There’s nothing better than witnessing a moment in sports that gives you a clear answer to the question “Why do we watch?” There’s arguably no greater feeling than seeing your emotional investment pay off when your team wins a championship (or an actual investment pay off when you hit a four-game parlay,) but you don’t even have to like sports to appreciate someone pulling off an insanely athletic feat or appreciate a story about a competitor persevering through adversity.
ESPN has been relying on those moments ever since the network set out to establish itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” but it’s safe to say its coverage of sports on a worldwide scale leaves a bit to be desired. Sure, you can’t blame them for catering to what their viewers want, but you can blame them for seemingly assuming those viewers would prefer to hear Stephen A. Smith chime in on the “Jordan vs. LeBron” debate for the 1,284th time as opposed to expanding their horizons a bit.
The company obviously did something right in order to become one of the most influential gatekeepers of the realm it oversees, so while I’m not in a position to question their approach, I can’t help but wonder why they might not use the platform to give some exposure to lesser-known athletes who put in just as much hard work as their higher-paid counterparts without any of the glory.
I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking about jumping into the comments and typing up something along the lines of, “What about ESPN 8? You know, ‘The Ocho.’ They do cover them, you idiot.”
Well, to that I say: Congratulations. You just played right into my hand.
In recent years, seemingly every company on the planet has convinced themselves they need to go out of their way to be Funny and Relatable, which ESPN attempts to do on a daily basis on social media feeds filled with terrible memes and thirsty attempts to drum up engagement with the help of some absolutely shameless corporate synergy.
As much as I’d love to unfollow them, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. They are the Instagram equivalent of a car crash; I just can’t stop myself from gawking no matter how hard I try to look away.
Now, I have to give credit where credit is due to The Worldwide Leader for temporarily transforming ESPN 2 into “The Ocho” for 24 hours in 2017, and while it was an admittedly funny nod to the fictional network featured in Dodgeball, the fact that it took 13 years to make parody into reality tells you all you need to know about its ability to keep its finger on the pulse of culture.
The Ocho returned last year in an attempt to fill the void left behind after “real” sports disappeared, and while I gave it a shot, watching a Walmart version of Scott Van Pelt resisting the urge to wink and nod at the camera harder than anyone has ever winked and nodded before while breaking down a marble race got old after about 17 seconds.
Thankfully, the internet has made it possible to scratch my obscure sports itch, and thanks to the unhealthy amount of time I spend on it, I’ve been lucky enough to stumble across enthralling events like this one.
I’ve recently found myself tumbling down an endless rabbit hole filled with competitions that make you think, “Why the hell does this exist?” and decided to take the time to bring them to the attention of other people while attempting to answer that question by exploring the origins of some of the weirdest sports in the world.
Quick History: Ear pulling is a sport that was made up to test a competitor’s ability to endure pain. I wasn’t able to find when it was invented but it is a traditional Inuit game that has been a staple in the Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which were first held in 1961. As a result, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume it was created at some point before then.
Rules/Objective: Put a string around your ear with the other side around your opponents. Pull. Whoever wusses out first loses.
Top Athlete: Sadly, I couldn’t find any information concerning who’s at the top of the game right now because it turns out there’s not a ton of in-depth analysis of this particular activity out there.
My thoughts: How the fuck do you get into this? I mean, that could be said about any sport I’m about to rattle off today, so I guess a better question is…why?
Have you ever hit your ear in the wrong way? It’s the worst pain imaginable. You feel like your head is on fire for a week. Now we’re throwing some string into the mix that could probably slice an orange if pulled hard enough? Insane. This game was supposedly made to teach children about the rigors of the Arctic environment, but if that’s what it takes to live there, I would happily admit I don’t possess the necessary prerequisites.
The wildest part of ear pulling is that it seems like you can compete at any age or gender, so while I’ll admit it’s refreshing to see a sport with such an even playing field, I still have so many questions I don’t think will ever be answered.
Quick History: It should come as no surprise that competitive slapping can trace its origins back to Russia, where I’m pretty sure it’s just called “recess.” However, at some point, someone decided to raise the stakes and lure in competitors who willingly subject themselves to a lifetime of CTE in exchange for the chance to win *checks notes* around $470.
Rules/Objective: Stand at a table and go slap for slap until one person quits or passes out. If both competitors make it through five rounds, a judge chooses the winner.
Top Athlete: Vasily Kamotsky was the 2019 Slapping Champion at the Siberian Power Show and it wasn’t his first victory; he’s a quiet, reserved living legend who’s dominated the sport for a while.
However, he was recently knocked for the first time in his career by a rookie named Vyacheslav Zezulya, who no one seems to know much about. Has the king been dethroned? I guess the world will have to watch with bated breath to find out.
My thoughts: At first glance, this seems like the most “normal” sport on this list, as it’s essentially boxing with an open palm. However, when you think about it a bit more, this isn’t really a test of stealth or strategy; it comes down to your ability to generate force and your capacity for punishment.
Like ear pulling, this seems like an activity tailor-made for masochists with a sadist bent. However, unlike that sport, it appears that slapping is largely reserved for dudes who look like they could bench press a car. As someone who will never even come close to achieving that particular physique, I know this isn’t for me, but it’s really the pain aspect that’s going to make this a no for me, dawg.
As someone who was once shot in the leg by a real, actual gun (true story!), I would honestly have a tough time deciding if I’d take another bullet or subject myself to this if I was ever faced with that particular decision.
Quick History: Bo Taoshi translates to “bring down the pole” in Japanese, so I think you can guess the objective. It’s traditionally played on “sports days” in Japan (which I assume is like field day for the entire nation) and it’s most notably at the center of the National Defense Academy’s yearly anniversary, where its cadets partake in the storied pastime.
Rules/Objective: Bo Taoshi is basically a variation on capture the flag featuring two teams with 75 players apiece vying to topple a single large pole. To win, the team must lower the pole to a 30-degree angle before the other side manages to do the same.
Top Athlete: Once again, I couldn’t find anything (mainly because I think it’s hard to pick the best when there 150 people involved.)
My thoughts: I actually think this would be pretty fun if it wasn’t so chaotic. If there were maybe 10 players on each team, it would be a blast, but having 75 people just seems a bit excessive.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s insanely enjoyable to watch, I just don’t want any part of it. I traditionally like to be alone and as far away from the action as possible when I play a sport, which is why I’ve always gravitated to goalie. However, as far as I can tell, there is no goalie here.
I don’t know if Japan has its own version of Black Friday, but if that’s the case, I can only imagine anyone who’s got some Bo Taoshi experience would be an absolute forced to be reckoned with when the doors open up. They might be in it for the love of the game, but they’re doing themselves a disservice if they’re not putting their skills to good use to try to score a PS5.
Quick History: Extreme ironing was invented by an Englishman named Tony Hiam in 1980, who was inspired by his brother John, a guy who hated wrinkles to a point where he’d bring an iron with him when he went camping.
Haim got the sport off the ground by ironing on top of mountains and inside airports and telephone booths, but the stakes have risen significantly since its early days. Extreme ironing (sometimes referred to as “E.I.” if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about) really took off after getting the documentary treatment in 2003, and ever since then, more and more people have traveled to some absurd locales with an iron and board in tow for…reasons? I’m still not entirely sure.
Rules/Objective: You iron. In an extreme location. That’s literally it.
Top Athlete: Unlike the others on this list, there’s no real way to name a G.O.A.T., as extremeness is a largely subjective quality. With that said, I think you’ve got to give Hiam credit for being the trailblazer he was, as he’s the giant that everyone else irons on the shoulders of.
My thoughts: Extreme ironing seems sort of similar to parkour in the sense that it’s not really a “sport” but more of an activity where the only losers are the people who manage to die while doing it. Like parkour, it’s also not exactly the most popular thing in the world, but it seems like the people who get into it get really, really, really into it (it even has its own official bureau.)
In the decades since Tony birthed the idea, participants have traveled to Mount Rushmore, jumped out of a plane, and made their way to the bottom of the ocean (that last of which doesn’t seem to make much sense logistically, but hey, who am I to judge?) You do you, I guess.
Stupid Robot Fighting
Quick History: Stupid Robot Fighting was invented by New Zealander John Espin in 2017 and quickly gained a bit of a following online. According to the official website, the sport was “inspired by a child’s instinct to poke a dead thing with a stick.” Weird, but ok.
The reason it has “Stupid” in the name is that designers go out of their way to purposefully design a shitty robot. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what makes a robot too good, but it seems like if it looks like you put any effort into building one, you’ve done something wrong.
Rules/Objective: Each showdown features two “fighters” controlling their stupid robot, both of which are suspended from a frame. Both combatants have two minutes to inflict as much damage as possible onto their opponent while limiting the amount they take.
Whenever a limb is severed, it can no longer be used, and the ultimate goal is to knock off the other robot’s head, which officially brings the bout to an end (if both sides manage to make it to the end, a referee—yes, there’s a ref—does a “limb count” to name the victor.)
Top Athlete: “El Minion” is the top dog right now, as he quickly destroyed “Down Under Blunder” in the 2019 championship.
My thoughts: As was the case with extreme ironing, I was quite surprised by how organized this seems to be. I get the appeal, but having an actual league and sanctioned events makes me wonder if this is just some super elaborate bit as opposed to a hobby that’s equal parts dumb and fun.
I don’t know much about Espin, but I assume he has a lot in common with Mac from It’s Always Sunny, as it seems like he was just looking for an excuse to do some bashing. It doesn’t matter who wins as long as things get destroyed, they crush some brews, and people have fun. Again, there’s decidedly more purpose and direction here, but all of these videos give off some serious “Project Badass” vibes.
Quick History: While worm charming was originally done to extract worms from the ground for fishing, in 1980, the skill was turned into a competition when the first-ever World Worm Charming Championship was held in England after a guy named John Bailey sat down to write up the bylaws contestants must abide by.
Rules/Objective: Get as many worms out of the ground as possible in the set time limit. In most competitions, the competitors are given a zone in which they can start charming those worms.
Top Athlete: The current world record was set on June 29, 2009, a day that now lives in the history books. On that date, 10-year-old Sophie Smith raised 567 worms on her way to taking home the title. How dominant was that performance? Well, the record she beat was 511, so you do the math (because I have no idea if that’s a big margin or not.)
My thoughts: I don’t really have many thoughts on this and it seems like a lot of the participants are in the same boat. As far as I can tell, this is just manual labor disguised as a competition, and you have to wonder how much the worm industry stands to gain from these events.
I also tried to look up methods for “charming” worms and there’s literally nothing your average person wouldn’t already know. It appears that tapping the ground is the best strategy, so I think it’s safe to say it’s pretty much all luck. There is apparently something called the “Seagull Dance” (which is highlighted in the video above) that can apparently come in handy, but I’m convinced anyone with basic motor functions could compete on an elite level in this sport if they felt like it.
Musical Canine Freestyle
Quick History: Much like Hollywood often treats us to two seemingly identical movies in the same year, Musical Canine Freestyle events began to pop up in the United States, Canada, England, and the Netherlands within the span of three years, so there’s no consensus on its true origin.
The first official organization, Musical Canine Sports International, was founded in British Columbia in 1991. Other groups began to pop up in its wake, and things eventually reached a point where a governing body was founded to oversee competitions around the world
Rules/Objective: Dogs and their trainers are judged on a routine consisting of tricks, dances, and other moves, and there are virtually no restrictions as long as the feats don’t endanger either of the participants.
Top Athlete: This was tough to determine not because of a lack of information but the overwhelming amount I stumbled upon after discovering there are enough subdivisions (and, in turn, title opportunities) to rival the UFC.
My thoughts: These events seem like they’re basically a high school talent show with a little more production value. A lot of things ran through my mind when I initially encountered this, but I could not stop thinking about what it looks like when the dog and trainer are practicing in the privacy of their home. I honestly laughed out loud just picturing that.
I’d also love to know how people who show off their pets at dog shows feel about this, as I can’t imagine they’re too thrilled with what is essentially a reminder the only real “skills” they possess are the ability to spend too much money on a dog and walk it on a leash.
These weird sports are honestly just the tip of the iceberg, so while I could go on, I’m going to stop myself from getting in deeper than I already have. If I hadn’t pulled myself away from YouTube, I’d probably still be discovering new ones while clicking on related videos for eternity.
If it seems like I’m mocking the people that partake in these, I should make it clear that’s not my intent. When you consider these aren’t exactly the most lucrative pastimes out there, anyone who plays these is clearly doing it because they have a genuine passion for it or just want to be the best at something, and I respect the shit out of anyone with that kind of drive.
Finally, the obscure nature of all of these makes digging up information about them much easier said than done, as the internet isn’t exactly overflowing with information concerning the history and intricacies of worm charming. As a result, if you happen to be a big fan of any of these sports and are mad I got some things wrong, I apologize and encourage you to make it more popular so we can avoid those issues in the future.