USA Team #1 - Wonners of Cadet World Cup in Women's Epee in European Cadet Circuit in Belgrade, Serbia, October 22, 2022

Often in sports, the first place winner is presented with a big, shiny trophy in the shape of a hollowed out bowl that is stamped with various words and symbols. Medals are prevalent too, most notably at the Olympic Games, but cups are easily the second most recognizable kind of award for sporting achievement.

At the top of professional sports, we see the huge Stanley Cup in hockey (which is over three feet tall), the men’s Wimbledon Championship Trophy (the women get an ornamental plate), and the FIFA World Cup (this cup has a globe inside it and the design is based on the original traditional version of the cup). In most cases with cups, the winner of the tournament doesn’t get to keep it. That includes all three of those listed above, which all engrave the name of the team on the cup. Instead, sometimes the team or winner will get a replica, which is what happens with FIFA.

In American fencing, we have the North America Cup (NAC) competitions, which in its current setup does not offer any trophy, maybe there was one many years ago. There’s also the Fencing World Cup, which offers a trophy shaped like a cup and is one of the top international fencing competitions. 

It’s an interesting phenomenon in the world of sports when you think about it. What are these cups for? Is anyone actually drinking out of them? How did this tradition get started in the first place?

The history of sports cups

The trophy shaped like a cup is one of the most reconstructed designs in sports, and even beyond. Harry Potter offers the Goblet of Fire as the prize for winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament and the Karate Kid takes home a cup shaped trophy after doing his impeccable crane kick. 

As far as we can tell, the tradition of awards for sports in the context of modern sports goes back to the Greek Olympics, which of course served as the inspiration for our modern Olympic Games. Though the winners were originally presented with a circle of twisted olive branches to reward their victory, the Games would later present the winners with silver cups. 

Here’s the real trick – those first cups weren’t empty as they are today. Winners were often rewarded not only with the cup itself, but also with something precious inside. This would have been olive oil or wine, and giving them the cup would give a way for them to take home their liquid prize. Another possibility involved a cup full of wine. Each of the runners up would take a drink from the cup, then the overall winner could finish the wine. 

Even back in those times, the cups were returned to the tournament after the winner enjoyed them, and their names would be engraved on the chalice until the next year. This is the same thing that we see in our current tournaments – the winners don’t get the keep the original cups. Instead, the cups are passed around from winner to winner, year after year. 

Later on in the 1700s, Methodist Church founder John Wesley began passing around a chalice at feasts called “loving feasts” as a way to build community and fellowship. Though this wasn’t a trophy per se, it was a cup that people drank out of at events (not dissimilar to other religious ceremonies that also use drinking out of a cup). This cup would go on to be called the Loving Cup, and it had two distinctive handles curling around the sides – looking very much like the trophy cups that we think of today. 

What’s really special about Wesley’s Loving Cup and sports is that this specific style of cup would go on to be the award for competitions soon after it became commonplace in the growing Methodist tradition. Today, this specific style of trophy is still called the “loving cup” trophy. 

There are all kinds of variations on the theme of cups. The Claret Jug that’s given for men’s golf at the British open is shaped like a pitcher, which is similar to a cup but slightly different. Vessels of all kinds, from bowls to goblets to decanters, are used as prizes in awards ceremonies across the world.

Cups vs Championships

The style of trophy is one thing, but the style of the tournament is another. 

In our sport, we have the Fencing World Cup and the Fencing World Championships. Both of these are top international tournaments, but the difference is that the Cup is made up of many different competitions. In fact, the Championships and the Olympics both have results that count towards the overall placement of individuals and teams in the Fencing World Cup. 

There’s not a set standard for the difference between a tournament and a cup competition, and it’s important to note that it can change across sports or even within the same sport. These kinds of things don’t evolve monolithically, rather they happen by people wanting to start some kind of competition and then going out and making it happen. Individuals decided two hundred years ago or fifty years ago or even ten years ago that they wanted to compete in a sport, then created a tournament or a cup. Over time, these things grow and change. 

Not every tournament that has “cup” in the title gives away a cup-style trophy, and lots of tournaments that don’t call themselves cups give away cup-style trophies. It all makes very little sense, but the quirky nature of it is something that we love anyway.