After you’ve achieved “cultural authenticity” by eating with your hands, experience something your hosts actually care about—their sports. Not your typical breed of athletics, these attractions are often an ancient cultural tradition of their host nation.
Based on a sport played by Colombia’s Chibcha Indians, tejo incorporates multiple elements of a common horseshoe game with the added bonus of explosions. That’s right—locals play the national sport of Colombia by throwing a small disc (the tejo) at an explosive target, called the mecha, which is embedded in a clay box. The boxes contain concentric rings with two mechas in the center, and points are awarded based on proximity to the explosives. Teams vary in size, and virtually all professional tejo teams are sponsored by local breweries, giving each tournament the atmosphere of a fiesta. Colombians are happy to share their national pastime with visitors, and tejo courts can be found scattered throughout every city. Not into drinking? Just be sure your hosts know you’re interested in a virgin game.
The national sport of Argentina, pato was originally played with a live duck (pato in Spanish). Gripping the duck, competitors on horseback would attempt to wrestle the bird from one another and fly the battered creature through the opposing team’s goal. Don’t call PETA just yet, however. Pato hasn’t used an actual duck for over 200 years, when the sport was outlawed. In 1938, the government lifted the ban and a fowl-less edition of the folk sport became popular, with current teams consisting of four riders to a team. Part polo, part basketball, part playground brawl, pato is worth seeing year-round.
This underwater spin on hockey was invented in 1954 by Alan Blake of Portsmouth, England. In octopush, which takes place in a swimming pool, players wear a diving mask, fins, and a snorkel. The rules are similar to ice hockey, but players use a much shorter stick and a lead puck designed to skim across the bottom of the pool. In recent years, the sport has gained popularity, with the first world championship taking place in Italy in 2007. A world championship is now held every other year.
This Swiss national sport dates all the way back to medieval times. Opponents wear loose shorts with a leather belt that each participant grabs and uses to throw his opponent to the ground. The rules are pretty simple: there’s one ten-minute round, and when both of an opponent’s shoulders touch the ground, the other player has won. Schwingen takes place in festivals from early summer through fall, but the biggest event is a tournament that takes place every three years. Keeping with tradition, the winner takes home a live bull.
This traditional South African sport was first played by transport riders, who threw the wooden pins of their oxen’s yokes at sticks they had already pushed into the ground. Today, jukskei involves an object called a skei that is thrown at an upright peg. The game is played with two teams of four players, and each player has two skeis. Each team needs to score exactly 23 points to win, and if a team scores more than 23 points they must start back at zero. In 2010, jukskei was selected as a display sport at the World Horseshoe Pitching Championship.
Combine volleyball and some acrobatic hacky sack and you get sepak takraw. Sepak takraw is popular throughout the nations of Southeast Asia. Sometimes referred to as kick volleyball, this sport involves teams of three, a five-foot net, and a fist-sized ball. The players lunge to kick, spike, and block the ball using only their legs, chest, and head. That’s right—the use of arms is not allowed, anywhere from the shoulder down to the fingertips. Many of the international tournaments are held during the fall. Do yourself a favor and head to Southeast Asia for some firsthand experience.
Australian-Rules Football, Aussie Rules, or “footy,” is one of the most popular sports in Australia. It consists of two teams of 22 players, an elliptically shaped field, and an extreme fusion of rugby and basketball. Players run (and occasionally bounce) a ball, similar in shape to a rugby ball, across the field in frantic sprints, kicking the ball through goals to earn points. Unpadded and unprotected, players bash into and on top of each other to gain possession of the ball. It’s a full-contact sport that requires players to use as much of their body (and their opponents’) as possible.
—Written by Allison Frost, Nate Parkinson, and Kimberly Smith