The history of physical education reflects people's attitudes about physicalactivity. From prehistoric times, because survival was related to physical stamina and to people's ability to find food, no separate physical fitness programs were needed. Gradually, ancient societies in China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome adopted physical education as part of military training. As the more developed societies came to value the scholarly life, physical education lost favor. Many developed countries have had to strike a balance between physical and intellectual interests.
The history of physical education frequently shows a pattern of military, social, and political influence.
In one high point of ancient history, Athenian Greeks came to the forefront in the era 700 to 600 B.C. with their quest for physical and intellectual perfection. In numerous festivals, Athenians celebrated the beautyof the human form in dance, art, religious rites, and athletics. Athenians honored the gods of Olympus, especially Zeus, with the first Olympic Games. The Olympic Games offered a civilizing influence, with social class disregardedand all citizens judged on athletic competition. If a war was being fought,it was halted during the Olympic Games. Many historians regard Athenian culture as the height of early physical education, but like their Chinese predecessors, the Athenians felt the competing influence of intellectualism.
The Middle Ages saw the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, and the Christian influence brought about a denial of physical activity foranything other than manual labor. Christians saw sports and physical play asimmoral, and in 394 they halted the Olympic Games. This trend was not reversed until the medieval societies grew and sought power through military expansion.
During the Renaissance, the pendulum swung once again as artists showed the human body as an object of admiration. The humanist faction, centered in Italy, valued education in sports such as fencing, archery, swimming, running, andball games. The moralist faction, influenced by the Protestant Reformation,saw physical activity only as a way for carrying out work. During this period, much of Europe was still Catholic, and Catholics favored recreational physical activity with the view that care should be taken of the body as the vessel that held the soul. The other major Renaissance faction was realism, whichfavored physical education as part of a sound mind in a sound body.
In 19th-century Europe, Sweden and Germany developed systems of gymnastics that were adopted internationally with Germany building the first indoor gymnasium. In Finland, which also built a gymnasium, exercise was for the first time seen as a way to achieve physical rehabilitation. Scholars began to study anatomy and physiology in relation to exercise. Denmark was among the first countries to require physical education in schools.
Physical education fulfilled a political role in early-20th-century Russia after the rise of communism. Physical fitness helped insure military strength,productivity, and nationalism. Sports were viewed as a way of achieving international fame.
The United States followed other countries in its approach to physical education. During the Colonial period, the sheer physical demands of survival madephysical education unnecessary. War required physical training as a part of military preparation. Between the Revolution War and the Civil War, Americansfollowed some recreational activities such as riding, hunting, dancing, swimming, and early forms of golf and tennis. By the 1820s, some American schoolsoffered gymnasia and physical education. Instruction included the developmentand care of the body, and training in hygiene. Students learned calisthenicexercises, gymnastics, and the performance and management of athletic games.Women's colleges offered exercise and dance classes. The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) opened its first American chapter in 1851. Many sports gained in popularity around this time, including baseball.
After the American Civil War, large school systems began to adopt physical education programs and many states passed laws requiring that physical education programs be taught. For the first time, specialized training was offered for physical education instructors. In another first, colleges offered intercollegiate sports such as rowing, football, and track and field. In keeping withthis wave of interest in physical education, the Olympic Games were restoredin 1896, after a 1,400-year interlude.
Surprisingly, many Americans were not physically fit for military service during World War I, and there were many postwar efforts to add physical education at all levels of schooling. During World War II, physical fitness was again required of soldiers--but it was also required of many others, particularly women, since the war effort required manual labor. Soldiers once againcame up short in physical fitness requirements, so after the war, schools instituted more rigorous physical education requirements, and there was greaterinterest in the teaching of physical education.
By 1950, there were over 400 United States colleges and universities offeringmajors in physical education and there was increasing recognition of the scientific foundation of physical education. The fitness of the military in theKorean War again fell short of expectations, and the federal government set up the President's Council on Physical Fitness, which helped to raise fitnessstandards in schools across the country. A series of 1970s and 1980s recessions brought about cutbacks in many school programs, including physical education. By the 1970s, interest in the President's Council had waned and physicaleducation courses began to emphasize lifetime sports such as golf, badminton,tennis, and bowling. In another swing of the pendulum, the American public spontaneously developed an intense interest in fitness in the late 1970s.
One of the most significant shifts of the 1970s was the Title IX amendment tothe Federal Education Act, which stipulated that no federally funded education programs could discriminate on the basis of gender. Enforcement of Title IX opened up many new opportunities for women in competitive athletics, both at the high school and collegiate levels.
In a continuation of 1980s trends, during the 1990s many school districts have limited the amount of time students spend in physical education or have even dropped the program in response to economic problems or concerns about poorcurriculum. Some reformers in the field are turning to sports education as away of reengaging the students.