In ancient Sparta, the Gymnopaedia was a yearly celebration during which naked youths displayed their athletic and martial skills through the medium of dancing.
In antiquity even before the Classical era, e.g. on Minoan Crete, athletic exercise played an important part in daily life. In fact, the Greeks credited several mythological figures with athletic accomplishments, and even male gods (especially Apollo and Herakles, patrons of sport) were commonly depicted as athletes.
Nudity in sport however was not common. It was first introduced in the city-state of Sparta, during the late archaic period. The custom of exercising naked was closely associated with pedagogic pederasty and with the practice of anointing the body with olive oil to accentuate its beauty and erotic appeal. Unlike other Greeks, Spartans also sometimes went naked casually, such as in the public city area. They were also the only city-state where women and girls also competed in the nude; the other states banned females both as participants and as spectators from any sporting event where male nudity was visible.
It spread to the whole of Greece, Greater Greece and even its furthest colonies, and the athletes from all its parts, coming together for the Olympic Games and the other Panhellenic Games, competed naked in almost all disciplines, with the exception of chariot races.
It is believed to root in the religious notion that athletic excellence was an ‘aesthetical’ offering to the gods (nearly all games fitted in religious festivals), and indeed at many games it was the privilege of the winner to be represented naked as a votive statue offered in a temple, or even to be immortalized as a model for a god's statue. Performing in the nude certainly was also welcome as a measure to prevent foul play, which was punished publicly on the spot by the judges (often religious dignitaries) with a sound lashing, also endured in the bare.
Evidence of Greek nudity in sport comes from the numerous surviving depictions of athletes (sculpture, mosaics and vase paintings). Famous athletes were honored by a statue erected for their commemoration (see Milo of Croton). A few writers have insisted that the athletic nudity in Greek art is just an artistic convention, finding it unbelievable that anybody would have run naked. This view could be ascribed to Victorian morality applied anachronistically to ancient times. Other cultures in antiquity did not practice athletic nudity and condemned the Greek practice. Their rejection of naked sports was in turn condemned by the Greeks as a token of tyranny and political repression.
The word gymnasium (Latin; from Greek gymnasion, being derived from Greek gymnos, meaning "naked"), originally denoting a place for the intellectual, sensual, moral and physical education of young men as future soldiers and (certainly in democracies) citizens (compare ephebos), is another testimony of the nudity in physical exercises. In some countries including Germany the word is still used for secondary schools, traditionally for boys. The more recent form gym is an abbreviation of gymnasium.
In Hellenistic times, Greek-speaking Jews would sometimes take part in athletic exercises. They were then exposed to ridicule because they were circumcised — a national and religious custom which was unknown in the Greek tradition. In fact the Greek athletes, even though naked, seem to have made a point of avoiding exposure of their glans, for example by infibulation, tying a bit of string around their foreskin. In Roman-occupied Jerusalem, Jews using the gymnasium would wear prosthetic foreskins made from sheep gut in order to avoid ridicule for being circumcised.
The Romans, although they took over much of the Greek culture, had a somewhat different appreciation of nakedness. To appear nude in public was considered disgusting except in appropriate places and context: the public baths (originally open to both sexes) and even public latrines were as popular meeting places for all as the forum.
Athletic exercises by free citizens (no longer required to serve as soldiers since Marius' army reform) were partly replaced by gladiatorial games performed in amphitheatres. The gladiators were mainly recruited among slaves, war captives and death row convicts — the very lowest, who had no choice — but occasionally a free man chose this fast lane to fame and riches.
When fighting in the arena, against one another or against wild beasts, they would be armed with swords, shields etc., but would otherwise be partly or totally naked (see Gladiator for particulars).
In Japan, female sumo wrestlers wrestled in the nude. Today, females are not allowed to sumo wrestle, and the sport, practiced by men in ceremonial dress of loin cloth-size (mawashi) that exposes the buttocks like a jock strap, in general is considered sacred under Shintō.
Nudity in sport in the modern context became popular only in the 19th century. Nudity in this context was most common in Germany and the Nordic countries, where "body culture" (also known as "FKK") was very much revered. However, social nudism was outlawed for a time, and later rigidly controlled by Nazi ideologues in the 1930s and '40s ( - see "History" in the article on Naturism).
In the Nordic countries, with their sauna culture, nude swimming in rivers or lakes was a very popular tradition. In the summer, there would be wooden bathhouses, often of considerable size accommodating numerous swimmers, built partly over the water; hoardings prevented the bathers from being seen from outside. Originally the bathhouses were for men only; today there are usually separate sections for men and women.
A group from the southern U.S., having been invited in the 1950s to participate in a university students' swimming competition in Stockholm, was surprised to find at their arrival at the (indoor) swimming pool that their swimming trunks were out of place; they had to swim stark naked like their Swedish colleagues.
In principle real nudity prohibits wearing of shoes at nudity in sports. Nevertheless in some disciplines wearing of shoes is common.
An occasional, often illegal, naked sideshow is when a member of the public, not an athlete, uses a sports venue to perform as a streaker by running across the sport field naked.
It is not uncommon for private clubs with male-only or female-only facilities to allow (for example) nude swimming. Some argue that in more private environments (whether at home or in, say a single-gender bathhouse), the less clothing one has on when exercising or doing any activity the better.
Nudist clubs traditionally offer members and guests of both sexes the opportunity to swim nude. Many own or lease facilities that allow other sports to be played, including volleyball, tennis, badminton, bowling and the like. Typically these sports are played at a recreational level of intensity, and need not be particularly competitive.
Although already in the book The Zen of Running from 1974 it was recommended to run barefoot and "as undressed as possible" to get "well bathed by sun and air" nude running has never gained wide acceptance.
One of the most popular events in naked sport is the international Alps Adria Meeting. In 2007, this annual contest will take place for the 35th time in the camping ground Kažela close to Medulin/Croatia (June, 7th to June, 10th 2007). About 150 participants are expected.
The top event of naturist sport in Europe (and perhaps worldwide) is the famous International Naturist Sports Week in Hungarian naturist camping and recreational center of Sziksósfürdő near Szeged. Since 1989, the 7-day-event takes place every summer during the last week of July. Almost 40 different forms of sport are on the agenda of this event, with almost 400 participants from all over Europe.
Blacks Beach in San Diego California hosts a yearly nude surf event that includes body boarding, body surfing and surfing. This event is open to everybody and is hosted by the blacks beach bares and the naturist society. http://blacksbeach.org
During the yearly Roskilde Festival (Denmark), a race for nude runners has been a popular event since the year 2002. The World Naked Bike Ride is an international clothing-optional bike ride in which participants plan, meet and ride together en masse on human-powered transport (the vast majority on bicycles, and fewer on skateboards, roller blades, roller skates) to "protest oil dependency and celebrate the power and individuality of our bodies".
On June 21, 2008, Sunnyrest Resort in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, hosted the first clothing-optional Mountain Bike Duathlon. Seventy athletes participated and competed during this professionally timed event. Most chose to race completely nude, save the proper footwear.