History's Weirdest Sports
History’s Weirdest Sports

History’s Weirdest Sports

Tim Flight - September 7, 2018

History’s Weirdest Sports
Shin kicking at the Cotswold Olimpick Games, Chipping Campden, UK, 21st century. YouTube

4. Shin-Kicking is an endurance sport which involved… well, kicking opponents into submission

Where Asia invented many deadly martial arts and the Ancient Greeks invented boxing, the British invented… Shin-Kicking. In this deadly and oddly-intimate battle of feet, opponents grasp one other by the collar and try to kick each other in the shins. This continues across several scored-rounds until one either falls to the ground in agony or cries out, ‘sufficient’! Incredibly, Shin-Kicking is still played today, though contestants now must wimp-out by fighting only three rounds, wearing soft shoes, and padding their shins with straw. Champion Shin-Kickers are noted both for their agility and endurance in avoiding and giving kicks.

Shin-Kicking originated in England in the early 17th century, at the Cotswold Olimpick Games, a revival of the Greek games organized by Robert Dover, a Cambridge-educated lawyer. In its original form, the game was played by country workers, such as shepherds, though it later became popular amongst Cornish tin-miners, and modern costumes are in imitation of old country outfits. Shin-Kickers in days gone by were fighting for the reputation of their village, and so would harden their shins by hitting them with hammers in preparation for the steel-capped boots they would face on the day of the Olimpicks.

History’s Weirdest Sports
Dudley Sargent, the inventor of Battle-Ball, Massachusetts, 19th century. Atlas Obscura

5. Battle-Ball was the most complicated sport ever invented

Dudley Allen Sargent M.D. (1849-1924) was a pioneer in the field of physical education. He was employed by Harvard for around forty years, where he served as director of the Hemenway Gymnasium and assistant professor of physical training, and set up his own school of physical education to train teachers in the art. In 1894, Sargent turned his critical eye onto sports themselves, and decided that none was not up to his own very high standards. Thus he invented Battle-Ball, ‘a game which embraces at once some of the features of bowling, base-ball, cricket, foot-ball, hand-ball, and tennis’.

If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Although the basic premise was simple enough – hurling a rubber ball across the opposing team’s goal-line – Sargent decided that a sport could only be interesting through its complexity, and thus devised a bewildering set of rules and tactics which hardly anyone could be bothered to untangle. Sargent’s intention of inventing a sport anyone could play was nonetheless noble. As well as providing good exercise and use of the respiratory system for every participant (unlike football and baseball, according to Sargent), Battle-Ball could be adapted for any available space, indoors or outdoors.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A Northern Tent Tortoise goes for a run. Pinterest

6. Tortoise-Racing is just as exhilarating as it sounds

Watching horses and greyhounds attempt to outpace one another is a thrilling spectacle. But tortoises? Incredibly, when Tortoise-Racing slowly raised its scaly head in 1938, there were some who feared it could become the next big betting lure. As Hitler’s armies moved across Europe, the Reverend Ralph F. Allport of Weymouth, Dorset, was so appalled at seeing tortoises carrying small, plastic jockeys across tables in search of lettuce that he wrote to The Times to raise awareness. ‘How would the people who watch them crawl across a billiards table amid ribald laughter and jeers like to be similarly treated?’

Tortoise-trainers in the locality were soon tracked down and interrogated. Whilst denying Allport’s accusations of cruelty and betting syndicates, they were happy to share some pearls of wisdom. Owners of champion Dorsetshire tortoises variously advised singing to the animals, tempting them with bread and jam, or feeding them exclusively on lily of the valley to turn them into rapid-waddlers. Tortoise-Racing seems to have declined in popularity when World War II broke out, but there are records of bored British soldiers racing them on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Greece during the war, using shade and lettuce as lures.

The undisputed home of Tortoise-Racing is the University of Oxford. Each year, Corpus Christi College hosts the Tortoise Fair, in which colleges race their champion sprinters across the quad. The riveting afternoon is not without its controversies, alas. Early in the current century, Balliol College’s multiple race-winning Rosa was kidnapped the night before a race, never to be seen again. Fingers were pointed at neighboring Trinity College, but nothing was ever uncovered. Ever since, Balliol has elected a student every year as Comrade Tortoise, whose job is to take care of the entrant’s training and diet, and prevent any thefts.

History’s Weirdest Sports
Worth fighting over? A European Eel. Bad Angling

7. Eel-Pulling was once so popular in the Netherlands that it inspired a riot

Eels are notoriously slippery and writhing customers. So what could be more fun than a competition to see who could pick one up? In the Netherlands, this cruel and unusual sport became an art form. In Eel-Pulling contests (palingtrekken), a live eel was suspended from a rope strung over a canal. Contestants would travel beneath by boat, and jump up in attempting to pull the eel from the rope. Eels were chosen for this unseemly fate on the basis of size and slipperiness. Whoever pulled down an eel, or part thereof, could keep the prize for a much-needed slap-up supper.

The sport was especially popular amongst the Dutch working classes, but was banned in the late nineteenth century on the grounds of animal cruelty. The annual palingtrekken however was not just pulling an eel from a rope, but a small glimmer of joy in the poor’s otherwise miserable lives. Thus, in 1886, with the Amsterdam poor suffering from high unemployment and a freezing winter, a policeman stopping an impromptu game sparked a riot. Rioters ripped cobbles from the road, made barricades, and fought the authorities. 3 days, 26 deaths, and 136 injuries later, the riot was quashed by the army.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A Fox-Tossing tournament, Germany, 1719. Wikimedia Commons

8. Fox-Tossing was the cruel aristocratic sport of catapulting live animals as far as possible

The European aristocracy was especially cruel and debauched in the 17th and 18th centuries, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the sport of Fox-Tossing (fuchsprellen). The sport usually took place in courtyards, and was played by mixed-couples. Essentially, each couple had hold of the ends of a webbed cord or sling lain on the ground, which they would release when a fox or other creature deemed vermin was chased across it. Foxes could be tossed to heights of 24 feet (7.3 metres), and the winner was the couple who launched the animal the highest distance.

For the vast majority of animals, the game was fatal. It was especially popular in Germany, where Augustus II the Strong once organized a tossing game at Dresden that saw 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21 wildcats tossed to their deaths. It is no wonder that so many species of mammal are endangered in modern Europe. Sometimes the animals got their own back by turning on their would-be catapulters. Wildcats were particularly adept at this, but being enclosed in a courtyard meant that they could not escape. Thankfully, the sport declined along with the barbaric aristocrats themselves.

History’s Weirdest Sports
The Cheetah’s speed is proverbial. Nat Geo Kids

9. Cheetahs easily beat greyhounds in a race… when they can be bothered

If you own a cat, or have ever encountered one, you’ll know how impossible it is to get them to comply with one’s wishes. So what could have been a better idea than entering Cheetahs into competitive races? Noticing the popularity of greyhound racing in the UK in the early 20th century (there were 77 stadia at its peak, with 33 tracks in London alone), two enterprising men, Raymond Hook and Kenneth Gandar-Dower, hatched a scheme to capitalize on it. Hook owned an estate in Kenya, making his money supplying animals to zoos, but his great passion was the Cheetah.

In 1934, Hook was hired as a guide by the wealthy Gandar-Dower, and the two hatched a plan to import Cheetahs to England as racing animals. After capturing twelve, they travelled to England in December 1936, and instantly started training them for competing in greyhound races. Though Hook gave up after the cats refused to chase anything during a private demonstration, Gandar-Dower would not give up, and succeeded in selling out the Romford Stadium for a cat vs dog competition for the ages. Thus, on the cold night of 11th December 1937, thousands stood excitedly rubbing their hands.

Though the cats surprised even Gandar-Dower by bothering to run, the race itself was a non-event. The first Cheetah, Helen, cleared 50 yards before the greyhounds had even left their gates, and set a new record. The next event saw two cats that were best friends easily outstrip the dogs before losing interest altogether. Sadly, the Cheetah’s mercurial character, which meant that it would only run when it felt like it, made it unsuitable for competitive racing, and a ban on gambling on animals in the UK saw the sport dwindle to obscurity after one last race in 1939.

History’s Weirdest Sports
Dwile-Flonking, East Anglia, UK, 2014. YouTube

10. Dwile Flonking was an exciting mixture of beer and tomfoolery

Alcohol has the capacity to make even the silliest of games a hell of a lot of fun. This includes chucking beer-soaked rags at your friends, otherwise known as Dwile Flonking. The sport dates back to at least the 16th century, when it was depicted in the Flemish Master, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Children’s Games. ‘Dwile’ is, tellingly, thought to be from the Dutch word, dweil, meaning ‘cloth’. The Dwile Flonking we all know and love however was first played in 1966 in Norfolk: ‘no one can remember the score, although team members recalled feeling “pretty fragile” the following morning’.

The ludicrous game involves two teams of twelve players decked out in traditional folk costumes (perhaps suggesting an older origin). A team member, the flonker, is surrounded by eleven opponents (girters), who dance around them, and dips a broom handle with a rag attached to it into a barrel of beer, before spinning in the opposite direction. An accordion plays, and when it stops, the driveller must fling the dwile at the girters. Points are scored according to where on the body the dwile hits. A dwile that misses altogether means that the flonker must down a glass of beer.

Simple enough? According to the Friends of the Lewes Arms, a pub that is the Madison Square Garden of the Dwile Flonking world, ‘the rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested’. Much like Cheese-Rolling, Dwile Flonking is still played today under the considerable scrutiny of health and safety spoilsports. The 2010 World Championships were actually abandoned after the local council decided that the necessity of inebriation contravened initiatives to curtail excessive drinking. Still, if any sport were suitable for going underground, surely the ancient rural pastime of Dwile Flonking would be the best candidate.

History’s Weirdest Sports
An Octopus flexes its muscles. Sick Chirpse

11. Octopus-Wrestling is just as dangerous as it sounds

If you’d been alive in the mid 20th century in the West Coast of the United States, chances are you’d have seen an Octopus-Wrestling match, or perhaps even fought a cephalopod yourself. In 1963, the World Octopus Wrestling Championships were held in Puget Sound, Washington, and watched by 5, 000 spectators and countless others on TV. The sport involved divers plunging to the ocean floor and, well, wrestling octopuses. The peaceful octopus would usually cling to rocks, but a strong diver could remove them and thus provoke a fight. The diver who killed the largest octopus would win the competition.

Some of the monster specimens at the 1963 World Championships weighed around 26 kg. Time magazine even ran an article about the sport in 1965, reporting that, ‘although there are several accepted techniques for octopus wrestling, the really sporty way requires that the human diver go without artificial breathing apparatus’. Though attitudes to the octopus have certainly changed since the 1960s – in 2012, two teenagers received death-threats after killing one in West Seattle – the original wrestlers had no such qualms. ‘When you wrestle and kill an octopus, you’re ridding the marine world of a treacherous enemy’, said one determined participant.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A game of Kottabos depicted in The Tomb of the Diver, Southern Italy, c.475 BC. Wikimedia Commons

12. Kottabos was the Ancient Greek art of flinging wine

As well as their pioneering work in the fields of science, philosophy, and mathematics, the Ancient Greeks also invented what may be the world’s first drinking game. Kottabos, or κότταβος, was a popular game played at symposia (drinking parties). Players would drink most of their goblet of wine before flinging the remainder at targets in basins, without the liquid losing its essential form. Both the airborne wine and the sound of it hitting the basin were known as latax (λάταξ). Kottabos players had to maintain a reclining posture, and fling the latax with only a flick of the wrist.

Despite being a ridiculously lazy activity, Kottabos players were viewed in the same light as those actual athletes who threw javelins in the Olympics. The sport’s popularity also meant that people would gamble heavily on competitions, and the wine-flinger took his success at the game as an omen for their future prosperity in other areas of life. References to the game dramatically reduced after the wine-loving Romans conquered Greece, and Kottabos has never been revived. If you fancy starting your own Kottabos revival, it’s probably best not to fling wine around in your parents’ living room. A frat house, perhaps?

History’s Weirdest Sports
Are horses and cricket really a good mixture? London, 1891. Old Book Illustrations

13. In the late 18th century, people made cricket even more confusing by playing it on horseback

You could certainly make a case for cricket itself being included on this list, since it remains a mystery to most people in the world, but cricket and horses? Incredibly, someone thought that cricket could be made yet more interesting by incorporating horses into an already complicated sport. In April 1794, The Kentish Gazette announced that ‘a very singular game of cricket will be played on Tuesday, the 6th of May, in Linsted Park, between the Gentlemen of the Hill and the Gentlemen of the Dale, for one guinea a man. The whole to be performed on horseback’.

There are no records of how it was played, or who won, but another game of Equestrian Cricket was again organized in 1800 by Sir Horace Mann. Theories abound that riders used specially elongated cricket bats to reach the ground, or that the ball was comically large to be reached by standard batting equipment. Alas, it most likely that ‘Equestrian Cricket’ was an obsolete term for polo. Polo is one of the world’s most ancient sports, and the modern game is based on the variation played in Manipur, India, with which subcontinent England was trading in the 18th century.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A recent game of Quidditch played in the UK. Coventry Telegraph

14. Quidditch (yes, Quidditch) has become an actual sport in recent years

Given that kids around the world have incorporated wizard’s paraphernalia into their everyday outfits, the adaptation of Quidditch, Harry Potter’s favorite sport, was perhaps inevitable. The youngest sport on this list, Quidditch, or Muggle Quidditch, was first played in Vermont in 2005. Although players sadly do not use flying broomsticks, this humble cleaning item is still an integral part of the game. Players run around holding a broomstick between their legs, as if flying, throwing balls around. Likewise, the elusive snitch is replaced by a tennis ball attached to a person, who must fight off the seeker to protect it.

Quidditch is a rare example of a popular weird sport, which has rocketed in popularity since 2005. There have been no fewer than 10 rule books, and the International Quidditch Association (IQA) was founded in 2009. The Quidditch World Cup has been held since 2012, and the USA have won three of the four tournaments to date. Whether this testifies to the merits of the sport, or the popularity of Harry Potter, is hard to say. But there can surely be little magical about running around a muddy field pretending to fly a broomstick and throwing balls around. Can there?

History’s Weirdest Sports
Caber Tossing at Braemar, Scotland, 21st century. Scotland Now

15. Caber Tossing is throwing a huge tree trunk while wearing a kilt

You know that strapping Scotsman with rippling muscles and a jaunty kilt inexplicably holding a tree trunk on your breakfast oats? He’s actually playing a sport. Caber Tossing, as the activity is known, is a traditional Scottish game, in which large men have to lob a 5.94-meter, 79-kilo tree trunk, known as a Caber, so that it flips and lands upright. Points are scored for how straight the Caber lands. It really is that simple. Except the tree weighs a tonne, is too tall to keep upright for long, and has one heavier end to make it even harder.

Caber Tossing is an ancient sport, first recorded back in 1574 but certainly much older. ‘Caber’ is actually a Gaelic word, and it is thought that the sport came from the need to toss tree trunks across Scotland’s many freezing waterways to let armies cross during battles. This is probably why accuracy rather than distance is the deciding factor in the modern Caber Toss event. Although it remains a staple of the annual Highland Games, Caber Tossing is played around the world, and in June 2018 a Canadian, Danny Frame, threw a record 18 Cabers in an astonishing 3 minutes.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A game of Bat and Trap, Kent, UK, 21st century. Pinterest

16. Bat and Trap is the drunken British cousin of baseball

England is world-famous for its pubs. An essential part of English life for centuries, the pub was once the social hub for communities, where competitive games were played. The amount of time people once spent in pubs thus led to the invention of some very unusual sports. Bat and Trap is one example, and involved someone hitting a spring mechanism with a bat to fire a ball in the air, which they then had to try to hit through two posts. If opponents standing between the posts caught the struck ball before it hit the ground, the batter was out.

Bat and Trap is first recorded as being played in 1671 in the West Country, but it is thought to be much older. The idea for the game possibly derived from games played by milkmaids and shepherds to pass the time during the agricultural day. Sadly, it died out in the 18th century, but was revived by Major Grantham of Balneath Manor, Sussex, in 1916. Grantham identified the sport as a suitable pastime for convalescing soldiers from the battlefields of World War I, and the sport has been played, chiefly by old people, under the radar ever since.

History’s Weirdest Sports
A majestic Kudu bull. Jungle Dragon

17. What better way to pass the time in the African bush than seeing who can spit antelope dung the furthest?

Amongst the beautiful fauna of Africa, the great Kudu antelope is one of the most spectacular. A large, attractively striped and enviably-horned beast, the Kudu has long been high on the list of trophies for big game hunters. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to track down, despite leaving piles of excrement everywhere they go. At some stage or other, Afrikaner hunters found a novel way to pass the time on lengthy Kudu hunts: putting Kudu dung in their mouths, and seeing who could spit it the furthest. Fun, right? So fun, in fact, that there is now a World Championship.

Kudu Dung-Spitting, or Bokdrol Spoeg, is played exclusively by Afrikaners, and though it is uncertain when it was invented, the reluctance of other African communities to play the sport gives us a handy terminus post quem of the arrival of the Dutch to South Africa in the 17th century. The game is won by the person who can spit the dung the furthest, which is measured by where it comes to a rest rather than where it lands. The current world record spit of 15.56 meters is held by Shaun van Rensburg, who achieved the impressive feat in 2006.

History’s Weirdest Sports
Chaffinches are very territorial birds. Fine Art America

18. Since the 16th century, chaffinches have been competing to sing the most songs in an hour across Belgium and the Netherlands

Birdsong, in case you didn’t know, is a territorial behavior intended to warn off rivals. Though at times it seems to be for our edification, this is the avian equivalent of shouting obscenities at your neighbors. In medieval Europe, someone hit upon the idea of starting a competition to see which bird could sing the loudest and most frequently in a set period of time, and thus the sport of Finching, or Vinkensport, was born. Finching involves placing boxed male chaffinches next to each other to provoke a verbal tirade, and keeping a tally of which is the most vociferous.

There are very strict rules for what constitutes a proper song. The chaffinches must end each call with a correct flourish – known phonetically as a susk-e-wiet – to score a point, which is added to a tally on a chalkboard. Singing a wrong note means instant disqualification. Matches are held on streets, with a judge keeping a close eye on affairs. Traditionally, it was a practice of chaffinch trainers, or vinkeniers, to blind their birds with hot needles to prevent distraction, but this aspect of an already controversial sport amongst animal rights activists has been banned for a long time.

The first recorded instance of competitive chaffinch-singing took place in 1593, but Vinkensport is still popular today, with 13, 000 vinkeniers breeding 10, 000 birds a year in 2007. Keeping a bird in a wooden box to sing is not only mean, but open to corruption. The champion bird Schauvlieghe, which managed a record tally of 1, 278 susk-e-wiets in an hour, was rumored to have been injected with testosterone. Recently, one trainer had a bird that sang exactly 725 times an hour every match. Suspicious, the judge opened the vinkenier‘s box to find a CD player playing chaffinch songs.

History’s Weirdest Sports
The ferret’s mixture of tenacity and curiosity make it exactly what you don’t want down your trousers. Wikimedia Commons

19. Ferret-Legging was a competition to see who could keep the most ferrets down their trousers for the longest period of time

The ferret, a domesticated form of the polecat, is a tenacious mustelid. Ferrets have long been used for hunting, as their slender build and aggression makes them ever-willing to follow larger mammals down burrows. So why not drop them down your trousers? Incredibly, this seemed such a good idea in Britain that competitions were staged. Essentially, a group of men would put as many down their trousers as they could fit, and see how long they could endure a sharp-fanged carnivore attempting to bite their way out. The current record, depending on your source, sits at around the 5-hour mark.

The ferret’s small size and effectiveness against quarry such as rabbits meant that it was a favorite amongst poachers. In Britain, it was illegal for centuries for common people to own hunting dogs or firearms, and so the easily-concealed ferret was popular for acquiring sly rabbits for the pot. When confronted by a gamekeeper or policeman, the poacher could simply slip the ferret down their trousers and try to keep as still as possible whilst the animal tried to escape: a new sport was born! Since the 1970s, Ferret-Legging has inexplicably risen in popularity, and is played around the world.

History’s Weirdest Sports
Foster Powell was simply wonderful at walking, England, late 18th century. Wikimedia Commons.

20. The Victorians loved walking so much that they invented a sport of competitive rambling

Charles Dickens, the famous writer, would frequently walk the 30 miles from his home in Kent to his London residence, and think nothing of it. Amazingly, this was far from remarkable behavior in his day, for the strange sport of Pedestrianism, competitive long-distance walking, was already very much in vogue. The sport was so popular that there were even professional pedestrians who were amongst the most famous people in the country. Although organized race walking is an Olympic sport today, Pedestrianism was comically low-key, and simply involved walking from place to place across the country as fast as possible.

One of the most famous pedestrians was Foster Powell (above), who once walked 50 miles in 7 hours in 1764. This event, undertaken for a wager, made the sport a national obsession, and Powell went on walk the 396 miles between London and York in 140 hours. Robert Barclay Allardice turned the sport into a lucrative event, and made vast sums by achieving such feats as walking 1, 000 miles in 1,000 hours. With no formal organization, the sport was funded entirely by wagers, and spectators thronged the public byways to catch a glimpse of a solitary man… walking.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Armitage, John. Man at Play: Nine Centuries of Pleasure Making. London: F. Warne, 1977.

Brooke-Hitching, Edward. Fox-Tossing, Octopus Wrestling, and Other Forgotten Sports. London: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Collins, Tony, John Martin, and Wray Vamplew, eds. Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports. London: Routledge, 2005.

Daniel, William Barker. Rural Sports. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 2011.

Gerken, James. “Dung Spitting Competition Is A Crappy Way To Prove Yourself”, The Huffington Post, July 21st 2015.

Reeves, A.C. Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England. Stroud: Sutton, 1995.

Walsh, J. H. British Rural Sports: Comprising Shooting, Hunting, Coursing, Fishing, Hawking, Racing, Boating, Pedestrianism, with All Rural Games and Amusements. London: Frederick Warn, 1867.

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