Ah, sportsmanship. It summons up images of competition, camaraderie, broken bones, disembowelment, and brutal, disfiguring death. No wonder players have always had fans to cheer them on.
Dead Goat Polo
The modern game of polo, favorite pastime of English aristocrats and snobbish upper-class wannabes, is usually played with a small ball about the size of a billiard ball, and almost never with a human head or a dead goat. But that's how the sport of king's began thousands of years ago under a different name - "bughazi" (also spelled buzkashi [wiki] - Ed).
In fact, bughazi wasn't so much a leisure activity as military training for Persian cavalry, and it was possibly adopted from tribesmen in what is now modern-day Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Aside from the dead goat factor, there were also other differences in play. Instead of four players on a side, for instance, the ancient version involved armies of men - literally - with hundreds or even thousands of players on each side. In fact, it's believed that the first tournament was won by Turkish tribesmen playing against the Persians in 600 BCE.
And although the game was often played with animal heads, the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan made a popular change, instituting the practice of decapitating military opponents and making a game of their noggins, still in their helmets.
"Ullamaliztli," a ceremonial ball game played by the Aztecs a few hundred years before the European discovery of America, called for players on two teams to don large stone belts or hip paddles. These paddles were used to bounce a small rubber ball back and forth down a narrow court with inclined stone walls. The players used each others' bodies and walls as they attempted to maneuver the ball into a small stone ring high above mid-court. The game ended when either side scored a goal.
Amazingly enough, the game actually enjoyed long popularity among the native peoples of Mexico and Central America before the Aztecs played it, including the Maya some thousands of years earlier.
Of course, the stakes were a little greater when the Aztecs came to play. In their version of the sport, at the end of the game one of the captains was sacrificed to the gods, giving even more meaning to the phrase "sore loser." (Image: Kåre Thor Olsen [wikipedia])
As with many aspects of their culture, it's unclear exactly what kinds of games the Vikings played, but one thing is certain - their games were incredibly brutal and violent, since they were considered training for personal combat.
From vague descriptions in Icelandic "sagas" - histories of the Vikings that were passed down orally for hundreds of years before finally being transcribed in the 1900s - one ball game sounds a bit like an early and very violent version of cricket. The main difference being that most contemporary cricket players can expect to survive to the end of the game.
Vikings, on the other hand, weren't always so lucky. "Egil and Thord played against Skallagrim, who grew tired and they came off better. But the evening after sunset, Egil and Thord began losing. Skallagrim was filled with such strength that he seized Thord and dashed him to the ground so fiercely that he was crushed by the blow and died on the spot."
Though it's without a doubt one of the most absurd sports on record, the annual cheese-rolling contest at Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire, England, is also incredibly dangerous. Which is not surprising when you consider how the sport is played: first, a master of ceremonies gives the countdown - "One to be ready, two to be steady, three to prepare, four to be off" - and then up to 20 contestants chase a seven-pound circular block of cheese down a steep, bumpy hillside, trying to catch it before it gets to the bottom of 300 yards below. Four games are played over the course of one day, including one for women.
Video footage of past events show contestants breaking bones and splitting heads open, in addition to spectators suffering frequent injuries as contestants lose their footing and hurl themselves into the crowds. No one is quite sure how cheese-rolling started, though speculations include ancient pagan fertility rituals or harvest festivals.
From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission. Original title: Working It Out in Court: 4 X-Treme (Aggressive) Sports you Haven't Heard About.
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