The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History

Shannon Quinn - December 21, 2020

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Dog fighting is a blood sport that is illegal in most countries. Credit: Shutterstock

12. Dog Fighting

This next one is heartbreaking, since dogs are normally some of the most loving creatures on this planet. Similar to cockfighting, ancient people were known to pit dogs against one another. There is evidence that the pastime has roots in ancient Rome and China. Mostly, this is a means of gambling to see which of the two dogs will end up alive in their fight to the death.

Thankfully, it has been outlawed in most developed countries. However, there are still underground fighting rings that still exist. Dog fighting is usually linked with gambling, drugs, and other illegal activities. It’s not often that the sport happens merely for amusement. There is usually some kind of financial gain for the humans involved.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Shin kicking is a sport practiced in England. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

11. Shin Kicking

If this next sport seems ridiculous, that’s because it is. For the past few hundred years in England, men have been playing the game of “shin-kicking”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two men kick one another repeatedly in the shins until the other gives up. Considering how painful it is to get kicked in the shin even just once, this sounds horrible.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this game beyond bragging rights for having a higher pain tolerance than your friends. Today, this is still played at festivals and special occasions, and it obviously hasn’t taken off as a professional sport.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Bear baiting is a terrible thing. Credit: Shutterstock

10. Bear Baiting

This is yet another terrible way that mankind has abused animals for their amusement. From the 12th to 19th Century England, it was common for people to capture bears and pit them against a pack of dogs. The bear was always chained by the leg to a fence post, so it had no chance of getting away. Spectators would pay to watch the dogs rip the poor animal to shreds.

The Puritans were the first to try to stop this bloodsport, but their attempts to ban it were ignored for years. During the time that bear-baiting was going on, brown bears were very common in the UK. Today, brown bears have essentially become extinct in England. By the 20th Century, they were being imported from other countries to be used their fur, meat, and bear grease.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
A man jumping over two camels standing side-by-side. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

9. Camel Jumping

This next sport is exactly what it sounds like. Camel jumping is traced back to the Zaraniq tribe in Yemen. The Zaraniq live in the Tihama-al-Yemen, a desert plain on the Red Sea. They are still there today and practice camel jumping. They are mostly poor and many live in one-room hut homes. To see the daredevils in action, some travel a dirt track to a village southeast of the coastal city of al-Hudaydah.

The object of the game is to see how many camels you can jump over. These athletes must have an incredible amount of strength and acrobatic ability! In recent years, men have decided to bring the ancient sport back, and it is still played to this day. Thankfully, camels are not harmed in the process. In most other countries, there are similar competitions held in track and field, as well as gymnastics.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Chunkey was a sport played by Native Americans. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

8. Tchung-kee A.K.A. Chunkey

One of the least violent games on the list was played by Native Americans. The tradition does not seem to be exclusive to one Native tribe but does seem to be limited to the Eastern region of the United States. There are instances of the Cherokee practicing this sport as well as many other Native groups. Chunkey, also known as Tchung-kee was a game where one player would roll a large disc-shaped stone on the ground, while the others threw their spears at it, trying to hit a moving target.

There was a smooth, paved clay playing area almost like a very long driveway to make sure the disc rolled as smoothly as possible. The origins have been traced back to the Cahokia region 600CE, in what is now known as Mississippi, United States. One of the only potentially dangerous parts about this game was that people were known to gamble their life savings over the results.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
A modern game of kabaddi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

7. Kabaddi

In Southern Asia, the game of Kabaddi is a form of wrestling. Legend has it that kabaddi originated in Tamil Nadu over 4,000 years ago. Past fans include the Buddha, and the princes who played to display their strength and win their brides. Kabaddi was being played at a competitive level internationally. Kabaddi is a popular team sport, which needs skill and power, and conflates the characteristics of wrestling and rugby.

Here are the rules: It is a wrestling match between two teams. This sounds hard enough as it is, but there is yet another catch. Only one wrestler can enter the other team’s territory at a time, and they are supposed to hold their breath while they attempt to touch a member of the opposing team. This is far more difficult than it sounds, since it’s essentially 7 players against one. The game is still played professionally today in India and Pakistan.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
This illustration depicts a group of men playing Basque pelota. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

6. Basque Pelota

In ancient Greece, people played a game called Basque Pelota, where players would use a racket and a ball in a courtyard. The origin of this sport is tied to the decline of the ancient jeu de paume (jeu de paume au gant), ca. 1700. While the game evolved to the modern jeu de paume (with racquet, called real tennis in England) and eventually to lawn tennis, rural Alpine and Pyrenean communities kept the tradition. But many agree the roots were based in Ancient Greece.

When playing by themselves, they would bounce the ball against a wall, and try to hit it with their racket. Then, there was a team sport version. Players would stand facing one another in a courtyard, and try to hit the ball within lines that were established on the court. Back then, it was called the “fastest sport in the world”, and balls were known to go up to 200 mph. If this game sounds familiar, it’s because this was the precursor to modern-day tennis! Much of the rules have stayed the same since it became tennis, but some people in France still play the ancient version of the game.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
A bullfighter holding a colorful cape. Credit: Shutterstock

5. Bullfighting

Many people are familiar with bullfighting, which is still practiced in Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. bullfighting in Spain traces its origins to 711 A.D., with the first official bullfight, or “corrida de Toros,” being held in honor of the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. Once part of the Roman Empire, Spain owes its bullfighting tradition in part to gladiator games.

The bullfighter dances around the bull to instigate it to charge. But then, the fighter uses various techniques to subdue or kill the animal. Some people consider this an art form, rather than hunting. This bloodsport can be traced back to ancient Rome, and is still legal in the countries mentioned earlier. It has been banned in many other countries, due to the fact that its cruelty against animals.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Muay Thai is an intense form of martial arts originating from Thailand. Credit: Shutterstock

4. Muay Thai

This next one might sound familiar, because Muay Thai is a martial art that is still practiced today. It originated in ancient Thailand, and is often called “The Art of the Eight Limbs”. Fighters need to use their feet, hands, elbows, and knees while they fight. Each of your limbs is supposed to mimic a weapon of war. For example, hands are daggers, and forearms are like armor. Even to this day, it’s still considered to be one of the most powerful and intense forms of martial arts.

No one is sure exactly when Muy Thai began, because many of the ancient records were destroyed in Ayudhaya, Siam during the 14th Century when they were attacked by the Burmese army. But we do know that in the 1200s, the Thai army were all trained in hand-to-hand combat in the Muay Thai style.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Buzkashi translates to “goat pulling” in Persian. Credit: Culture Trip

3. Buzkashi

Buzkashi originated due to the fact that goal stealing was once a common occurrence in Afghanistan. Retrieving your goat back and horseback was difficult, but a huge triumph. Somewhere along the way, people turned this into a sport. For the past 600 years, Buzkashi has been the national sport of Afghanistan. This game is a very fast and intense sport played on horseback. But instead of tossing a ball around, players fight over a dead goat carcass. Players have to grab the goat from one another, and try to throw the body onto a giant hole.

Since the goat can weigh up to 90 pounds, this isn’t an easy task. Many players fall off of their horse even attempting to ride with the goat, let alone tossing it over the goal. This is an incredibly dangerous sport, and can lead to broken limbs or even death. Once the match is finished, the goat is roasted and eaten as a feast by the winning team. One might argue that a goat isn’t worth risking your life, but people in Afghanistan sure do love this game.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Two men playing Pasola. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2. Pasola

Pasola is a competition on the island of Sumba, Indonesia. The opponents ride on horseback and throw wooden spears at one another. Rather than being hostile, this is in celebration of the rice planting season. This game all started from an ancient legend. In the village of Waiwuang, a husband left the village for so long, his wife assumed he must be dead. When her husband finally came back, his wife had already married someone else. Everyone in the village felt sorry for the man, so they threw the Pasola festival to cheer him up.

Now, the festival is still celebrated every year. The game ends once the first blood is drawn. It’s believed that this will appease the ancestors to give them a good growing season. In ancient times it was considered an honor if you died during a pasola match. Today, people are rarely killed or seriously hurt.

The 20 Most Dangerous Sports and Games From History
Tug of war found its origins from the Vikings. Credit: Shutterstock

1. Viking Skin Pulling

With a name like “skin pulling”, it’s hard not to cringe at the sound of it. However, Viking Skin Pulling was nearly identical to our modern game of tug-of-war. But much like other things in ancient culture, they took the idea to the extreme. And adhered to some of the stereotypes that Vikings are known for… such as defiling women.

But instead of rope in a grassy field, the Vikings pulled on animal skins over a fire pit. The winners of the game could take more (if not all) of the spoils of the town they had just attacked. This also included choosing which women they could defile first. The losers often fell into the fire, and died soon after. There is a good chance that today, tug of war was adapted from this tradition to be more safe and accessible to people. Believe it or not, people actually have died and lost limbs from playing tug-of-war, too. So always be careful!

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

25 Most Intense Sports of the Ancient World. Jason. List 25. 2021

Venationes. The University of Chicago.

Pankration: Violence, Glory and Death at the Ancient Olympic Games. Unpolished History. 2019.

Indonesia’s Ancient Pasola Festival. Gembong Nusantara. The Diplomat. 2014.

Buzkashi: Afghanistan’s Goat-Grabbing National Sport. Luke Bradshaw. Culture Trip. 2017.

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