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Fascinating Sports You Can Only Find Abroad

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

Sport is one of the world’s great dividers of opinions. Many around the world live and breathe it, both by participating in their favorite games and by rooting for hometown teams and star athletes. Others are completely indifferent to the idea. The United States is by and large a country of sports fanatics — American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey are all deeply ingrained in the national culture. Look beyond U.S. shores, though, and you’ll find a wide spectrum of weird and wonderful games. From chess boxing to soccer on a bicycle, here are some of the most fascinating sports you can only play abroad.

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Bo Taoshi (Japan)

Japan is a country that gifted the world curiosities such as sumo wrestling and the Yukigassen snow fighting tournament. Another delightfully odd treasure is Bo Taoshi, which translates to “pole pulldown.” And that’s exactly what competitors are tasked with doing. Two teams of 75 players split themselves equally into offense and defense groups. One defensive player sits or clings to their team’s pole and is protected by the remaining 74 teammates. The offense must attempt to tilt their opponents' pole to a 30-degree angle. Expect warrior-like charging, jumping, grappling, and wrestling during the quick-fire games.

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Cheese Rolling (England)

Imagine trying to beat a rival to the bottom of a near-vertical hill to win an eight-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. Well, that’s exactly what’s been happening for two centuries in the small Cotswolds village of Brockworth. The Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling competition is a test of nerve and bravery alongside a healthy dose of good fortune. Competitors eagerly await the starter’s orders at the top of the hill, then proceed to run, slide, and fall head-over-heels after the cheese accelerating ahead of them. Fortunately, it’s only 590 feet to reach the finish line and claim the coveted cheesy prize.

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Chess Boxing (Asia and Europe)

Rarely has a sport required such a combination of brains and mental agility, brawn, and physical strength as chess boxing. Popular in Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and India, chess boxing is an adaptation of a comic book by French cartoonist Enki Bilal. As the name suggests, the sport consists of 11 alternating rounds of chess (six) and boxing (five). Ways of winning include checkmate, knockout, technical knockout, and disqualification for idleness. Competitors are split into boxing weight classes for men and women, and there are strict requirements for qualification.

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Calcio Storico (Italy)

The Italian city of Florence is renowned for its Renaissance art, architectural masterpieces, and Tuscan charm. It’s also the venue for a violent, no-holds-barred sport that’s been entertaining Florentines for 500 years. Calcio storico (or calcio fiorentino) is soccer as you’ve never seen it before: Teams of 27 gladiator-like players from Florence’s four historical neighborhoods do battle at Piazza Santa Croce. They punch, kick, wrestle, and use any means possible to get the ball to their opponents' caccia (goal). The games are part of June’s annual Festival of San Giovanni.

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Cycle Ball (Europe and Japan)

Some sports have developed from outlandish circumstances. Cycle ball (also known as radball) is no exception. Introduced around 120 years ago, the game began when a German-American was faced with guiding a dog out of his way with his bicycle wheel, while still riding. He swapped the dog for a ball and devised a two-per-side variation of association football. Each player rides a fixed-gear bike with no break or freewheel option. Players can touch and move the ball with their bike and head only. Among the most famous players of the sport are the Czechoslovakian brothers Jindrich and Jan Pospisill, who were 20-time world champions between 1965 and 1988.

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Kabaddi (South Asia)

The ancient game of kabaddi is a contact sport that resembles a crossover between tag, red rover, and wrestling. Teams of seven players face off over two 20-minute-long halves, in which they take turns sending a raider into the opposing half of the court. His or her task is to tag as many of the opponents as possible without being tackled. Each raid is timed by the raider repeatedly chanting kabaddi on a single inhale. The round ends when they run out of steam and have to take another breath. The game’s origins are associated with a warrior from the 4,000-year-old Indian epic Mahabharata. It’s now played widely throughout Bangladesh, India, Maldives, and Nepal.

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Land Diving (Vanuatu)

The extreme sport of bungee jumping might seem tame after you see its precursor. Land diving, or naghol, is a death-defying ritual that takes place on Pentecost Island, in Vanuatu. Male islanders climb to the top of a rickety-looking tower made from a lopped tree and secured by vines. They then tie a liana vine around each ankle and launch toward the ground from heights of up to 98 feet. Divers get close enough to touch the earth with their shoulders and head. Unlike bungee jumping, the vines aren’t elastic, and there are no safety nets, helmets, or harnesses. The event is part of a ritual that celebrates the yam harvest.

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Pato (Argentina)

Argentina has spawned legends such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, so one may assume that the country’s national sport is soccer. But surprisingly, it’s a mash-up of polo and basketball that was first played in the 1600s. A game of pato features two teams of four players on horseback. They compete for a ball that has six handles and attempt to throw it through a circular hoop. Players carrying the ball are obliged to hold it outstretched in their right hand to give their opponents the chance to take it. The name pato is the Spanish word for "duck"; during the game’s early years, they used a live duck rather than a ball.

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Tuna Tossing (Australia)

On South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula lies Port Lincoln, a small town that's home to the country’s largest fishing industry. What do you do when fish and seafood are so important to local culture? Celebrate with an annual tuna-throwing competition. The rules are straightforward — players toss a 20-pound tuna fish as far as they can. The idea came from a time when local men threw fresh tuna onto trucks from boats to prove their worth before being accepted for a day’s work. Competitive throwing began in 1979; today, the real tuna has been replaced by a rubber one.

Featured image credit: schuh/ Unsplash

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