground fighting, wrestling) or even dance.

Where do they appear in Olympic sports?

There are some sports where we have inherited some ancient forms of movement one by one, and there are also complex or improved versions which can hardly be called ancient sports. If you want to find the most elementary sports in the Olympic programme, look at athletics, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and weightlifting.

Our ancestors wandered long distances (running, walking), swam, lifted heavy stones (weightlifting), fought each other and wild animals (martial arts), jumped (long jump, high jump), threw spears (javelin).

Humans have excellent stamina, one of the best in the animal kingdom in this discipline. This is why long-distance running and swimming, walking, triathlon, cycling and cross-country skiing have become widespread.

Most Olympic events are now more of an evolved, derivative sport, using artificial equipment and governed by a set of rules. Think of sport shooting, cycling, tennis, ice hockey, skiing, bobsleigh, ice skating, etc. And in equestrian competitions, of course, they use a “natural” tool that does not date back to the Palaeolithic period, but is only 7-8000 years old. Boat sports (kayaking, canoeing, rowing, sailing) are also borderline, since man has been using boats for a long time, but not more than 100,000 years. Fencing is also an ancient art, but today’s swords and duels bear little resemblance to an ancient spear. Modern archers also use a weapon that has been improved with considerable skill.

Ball games are an interesting category, requiring quite complex skills. Running (e.g. soccer, handball), swimming (e.g. water polo), jumping (e.g. volleyball, basketball), but also throwing and accurate aiming are important. Furthermore, coordinated teamwork has long been an advantage in hunting and playfulness itself is not new.

If we want to discover elements of ancient dance, we should look at rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming and figure skating competitions, where the athletes “live” together with the music.

Perhaps the best way to describe the movements of cavemen is that they were complex, and had to cultivate many different skills at a high level at the same time. Such sports include pentathlon, decathlon (ladies’ heptathlon), biathlon and the team sports already mentioned. It should also be remembered that, even if not in the competition, the preparation period in all sports is quite complex, drawing on the movement material of other sports, e.g. endurance and strength are developed in many cases by running and weightlifting.

The present and future of sport

Sport has always been present in people’s lives and I hope it will be for a long time to come! Although we are very spoilt in today’s world, I hope that the Olympians will continue to inspire us to take part in sport regularly. Even an Olympic champion, by the time he reaches the top, spends countless hours in ancient forms of movement, think of childhood games, PE lessons or developing fitness in the formative years.

This article has focused on the sports on the Olympic programme, but there are plenty of other forms of movement that can also benefit from regular exercise. Everyone is free to do their favourite activity, but don’t forget to practise the basics – the natural movements!

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