We inhabit an odd, odd world—a fact made abundantly clear when we examine how various cultures define the word “sport.” We have England to thank for extreme ironing, in which competitors carry out the duties of domestic life while dangling from a cliff or strapped to the top of a moving vehicle. Germany brought us cycle ball, which is soccer played on bicycles with no brakes. And good luck to fans of traditional baseball when it comes to following the perplexing intricacies of pesäpallo, the national sport of Finland. No matter where you go in the world, there’s an intriguing pastime to suit your fancy. So pack your bags, hop on a plane, and go watch a sport that defies logic—and oftentimes gravity.
1-Octopush – England
This subaquatic sport began in 1954 to help members of a British diving club stay active in the winter. Octopush, also known as underwater hockey, bears much resemblance to its aboveground relative but with several striking differences. The first is that the puck weighs three pounds so it can glide smoothly along the bottom of the pool. Secondly, competitors don snorkel masks and carry foot-long sticks to launch their assaults on the opposing team’s goal. Finally, as Octopush takes place underwater, players can generally do little more than dive down and pass the puck to a teammate before coming up for air. While a thriving sport in England, Octopush has yet to make any real waves—pun intended—in the U.S.
2-Chess Boxing – Germany
There may be no more puzzling sight in sports than two competitors in boxing attire and headphones contemplating their next chess move on a folding table in the middle of a boxing ring. Welcome to the world of chess boxing. In this perplexing pastime, opponents spar mentally as well as physically in 11 alternating rounds of chess and boxing. There aren’t too many competitive events in which a winner can be declared by checkmate or knockout, but this is one. (If there are more, please let us know!)
3-Hobbyhorsing – Finland
The quick, staccato clop of sneakers. Tens of thousands of spectators packed into a makeshift arena. The unmistakable aroma of…no horse manure? It’s the sweeping craze of hobbyhorsing, and we have Finland to thank for it. This sport made its debut on the world stage in 2017 with the release of the documentary “Hobbyhorse Revolution.” In it, participants (mostly young girls) ride what Finns call “stick horses” through a circuit of jumps and obstacles similar to what you would see in an actual equestrian competition. And these aren’t just sticks with stuffed fabric horse heads attached to the end. They have names and breeds, bloodlines and temperaments and specialties (like trail riding, jumping, or dressage). Riders see the sport as a way to interact with their friends and the horse world. Many, though, own real horses or take riding lessons at nearby stables.
4-Shin Kicking – England
It’s hard to believe that kicking your enemy in the shin dates back to the 17th century, but there you are. In this fairly self-explanatory activity, two competitors attack the other’s shins until one cries, “Sufficient!” Sounds rough, right? Actually, the sport has come a long way toward reducing injury since its inception, when players competed with steel-toed boots. Today, only soft-toed shoes are permitted and competitors are allowed to stuff straw into their pant legs to soften the blows. Shin kicking is among the most popular events at the annual Cotswold Olimpick Games, now in their 408th year.
5-Fireball Soccer – Indonesia
Picture your average game of pick-up soccer. Now imagine that the ball is not synthetic leather and air but a coconut soaked in kerosene and then set on fire. This is the basis of the aptly named fireball soccer, in which players welcome the month of Ramadan by coating themselves in salt and nonflammable spices and kicking a literal ball of fire with their bare feet. Although the match itself is certainly the highlight, the pre-game rituals hold just as much importance for the players. After a month of fasting and prayers, they must train their spirits to make their bodies impervious to flames. Kids, please don’t try this at home.
6-Fierljeppen – Netherlands
Fierljeppen, or “far leaping,” takes pole vaulting to an entirely new level. In this fascinating Dutch sport, competitors sprint along a dock-like platform and launch themselves onto a giant pole in the middle of a canal. They then shimmy to the top, using their weight and momentum to angle the pole toward a bed of sand on the other side. (The distances they jump are no joke. The world record is 70 feet, seven inches.) While today Fierljeppen is a popular leisure activity with a national league system and championships, it was born out of necessity. The province of Friesland, where the activity originated, is crisscrossed by a network of narrow waterways. To reach their fields on the other side of the canals, farmers would use wooden poles to leap over them. The development of roads and bridges saw the activity shift to sport. We’re so glad it did.
7-Kaninhoppning – Sweden
What do you get when you shrink an equestrian jumping course, get rid of the horses, and add a bunch of fuzzy, floppy-eared bunnies? The most adorable sport ever created. Kaninhoppning, or “rabbit hopping,” originated in Sweden in the late 1970s. In it, trainers guide their rabbits by leash through a series of obstacles similar to those seen in a horse jumping competition. The rabbit who completes the course with the fewest errors and in the shortest amount of time is the winner. There may be nothing cuter than a hopping bunny, but these competitions can be downright fierce. The highest rabbit jump ever recorded was 39 inches. The longest, nearly 10 feet.
8-Toe Wrestling – England
This podriatic pastime comes to us from the great country of England. In the 1970s, a group of friends at the Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn in Staffordshire bemoaned England’s lack of dominance in the world sporting scene. If they invented a sport that no one else was playing, they’d have to win! Thus toe wrestling was born. In this activity, barefoot competitors link their big toes on a specially designed “toedium” and attempt to pin the other’s foot to the ground in a manner similar to arm wrestling. The World Toe Wrestling Championship, held every year in Derbyshire, showcases the most finely toe-ned athletes in the sport. (In its third year, the contest was won by a visiting Canadian—thus defeating the entire point of a sport invented to be won by the English.) Though proponents of toe wrestling lobbied for its inclusion in the Olympics, they were denied.
9-Bo-Taoshi – Japan
Bo-taoshi, or “pole-toppling,” is a sort of full-contact capture the flag—where the “flag” is not only unhidden, but a giant pole surrounded by a swarm of 75 players charged with defending it. And that’s only half of one team. The other half is waging war on the opposing team’s pole, attempting to knock it to a 30-degree angle relative to the ground. As both teams attack and defend simultaneously, it’s a race to see which can be the first to topple the other team’s pole. The sport originated in the 1940s, thought to be a training exercise for members of the Japanese military. Today, it’s played on school sports days and during the induction ceremony for new cadets at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
10-Ferret Legging – England
Speaking of odd English sports from the ‘70s, who’s up for shoving a razor-toothed, razor-clawed weasel-like mammal down their pants and seeing what happens? (Spoiler alert: nothing good.) Ferret legging is an extreme endurance test in which male competitors tie their trouser legs at the ankles, drop in a ferret, and see how long they can stand it. Oh, and did we mention that they do this sans underwear? For years, 40 seconds was the longest a participant could handle having their legs and unmentionable shredded by ferret claws. Today, the record stands at an astounding five-and-a-half hours.