You need only look at this summer’s Euros or Olympic Games to see that for billions of people around the world, elite sport offers something elemental and irresistible. Yet across the world, there are some wildly popular alternative sports involving amateurs that are equally appealing, from cheese-chasing contests to wife-carrying. Despite having hardly any sponsorship and being characterised as deeply strange, there’s no shortage of entertainment on offer. These pursuits aren’t all found at the edge of the map, either — many of the very strangest take place here in the British Isles.
1. Land diving, Vanuatu
While tensile strengths and fail-safes are all part of modern bungee diving, the Vanuatuan precursor to the methodical modern version is a much riskier affair. On Pentecost Island, in the Southern Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, land diving participants must jump off platforms up to 100ft high with nothing but tree vines tied around their legs. While dislocations and fatalities seem all but guaranteed, they rarely happen during this test of bravery. For boys, it’s a rite of passage into manhood; for men, it apparently helps boost the year’s harvest. For women, who don’t participate, it is a pretty intense spectator sport.
2. Medieval football, UK
The slick, corporate, media-savvy world of the Premier League has absolutely nothing to do with the chaotic, often barbaric sport of medieval football: a localised version of today’s football that emerged in the Middle Ages. In pockets of the UK, including the towns of Ashbourne, Atherstone, and Jedburgh, these centuries-old grudge matches are still played out. Just like their predecessors would’ve done, the townsfolk squeeze onto the cobbled streets to play a game that has more in common with rugby than football. Often taking place on or around Shrove Tuesday, the rules vary from location to location, but the idea is simply to get a ball from one side of town to the other. This is complicated by hundreds of opponents attempting to force it back in the opposite direction.
3. Bo-taoshi, Japan
Japanese people can often be regarded as reserved and almost always unfalteringly polite, but once in a while that all goes out the window and some much rawer version of the national psyche is unleashed. That’s certainly the case during bo-taoshi, a breathtakingly violent game in which a team of 75 must defend a pole against an equal number of attackers. And attack they do; this mass ruck requires participants to wear protective headgear, but it’s rarely enough for the onslaught during this extraordinary interpretation of capture-the-flag, which takes place each November at the National Defense Academy of Japan in the city of Yokosuka.
4. Cresta Run, Switzerland
The Cresta Run may have been around since 1885 but being well established doesn’t make it exempt from being weird. The natural ice skeleton racing toboggan track attracts amateur riders from across the world, who pile head-first down a mountain outside St Moritz from December to March every year. Like bobsleigh, the sport was initially created by — presumably inebriated — British military officers. Today, it remains open to anyone sufficiently brave or inebriated — if you’re in the market for a broken leg, this is the place to be.
5. Face slapping, Russia
It’s tempting to laugh about the Russian sport of face slapping, right up until the moment you see it. Hulking men standing angrily at tables are allowed unguarded, open-handed strikes at their opponent’s face. These are then reciprocated. No blocking, no crying. It’s perhaps unsurprising that when a man the size of a Kodiak bear slaps a saucer-sized paw on the face of a rival, knock outs are possible. More surprising is that these violent contests usually end in a hug and a handshake.
6. Ear pull, USA
Curiosities abound at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, and while there’s an undeniable thrill in watching the Alaskan high kick and the knuckle hop, the highlight for many spectators is the excruciating ear pull. Essentially a painful tug of war, the event sees a piece of sinew looped around one of each competitor’s ears, at which point they simply have to lean back, take the strain and endure. In the best-of-three contest, the ears are alternated but the agony remains consistent. Participants with especially tough lugs sometimes choose to double this with the ear weight event.
7. Punkin Chunkin, USA
It was the ancient Chinese who first developed the trebuchet, a war machine so devastating it was later used by warring Saxons, Byzantines and eventually conquistadors. Quite what their generals would’ve made of the US sport of Punkin Chunkin is unclear. Rather than being used to lob incendiary devices or the heads of their slain enemies over city walls, for this sport, trebuchets are used to sling pumpkins as far as possible. The pursuit has grown to now include slingshots, catapults and even pneumatic cannons, which, troublingly, can fire pumpkins over a mile.
8. Cheese rolling, UK
Of all the mad, bad British sports, nothing — not even rugby — comes with quite such a high chance of injury as the Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake. On the Spring Bank Holiday, the world’s media and thousands of spectators descend on Cooper's Hill, near Gloucester, to watch participants chase a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese down a 200-yard hill, almost inevitably stumbling and falling along the way. In what’s always a busy day for ambulance crews, the idea is to be the first to the cheese, which has a one second start as it careens down the hill. It’s man vs gravity and the latter always wins.
9. Wife carrying, Finland
Of all the odd things about Finland’s Wife Carrying Championship, one of the oddest is that the lady being carried needn’t be a wife. Or at least not the wife of the man carrying her. The rules merely state that she must be over 17 and at least 108lbs before embarking on perhaps the world’s weirdest footrace. It’s not necessarily the lightest-possible wife that gets chosen either, because the prize for the winner is the woman’s weight in beer. Posing a competitive conundrum. Carrying techniques include the good old piggyback, fireman’s lift and the lesser-spotted Estonian style, where the man grips the back of the woman knees as she dangles upside down behind his back grabbing hold of his waist.
10. Highland Games, UK and Canada
Some proud Scots may bristle at the suggestion that the Highland Games are weird, but how else to describe an event that features men and women attempting to throw logs, hurl bails of straw and wrestle with a stick? Although these formats originated in Scotland, the Games has proven so popular — especially with nostalgic members of the Scottish diaspora — that similar events also happen in Canada and the US. While niche pursuits like tossing the caber and maide-leisg (stick wrestling) may raise a smile, the hammer throw and stone put are very similar to long-established Olympic events, just with added kilts.
11. Chess boxing, Germany
The legendary US grandmaster Bobby Fischer said, “Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent's mind.” Fischer couldn’t have known how true his words would ring when it comes to the peculiar sport of chess boxing. Combining one of the world’s most cerebral pastimes with one of its most violent sports, it involves alternate rounds of chess and boxing until there’s either been a checkmate or a knockout. How’s your Sicilian defence when you’ve got a right hook reverberating around your cranium? Only one way to find out.
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