The women’s soccer teams for the United States and Japan will play on Sunday for the World Cup championship. Also on Sunday, this year’s British Open golf tournament will end with the presentation of the Claret Jug. Drinking vessels abound in other sports, too: Hockey’s great prize is the Stanley Cup, NASCAR drivers chase the Sprint Cup, and sailors covet America’s Cup. When did the cup become an emblem of athletic dominance?
Sometime before the eighth century B.C. In Homer’s Iliad, the Achaean hero Achilles marked the death of his beloved companion Patroclus with a lavish round of funeral games. To the participants in various competitions, he distributed prizes ranging from gold to oxen to “a woman skilled in all useful arts,” according to Samuel Butler’s translation. Also among the prizes were an array of vessels, including an unsoiled urn and “a three-legged cauldron that had ears for handles.” The concept caught on among the ancient Greeks, inventors of the Olympics. The winner of the men’s 200-meter race at the first Panathenaic Games in 566 B.C. took home 100 vases filled with olive oil, according to David C. Young’s book, A Brief History of the Olympic Games.
In more modern times, the tradition of referring to a sporting event as a “cup” dates to at least the Newmarket horse races of the 17th century. A play published in 1649, about an elderly gentleman cuckolded by his young wife, happened to include the line, “Does the race hold at Newmarket for the Cup?” By the late 19th century, sporting events across the British Empire offered silver cups or goblets as prizes. Some of the oldest surviving examples are horse racing’s Melbourne Cup, first awarded in 1861, and soccer’s F.A. Cup, inaugurated in 1871. Britain’s original Open Championship for golf awarded as a prize a Challenge Belt “made of rich morocco leather,” which was replaced by a silver claret jug in 1872. The jug was presumably meant to be ornamental, but that hasn’t stopped some winners from putting it to good use. Likewise, the Winnipeg Victorias were said to have started the tradition of imbibing from Lord Stanley’s Cup when they filled it with champagne in 1896.
These days, winning a sporting cup doesn’t always translate to winning an actual cup. The original prize for soccer’s World Cup, the Jules Rimet Trophy, was an 18-karat solid gold statuette of the winged goddess Nike holding aloft a decagonal cup. Awkward to sip from, sure, but a cup nonetheless. The trophy was retired in 1970 after the Brazilians won it for the third time, however, and replaced with today’s more abstract version.
Bonus Explainer: What about the Super Bowl—does that have anything to do with sporting cups and jugs? No. In the same way that today’s scandals are given the suffix -gate in memory of the Watergate affair, today’s football bowls are named after the granddaddy of college football stadiums, the Rose Bowl (which in turn was inspired by the Yale Bowl, so named because its shape resembled a bowl). The Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and others followed in the 1930s. Upon the 1966 merger of the country’s two main professional football leagues, the AFL and the NFL, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt hit on the name “Super Bowl” for the contest between the two league champions. He later suggested that the name occurred to him while his son was playing with a Super Ball.
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