Saturday, October 16, 2010

The world's oldest sport?

Last week on the Hearts through History RWA loop, a casual reference to the 1900 Olympics in Paris noted that tug-of-war was part of the competition.
1908 U.S. tug-of-war team

Talk about intriguing.

I had no idea that tug-of-war was once an Olympic sport. To be honest, I assumed it wasn't played anywhere but on playgrounds, college campuses and family picnic areas.

Curious about this bygone sport, I spent a few days researching tug-of-war, and its gold medal history, spending a lot of time on the official websites of the Olympic movement and the site of the Tug-of-War International Federation.

Yep, there's an international federation.

For those who might not know (I know you know, but my journalistic training demands I explain the sport) tug-of-war is played when opposing teams, somewhat equal in number and weight, grab hold of either end of a rope suspended over a hazard of some sort, i.e. water or mud (history suggests Vikings played tug-of-war over the campfire). At a signal, both teams tug on the rope, trying to pull the other team into the hazard.

A few facts about the 1900 Olympics:
  • Events were held in Paris as part of the 1900 World’s Fair and were so under-promoted that not all 997 athletes realized they were taking part in Olympic competitions. Overall, only 375 tickets were sold.
  • Organizers didn't hold an opening ceremony. Events began May 14 and ended Oct. 28.
  • Women competed for the first time in these games. The first women's competition? Croquet.
  • Mixed teams (not gender but nationality) completed in five sports, including tennis and tug-of-war.
  • Tug-of-war made its debut as an Olympic competition. Other sports:
    • Archery
    • Artistic gymnastics (which included pole vaulting)
    • Athletics: combined, field, road (cross-country) and track
    • Basque Pelota (think team racquet ball played across a net and you’ve got the general idea)
    • Cricket
    • Coquet
    • Cycling
    • Equestrian, jumping
    • Fencing
    • Football (soccer)
    • Golf
    • Polo
    • Rowing
    • Rugby
    • Sailing
    • Shooting
    • Swimming
    • Tennis
    • Tug-of-War
    • Water Polo
Only two teams competed in the tug-of-war competition on May 14. Winner was the best of three, and a Danish/Swiss team competed against a French team and won 2-0. This was Sweden’s first gold medal.

During the 2004 Olympics in Saint Louis, six teams competed, four from the host nation. U.S. teams won all three medals. At the time, clubs fielded tug-of-war teams, so there wasn’t a national team from any country. In the 1908 London games, British teams won the gold, silver and bronze. According to the BBC, the final match was between two English teams comprised of policemen, with the London police team beating Liverpool's police team.

Tug-of-War was dropped from the Olympic games after 1920. But the Olympics were hardly the beginning or the end of the sport, which dates back thousands of years. Egyptians played tug-of-war, as did the ancient Greeks, the Vikings and other sea-faring nations. It's still a popular sport in India, Europe and South Africa where the 2010 Tug-of-War Championships were held in Pretoria.

Coming up: the International Tug-of-War conference is scheduled for January 2011 in Taipei. If that’s too far to travel, The European tug-of-war championship will be played in September 2011.


Unknown said...

Keena, I can recall my dad on a tug-of-war team during field sports when he was in the British army. His face beat red as he leaned back against the rope. The men and audience shouting heave as they dug their heels in the soft earth. Earth is usually soft because it always rained in England. lol
So much testosterone and pure young male strength. A pleasure to behold!
I did put such an event in one of my books, over a river. Thank you for the reminder of happy memories from my youth.

Keena Kincaid said...

Glad I sparked a happy memory for you. I remember playing tug-of-war as a kid at school, and seeing a few impromptu "tugs" at college (that pure, young male strength at work) but I've never seen it organized on a competitive level. I think it would fun to watch.

Mary McCall said...

What a wonderful post. You're feeding my "Iwant to research that but don't really need to brain." I thought the tug-o-war as an olympic event was interesting, but didn't realize it went so far back as the Egyptians. Do you think for them, it was considered tug-o-war between the people and the stone when they were trying to raise an oblisk?
Great article!

Keena Kincaid said...

In one of the pages I looked at (and this was all done online, so I don't know how well it would hold up to academic scrutiny) it showed a hieroglyph of six men playing tug-of-war, only two of the men are holding hands with their inside foot bracing each other.

What I really want to know if the Vikings truly played over fire, and if so, how did they keep the rope from burning.