International sport explained in 60 seconds

From the Olympic Games to the World Cup, sport brings the world closer together

Photo montage of sportspeople including Venus Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Usain Bolt and the 2022 Argentina football team
Hosting international sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup can have a major impact on the economy of the host nation
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. 

International sport in 60 seconds

International sport takes place when two or more countries compete against each other in any sport, with the most well-known examples including the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.

The competition between the two nations may take place in one of the two countries, for example a football match involving the England team at Wembley Stadium, London, or on neutral territory, such as the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand that took place in France in October.

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In the case of international sporting events, one nation will often act as "host". In 2024, France will host the Olympic Games, with National Olympic Committees from 206 nations expected to send more than 10,000 athletes to compete across 329 events. 

International sporting events can also be controversial, when the host nation is out of favour for political reasons or the event could cause a clash between cultures. The recent confirmation of Saudi Arabia as the host of the football 2034 World Cup, for example, "will shock many", said BBC's sports editor Dan Roan. Saudi could prove an "even more controversial" host than Qatar in 2022, Roan continued.

How did it develop?

During the ancient Olympic Games, city states of Ancient Greece would travel to Olympia to compete, setting the precursor for what would later develop into international competition.

All internal struggles between the various states would be put on hold, according to "The Ancient Olympic Games" by British Museum archaeologist Judith Swaddling. This set a precedent for international sport as a form of diplomacy or an opportunity for ceasefire, often seen in modern times. 

The first official international game in any sport was a cricket match between the US and Canada (then known as the British Empire's Canadian Province), which took place in 1844 in St George’s Cricket Club – which is now West 30th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. There were somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 spectators, and an estimated $100,000-$120,000 worth of bets placed, according to ESPN

The match was organised after a team from the St George's Club had turned up in Toronto four years earlier, expecting to play against Toronto Cricket Club. Upon their arrival, they discovered that the George A. Phillpotts who had invited them was not the Toronto club's secretary, as they believed, but an imposter. The 1844 match was organised after the hoax was discovered. In 1845, a return match was arranged, and the match is still played every year as the K.A. Auty Cup Trophy, ESPN adds.

International cricket spread, with the now famous Ashes series between England and Australia first taking place in 1882. An 1872 meeting between Scotland and England was the first official international football match. This was followed in 1896 by the first modern Olympic Games in Athens.

As international travel became easier, sport became increasingly globalised. In 1904, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) was founded in Paris to formalise football's international reach. This led to the inaugural FIFA World Cup, which took place in Uruguay in 1930. The spread of television and radio further enhanced the growth of sport, with the first televised FIFA World Cup taking place in 1956 and first Summer Olympics in 1960.

How did it change the world?

The financial clout of sport is difficult to overstate, giving it a uniquely powerful place in global trade and economy. 

The market can be broken down into subcategories like broadcasting and licensing, as well as sponsorship, merchandise and brand marketing. Two other big markets associated with sports are nutrition, such as the protein market, and the global gambling economy, according to Statista. "With recent technology and advances in the video game market and similar economical attributes to professional sports, the eSports market is also worth taking note of," it adds.

According to the Business Research Company, the global sports market grew from nearly $487 billion (£393 billion) in 2022 to $512 billion (£413 billion) in 2023, despite the Russia-Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic. "The market size of the global sports market is expected to grow to $623.63 billion (£503 billion) in 2027," it adds.

The spread of international sport has increased the diversity of competitors in professional leagues around the world, according to a report in the Journal of Sport Management, as well as the number of countries participating in events. 

It has also served to increase social contact between differing groups of people, while helping to raise the image or identity of many countries. Nelson Mandela advocated for sport as an opportunity to bring people together, saying in 2000 that "sport has the power to change the world". 

"It has the power to inspire," he added. "It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does." 

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