Posted on June 04 2019
Life is filled with so much work, duty, and obligation. In the little stretches of free time we get, there are innumerable physical activities to keep us amused and exercised. No one needs to be told what sports are tops in America, and worldwide, soccer (the real football) is king. Despite the availability of these and many other mainstream sporty endeavors, the inventiveness or perversity of people has given rise to a host of fairly wacky physical games. Some are bizarre variants of more common sports, and some seem to have come in from, well, left field. Curiously, a certain amount of danger appears to be a required aspect of some of these activities, perhaps to narrow the pool of participants. Others simply tax one’s physical abilities to the max, but then, isn’t that what sports is all about?
Jumping right into this admittedly incomplete list of unusual sports, let’s look at one totally incongruous challenge: chess boxing. It’s just what it says, and what two undertakings could be more diametrically opposed? The sport consists of eleven alternating, 3-minute rounds of chess, a mental exercise of potentially extreme difficulty, and boxing, which has as its goal the pummeling of the meaty computer box otherwise known as one’s head. A curious balance of brute force and intellect must be struck, jumping from one mode to the other, repeatedly. No doubt the chess gets harder to concentrate on after a few solid head shots, but it may be equally difficult to transition to physical attack mode after a few minutes of deep thought about knights, rooks, and pawns. The idea of such a strange mix of violence and logic first emerged as part of a 1992 graphic novel by Frenchman Enki Bilal. A Dutchman, Iepe Rubingh, made the fictional real by organizing and fighting/playing in the first actual match in 2003, held in Amsterdam. He won. The strange sport drew immediate attention and has spread to countries all around the world, and now features a growing professional league.
A little less punchy and cerebral is the sport of hornussen. It’s not a bizzare mash-up; it’s one of Switzerland’s national sports and is a sort of distant cousin to Three Flies Up. One player swings a long, very flexible, metal or fiberglass rod that has something of a block on the end of it. The movement is almost like a whip, and the player’s aim is to strike the “nouss,” a puck-like object about the size of a small, thick cookie. He gets a little help because the nouss is placed like a golf ball on a tee, at the end of a ramp that the rod slides along enroute to the hit. As it sails as high as 300 feet at speeds up to 190 mph, the nouss can cover almost 1,100 feet. Needless to say, you wouldn’t want to get hit by this thing, but a team of several “fielders” are positioned in its path. They are carrying wooden boards that look like protest placards on a stick, and they attempt to intercept the nouss and keep it from hitting the ground, even throwing their boards into the air to deflect the little projectile. The sport looks even stranger than it sounds, but it’s been going on since the 1500s at least, so it must be good fun. It got its start between Swiss farmers who would meet up seasonally on cleared fields after the harvest to show off their strength and skill. In those days it may have had a bit more of the flavor of chess boxing, as matches reportedly were known to end up in brawls over disputes. It’s a more civilized game now, and even families participate.
A much more recently developed sport arose from the streets of Mumbai, India. Amidst the grinding poverty in parts of that city, there are also oases of the privileged, like the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. Poor youth can sometimes find work as caddies on the course, but with their meager wages can never hope to play on grass, with real clubs and golf balls. So they found a way around those shortcomings, and invented their own sport—slum golf. Using ping pong balls and bent rebar “clubs” with sections of hose to serve as grips, the aspiring duffers took to the streets and play with more obstacles than any regular golfer could ever imagine. Every car, garbage can, building, uneven surface, and wandering cow or street dog can get in the way of a good shot. It’s challenging, and at least one of the early practitioners has honed his game enough that when he got a chance to do some real golfing during off hours at the club, he got good enough to step up to the professional level. He still plays slum golf for the fun of it, though, and the sport has its adherents in Europe and elsewhere, too. There is even a World Urban Golf Cup to compete for. Who needs grass?
For those who want a game with a little more speed, the Irish national sport of hurling delivers all you can manage. No, not that kind of hurling—this is a game played on a large grassy field, incorporating some features that look similar to soccer or lacrosse. The object is to move a ridged ball downfield and into your opponent’s goal. To do this, you are equipped with a stick about the size of a baseball bat, but with a widened end. The ball can be flung with the wide-ended stick, similar to jai alai; struck on the ground, a la golf; or batted down the field, like a tossed-up baseball. Additionally, if you have the skill, players can run headlong down the field with the ball balanced on the wide end of the stick. This, as well as the speed of the struck ball, have earned hurling the title of The Fastest Game on Grass. Players don’t wear much in the way of protective equipment, so it can be a rough go if you get in the way of a swinging stick or a player on the run. The Irish have played some form of this game since 1272…BCE! I wouldn’t challenge their supremacy on the field.
So many sports have long and storied histories, that few are surprised by or skeptical of their origins. Hence it was an easy sell for tricksters who invented a sport in the ancient land of Scotland, that they called haggis toss. Haggis, you may know, is a very traditional Scottish dish, involving the boiled heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep, diced, added to onions, oatmeal and a few spices, and spooned into the neat package of the sheep’s stomach. Sewn up with thread, that packet is then boiled to perfection. As the inventors told it, Scottish homemakers would prepare this delicacy for lunch, and carry it out to give their husbands working in the fields doing farmwork or cutting peat. Given the many rivers and boggy nature of the landscape, there was rarely a handy straight-line path to meet up. Rather than slog through the muck or take a long detour to ford a stream, a wife would fling her prepared lunch over the watery barrier to her hungry husband, who would have to catch it softly in the spread front of his kilt, lest it tumble to the peaty ground. The sport of the haggis toss, or haggis hurling, was “revived” in 1977, at the Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh, and people, er, ate it up. For nearly two decades participants vied for supremacy in throwing a haggis, sometimes while standing on a whiskey barrel, for the longest distance, unburst. And then the jokester who had concocted the story (an Irishman, of all things!) fessed up. Was it the end of a farce, with participants calling for his head? Well, briefly, but the sport, however inauthentic, carried on despite the revelation. A new world record was set in 2011, at 217 feet, although unofficial tosses have travelled a good deal farther. The quest for maximum distance continues, and with its ongoing popularity, another century of competition could yet establish the sport as a long-standing tradition.
This litany of obscure physical contests could stretch all day, but here is one more that is perhaps the epitome of crazy humor, dubious skill, and strenuous effort: upside-down underwater ice hockey. Simple underwater hockey played wearing weights on the floor of a pool is nutty enough, but a devious Austrian came up with the idea of playing in ice-covered waters with a large styrofoam puck, standing upside-down against the undersurface of the ice. This would be enormously difficult even with scuba gear, if it were allowed. But it’s not. However long you can hold your breath upside down in freezing water while undertaking exhausting activity, you’re good! Suffice to say, that isn’t more than about 30 seconds at a go, at which point teamates switch out. In the unlikely event of an underwater water blackout, divers with air tanks are floating nearby to avoid players joining the permanent DL. Wetsuits are allowed if not required, and despite the body heat no doubt generated while playing, participants are, thankfully, given 10-minute warm-up breaks at intervals. There are apparently enough enthusiasts crazy enough to join in that the Underwater Ice Hockey World Cup was held in Austria, and Finland won. Coming from where they do, they had a strong advantage.
Playtime around the world often involves the culture and geographic conditions of the home turf, and if your fellow citizens have a robust sense of humor as well as athletic skill, there is obviously no end to the pastimes that may be codified and tussled over. Play ball!
Europe is the home to a lot of these unusual sporting endeavors, so plan a trip for a game of hornussen or Irish hurling, and start with the Borch map of Europe. It’s available from Maps.com.
caption: Chess boxers in Berlin ponder their moves during one of the cerebral rounds.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Sascha Pohlflepp (CC by 2.0)
caption: The batsman swings the very flexible pole on its way to the ramp that leads to the nouss, which flies to the defenders. Got that? It’s all pretty high speed.
source: Wikimedia Commons: David Haberthür (CC by 2.0 Generic)
caption: The defending team anticipates the arrival of the nouss, using their boards to keep it off the ground.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Urs Vonhuben, Hornussergesellschaft Zollikofen (Public domain)
caption: Urban golf as practiced in the Netherlands is a bit more refined than slum golf, but it still retains a multitude of obstacles.
source: Flickr: Ritzo ten Cate (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: Irish hurling is a sport of high speed and high energy, and more than a little chance of injury.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Martin Brückner MB3~commonswiki (CC by SA 2.5 Generic)
caption: Haggis, ready to serve. When tossing or hurling, you don’t want to rupture the stomach casing. Bad form.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Tess Watson (CC by 2.0 Generic)
caption: Underwater hockey in a pool like this is hard enough. Try playing it upside down in a frozen lake—now that’s extreme sport!
source: Flickr: NyxoLyno Cangemi (Public domain)
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