The significance of sports is often overlooked when discussing the history and culture of a country. They are a big part of their past and were essential in the formation of their own unique heritage.
However, many people aren’t familiar with the rich history of these sports and how they came about. In an effort to pay homage to national sports, here is a list of some of the most peculiar and interesting national sports in the world.
5. Fierljeppen (Netherlands)
Who knew Pole-Vaulting could be used as a practical mode of movement? This sport has humble beginnings in the country of the Netherlands and was invented to aid movement around swampy areas in the province of Friesland.
It all starts with the story of how the Frisians loved to eat the eggs of Lapwing birds, a delicacy to them at the time. As the Netherlands is geographically below sea-level, the land was riddled with ditches, wetlands, waterways and canals, making it hard to travel around on foot. The birds’ nests were not easily accessible as people had to cross over these ditches and swampy marshes to get to them. This made them come up with a rather ingenious idea to get to the eggs.
They started using four-metre-long punting poles to help them leap over these marshes and ditches, similar to how one would pole vault. People found that doing all that jumping was fun and it developed from a pastime into a competition on who could leap the furthest. Over time, they began using even longer poles to propel them even further over larger bodies of water like canals and waterways, giving birth to a sport called ‘Fierljeppen’, which is a combination of the Dutch words “fier”, which means “far”, and “ljeppen”, which means “leaping”.
The first record of a proper match dates back to 1771 but the sport wasn’t made official until 1957 when rules were put in place. Since then, official leagues have been set up for Fierljeppen and it is now recognized as a traditional sport in the Dutch province.
Today, Fierljeppen uses poles between 8 to 13 metres long. The jump is now far more complex than just jumping across ditches to collect eggs. It involves the person sprinting to the pole, then jumping and grabbing the pole. Once they’ve secured a grip on the pole, they would start climbing to the top of the pole as they manoeuvre themselves across the body of water and finally, release their grip and launch themselves off the pole and land on the opposite side.
The quicker they climb to the top of the pole, the further the distance of the jump. They also need to know when to release the pole when the pole starts falling downwards and use the momentum to propel them further forward.
While bearing some similarity to pole-vaulting, this sport is different in that pole-vaulting competitions measure the height of the jump, while Fierljeppen competitions take into account the distance of the leap. This sport has spread outside of its native Netherlands as only 190 out of the 532 registered jumpers in the world are Dutch, but competitions are mostly contested on an individual level rather than internationally.
The current record for the furthest leap is 22.21 metres held by Dutchman Jaco de Groot, which is far wider than any ditch the Frisian people had to cross. This just goes to show the lengths people will go to just to get a taste of some bird’s eggs.
4. Sepak Takraw (Malaysia)
This sport is renown for its unbelievable acrobatic style of play. The team game is a hybrid of volleyball and football where each team member is only allowed to touch the ball with their feet, thigh, or chest and the objective of the game is to keep the ball in the air. It gets its name from the Malay word for “kick”, which is “sepak”, and “takraw”, which means “Rattan Ball” in Thai.
The game originates from Southeast Asia and dates back to 15th century in Malacca, Malaysia, starting off as a game called ‘Raga’ where a circle of players would pass the ball to each other and whoever who could kick the ball highest would win the game. It was also used for the players to showboat by doing tricks like kicking the ball up onto the top of their headgear and balancing it there.
It was also found in Thailand during the 16th century and the Siamese would play Sepak Takraw to keep up their fitness. The early game was more cooperative rather than competitive as it was merely a form of exercise.
In 1929, the Siam Sports association added rules to the game to make it competitive and in 1933, introduced nets into the game which led to the incorporation of the concepts of volleyball. The game thus evolved into its modern form and has been enjoyed by many south-east Asian countries ever since. The net also introduced an interesting dynamic into the game.
Players now had to kick the ball over the net and make sure the ball hit the ground as quickly as possible to prevent the opposing from keeping the ball in the air. Considering that the highest point of the net was around 1.52 metres high, it would be very hard to kick the ball at such a height in order to achieve the most powerful kick angle possible. Yet, they managed to do it.
Tourists who travel to these countries are always left in awe as they observe the players doing things, they never thought humanly possible. Over the years, the players have learned carry out acrobatic overhead kicks with ease and more impressively, manage to counter those high-speed kicks by blocking the ball with another overhead kick.
The game requires good flexibility and physical strength to deal with such balls as well as precision when doing those kicks as the ball also has to stay within the opponent’s area of play, somewhat like tennis.
The Thais are one of the best players of the game and have the best record of gold medals for Sepak Takraw at the Asian Games since 1990. However, it is Malaysia that has instead adopted Sepak Takraw as their national sport because of its roots to their early history. Sepak Takraw is a sight to behold and remains one of the most difficult yet aesthetically beautiful games to ever be developed.
3. Pato (Argentina)
This sport derives its name from the Spanish word for ‘duck’, and for good reason. At first glance, Pato seems like a rather normal sport as players in two teams ride on horses and try to score by throwing the ball into the opponent’s hoop-like goal; a combination of Polo and Basketball.
But back when the sport was first invented, Pato players didn’t use a ball. In fact, a proper ball was not introduced into the game until 1938. Before that in the 17th century, Gauchos, who are horseback riders, from different villages would stuff live ducks into hide sacks or baskets and tussle with each other over possession of the duck. The Gaucho who managed to bring the duck back to their ranch would win the game.
Historians are unable to explain the baffling choice of using ducks to play the game or why they even decided to start playing it in the first place, but one could only imagine what the experience would have been like for the duck.
It was such a catastrophic game that laws had to be put in place to ban Pato after being deemed to be too violent for the duck and the players as knife fights between the players (not the ducks) would break out in the middle of the game and Gauchos often fell off their horses and died from getting trampled. It became a game that was shunned upon by the authorities.
Eventually, in 1938, an inanimate substitute was brought in for the duck and the game was legalized once again. Rules were added into the game by ranch owner, Alberto del Castrillo Posse, who adopted the rules from Polo, another popular sport in Argentina back then.
He designed a special ball which had handles on it so that the players could hold onto the ball and that ducks could continue to live in peace. He also created a saddle that would prevent people from falling off when they tried to pick the ball off the ground.
Pato evolved from a barbaric battle into a civilized hybrid sport that showcased the athleticism and eminence of Argentinian Gauchos.
It is not easy to simultaneously ride a horse and tussle with another player over a ball. It requires a lot of strength and concentration to play this sport, as well as skill to commandeer a horse.
Despite almost 90% of Argentinian’s being unaware of the sport, Pato was declared as Argentina’s official national sport in 1953 because of the sport’s indigenous ties to Argentina’s past.
Currently, the sport hasn’t spread past its native country and top teams from all over Argentina meet yearly to compete in the Pato championships ‘Abierto Argentino de Pato’, also known as ‘the Argentinean Open’.
2. Oil Wrestling (Turkey)
Also known in its native tongue as ‘Yağlı güreş’, the sport is believed to originate from the top brass of elite Ottoman Empire soldiers called the Janissaries. The Janissaries trained hard for hand-to-hand combat and were known to spread olive oil mixed with herbs on themselves to keep cool and ward off Malaria-ridden mosquitoes.
Over the years, they found that oiling themselves made it harder for their enemies to pin them down as they would easily slip out of their grip, giving them the edge in battle. Turkish wrestlers followed the Janissaries’ ritual of oiling themselves and that practice has remained for centuries.
Every year since 1346, roughly a thousand oil wrestlers gather in Turkey to fight for the title of becoming Turkey’s champion or ‘baspehlivan’ in the oldest and most prestigious oil wrestling competition, Kırkpınar.
Before a time-limit of 30 to 40 minutes was introduced, fighters would often wrestle for days until they got a winner. Sometimes they would fight till they died of exhaustion if they couldn’t get their opponents to submit.
The key to getting oil wrestlers to submit is to put your hand in their pants. The wrestlers wear a special pair of pants called a ‘kisbet’, which is traditionally hand-stitched from animal skin and can weigh up to 10kg when completely soaked with oil.
These pants are tough and can hold a person’s weight, meaning that oil wrestlers can put their hands through their opponent’s kisbets and lift them up or grab a hold of the waistband of the kisbet and gain control over the other wrestler.
This move is called ‘paca kazik’, which is incredibly hard to break off from your opponent when he has a grip on your pants. Having such a firm grip on their opponent allows them to take the next step, which is to make them submit.
But unlike normal wrestling where to force one into submission, they would have to get their shoulders pinned onto the ground, oil wrestling requires you to flip your opponent onto their backs and get their bellies to face upward as the objective is to ‘show his navel to the heavens’.
To avoid this, wrestlers need to have the balance to stay facing downwards when challenging their opponent, which is made even harder by the fact that they are covered in oil as the ground they stand on will become slippery as well.
But all that is worth it in the end because the champion of the Kırkpınar wins up to US$100,000 in cash and gains the title of ‘Champion of Turkey’. They even have sponsorship for the wrestlers to promote their brands.
Businesses have managed to profit off a historic sport which shows that the sport is changing with the times. However, they still retain significant practices such as having the wrestlers oil one another before each match as a sign of balance and respect between the two.
Also, if a younger wrestler wins the match, he will kiss the hand of his older opponent as a sign of respect. It is such traditions that preserve the integrity of the sport’s history and culture, which is often sacrificed in sports for the sake of commercialisation. Thankfully, the Turks haven’t allowed that to happen.
1. Capoeira (Brazil)
It remains as one of the oldest martial art forms in the world and has a long and illustrious history. For that, we have to go back to 16th century Brazil, a time where slavery was common.
Portuguese colonists enslaved Africans from Angola to build up their economy in Brazil through farming and manual labour. Despite the slaves being overworked and treated poorly, they could not rebel against the colonisers even though they had the numbers to do so.
They were not equipped with weapons to fight with colonial soldiers in armed combat.
The slaves eventually developed a self-defence mechanism by using the skills that they had learned from an Angolan tradition called ‘N’Golo’. It was a ritual dance that involved a lot of kicking, slapping, jumping, quick evasive maneuvers and even walking on their hands.
They began practicing their traditions of N’Golo on the plantations, which did not raise any suspicions with their captors seeing that the slaves were already in such a repressed state of living.
The rhythmic movements displayed made the captors think that it was just a dance that they were doing. But unbeknownst to them, the slaves disguised martial art elements like kicking and slapping when practicing N’Golo to develop a new form of martial arts – Capoeira.
Its self-protective nature formed the basis of the modern martial art form. It doesn’t initiate attacks but curbs them. Eventually, when slavery in Brazil was abolished, the slaves were free, but still captives of racist sentiments causing them to be discriminated against and attacked even.
Once again, they found themselves turning to Capoeira to defend themselves. They were also left jobless and many turned to a life of crime, becoming hit-men and using Capoeira to kill gang or political rivals, leading to a flurry of violence in Brazil. To end the violence, authorities banned Capoeira and arrested anyone who practiced it.
After many years of being repressed, one man was responsible for its resurgence. Mestre Bimba, a fighter from Salvador, convinced the authorities to lift the ban as he opened the first ever Capoeira academy.
There, he began teaching it as a martial art, a self-defence technique rather than a criminal activity. Over time, Capoeira returned to its artistic roots but still incorporated the disguised martial arts movements to form the modern style of mixed martial arts.
Today, it is considered an art form as well as a sport. Practitioners are extremely versatile and carry out the movements with grace, and often compared to modern-day break dancing. After being declared by law as their national sport in 1972, Capoeira will forever remain a significant part of Brazil’s heritage and be cherished by future generations.Leave a comment