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
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.