For centuries, artists have turned to sports as a means of exploring the human experience.

More than many pastimes of popular culture, sports act as a microcosm for both society's fundamental elements and the human experience. Throughout history, artists have turned to sports (and the often epic circumstances surrounding them) to push the boundaries of artistic expression, memorialize significant figures, crystallize cultural values and even repurpose them as allegories for the most critical political movements of the day.

Depictions of prominent sporting events stretch back to ancient times. Cave paintings dated as far back as 15,000 years illustrate competitors doing everything from running sprints to swimming, demonstrating just how closely athleticism has been tied to human survival for most of history. As early as these depictions may be, they foreshadow how people of nearly every society worldwide would continue to document and create ceremony around sports, including those in the present day.

Societies throughout the Nile Valley developed intense interest in sports and reliefs from 5,000 years ago show avid interest in wrestling and racing. These dynamic activities required new techniques to translate into art, resulting in works that have a sense of movement that predates the kind of realism that remains associated with cultures bordering the Mediterranean.

Some of those cultures, such as those in ancient Greece, took sports to the extreme with events like bull-leaping that were commemorated in frescoes, like the one in Knossos, that still survive. However, this physical development can't be separated from the intellectual pursuits of the region, which saw the development of philosophies that linked the health and fortitude of the mind to that of the body. But artists also explored the emotional ramifications of sports as art grew more expressive. The Boxer, a Hellenistic bronze sculpture, hauntingly recreates the slumped and exhausted posture of a fighter who's just completed a bloody match. With the subject's downturned eyes, the work conveys the emotional cost sports often incur on their participants.

In more contemporary times, the bonds between art and sports continued but shifted in intention and focus. Norman Rockwell reinforced concepts of a particular brand of Americana with works like Four Sporting Boys: Basketball, which shows its titular four young boys arguing over some facet of the game. But many artists took the sports framework in an altogether different direction, choosing to dissect issues of race and class.

Robert Riggs is most often recognized for the breadth of his lithography practice, especially his works depicting the seedy underbelly of modern society. Riggs frequently chose boxers as subjects for the power they represented, but also to capture the energy (and characters) that surrounded them in the ring. In On the Ropes, Riggs portrays two fighters as an excited crowd looks on, the apparel they wear hinting at their economic status and their homogeneity contrasting with the racial polarity of the fighters themselves.

But perhaps no sports-focused work tackled racial injustice more acutely than Carl Fischer's 1967 photograph of Muhammad Ali. Modeled after Botticini's 1460 depiction of martyr Saint Sebastian, the image became the cover of Esquire's April 1968 issue with faux arrows piercing Ali's body as a metaphor for the constant attacks he received for his involvement in the American civil rights movement and his objection to the Vietnam War, among other things.

The artistic depiction of sports is as diverse in its representation as the countless artists and civilizations that have chosen it as subject matter. But the constant is how their combined significance continues to echo as a touchstone for understanding the journey to hard-won accomplishments, brewing societal tensions and pushing the capabilities of the body to its absolute limit.

Carl Fischer/Esquire