Perhaps it would suffice to say that our ancestors hated boredom. We may still have our share of crazy and extreme sports today, but you would be surprised to know that the people of yesteryear had it even crazier. From time to time, you will wonder, “What on earth were those old people thinking if they were thinking at all? While most athletes don’t necessarily risk their lives to play football or soccer as we know it today, these old sports (like many others) find their roots in antiquity. This is the list of the 20 most intense sports of the ancient world.
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Have you ever seen the movie Gladiator? This is what it looks like, except that you will be fighting for your life with starved lions and bears, without any weapon. It’s pretty hard to tell who had it worse: the slave or the beast. Roman games were very popular in those days. The ancient Romans loved very much to play the animals against humans and even told stories or dramas in which human slaves were the center of attention. This is actually an “entertainment style” execution, something to entertain or delight the masses of thousands. If you have ever dreamed of visiting the majestic Colosseum in Rome, then you have dreamed of being in a Venatio venue.
2. Camel Jumping
A widespread ancient sport among the members of the Zaraniq tribe on the west coast of Yemen was camel jumping. This ancient practice has recently been revived, with participants jumping over as many camels as possible. Do you think it’s a yawn fest? Fully grown camels stand at shoulder height with a body length of about 10 feet. Participants start walking and then try to jump over as many camels as possible, similar to the modern drunken frat-boys from the nearby college.
3. Viking Skin Pulling
Are you familiar with the game of “Tug of War”? It’s just like this one, except that the participants use animal skin instead of a rope and play over a fire pit. As you may have guessed, the winners leave with the right to loot a city, which usually included the rights to rape women. And the losers? They can show cowardice by letting go, or they can be roasted to a crisp. How this can be considered “fun” is still incomprehensible.
Believe it or not, this is the national sport of Afghanistan. It was banned after the Taliban came to power, but now that they have been removed from power, it is back in full swing. Sometimes games can even attract thousands of spectators. In this sport, a certain number of players on horses fight for the carcass of a headless goat by trying to get it over a goal line. Yes, seriously. But hey, think about it, the round thing you use for your football game is also made of chemically treated animal skin, which is shaped to look like a ball, so it’s not that different, is it?
Do you think MMA is cool and hard? You ain’t seen nothing yet. This old version includes (a lot of) kicking, boxing, and wrestling, and it was even considered one of the old Olympic sports. But here’s the catch: As long as you don’t bite your opponent’s eyes or gouge his eyes out, you can do whatever you want. There is no time limit, and in most cases, there is no one there to judge the fight. Pankration or “All Power” is mostly just about beating the opponent to a bloody pulp and almost killing him… Almost, because if you kill your opponent by mistake, he will be declared the winner. So if he doesn’t give up or dies accidentally, you have a long bloody journey ahead of you.
Another spectacle (?) that could be seen in the famous Colosseum: Naumachia is like a fake sea battle, only the bloody results are real. The ancient Roman soldiers filled the arena with water, added some ships, and then tried to re-enact bloody sea battles… just for fun, of course. Only it was no fun for those condemned to death, and the only ones who have fun are the authorities. The ancient Romans even went so far as to place real sea creatures.
Even if it doesn’t suffer the same bloodshed as the others in this list, it can still be considered a hardcore sport, because who would ever think of throwing his opponent off his horse with a ten-foot pole? Only our ancestors from medieval England, that’s who. Injuries and death were the order of the day, but totally smashed armor is even more plentiful.
8. Mesoamerican Ball Game or Ulama
Never heard of this sport? This game is perhaps the strangest of all, because it is like basketball and volleyball, except that the “ball” has to be hit on the players’ hips to get it through a hoop on a wall. The catch? The “balls” are often made from human skulls. Do you wonder where the skulls come from? You might want to stay until the end of the game to find out the answer.
9. Nguni Stick Fighting
This bizarre old sport is still practiced today, with participants from Zulu beating each other with branches from saplings. It’s more like a children’s game than a sport where you beat endlessly until someone gives up or dies accidentally. Yes, injuries and death are not uncommon.
Do you think that this ancient sport is only for stuck-up people with access to huge amounts of money? On the contrary, it was anything but noble and stylish. Back in Persia, where this game started, men showed their riding skills and tried to fight each other. It only follows that this sport was also associated with many injuries and sometimes even death.
11. Chariot Racing
This is one of the games of Greek antiquity. Are you a fan of NASCAR? It’s just like car racing, except you don’t drive high-performance cars and wear cool racing suits. Instead, you ride in a chariot, a two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle that offers no protection whatsoever. While the spectators are indeed enjoying themselves, drivers and horses risk injury and even death because they can be thrown around, thrown out, or even trampled. If you have a problem with having a long and healthy life, this sport is definitely for you.
12. Pelota Purepecha
Let’s just call it field hockey for pyromaniacs. It’s a pre-hispanic game played with a fireball, literally. The ball, known as zapandukua, is made of cloth and string and then smeared with pine resin to easily catch fire. Goals are then set up on opposite sides, and the players try to hit it over the goal line, equipped with wooden sticks. It was also played at night, as the flaming ball was quite a spectacle in the light of the moon.
The Spanish word “Pato” literally means “duck” and is the official sport of Argentina. Nowadays the game is not as violent as it used to be. In the past, however, the game was played with a live duck in a basket. And as you may have guessed, it was used as a “ball”. Why a duck, you ask? The object of the game was to get the duck to your base, the Ranch House. You get to take home the dead animal, plus a large sum of money.
Although it was natural for the duck to be killed during the game, the game became so violent among the players that the Catholic Church in the 17th century rejected a Christian burial of the victims. They even went so far as to excommunicate anyone caught playing this sport. In the 20th century, however, the rules were changed to make the game safer. Even the duck was replaced by a ball, as was customary.
14. Papa Holua
This is surfing on a whole new level. While Hawaii has always been known for its gorgeous and pristine beaches, this “sport” includes surfing on a mountain. In fact, Papa Holua actually means “sliding into the pit.” For thousands of years, participants rode on a 50-pound, 12-foot long “sled” as wide as a ski. Then they would take off in a downhill run and plunge down the slope chest first. It looks like sledding on your stomach, and at speeds of 50 miles per hour, the danger is really out of the question. Another sport to avoid, especially if you have children, both young and adult.
This is an antique ball game from Rome that looks very similar to modern rugby. The difference lies in the brutality of the game. It is also known as the Small Ball game and is played by two teams of equal size, with the ball being about the size of a softball. And just like in the game today, the team has to get the ball over a certain line to “score”. The opposing teams could do anything to prevent the offense. They could kick, trip, hit, tackle, and, if necessary, even head-butt. Do you believe that American football is violent? Try to imagine it with players who have no protective equipment at all.
16. Dog Fighting
The history of this terrible sport can be traced back to the ancient Roman civilization. In 43 AD, when the Romans invaded Britain, they brought dogs to fight with them. The Romans used a dog breed from Greece known as Molossus, while the British used the wide-mouthed Mastiffs. Although the British lost the war, the Romans were very impressed by the ferocity of the British dogs, which were much more ready to fight than their own animals. This led to a dog market that imported British fighting dogs not only for fighting but also for pleasure. The dogs were placed in a ring against each other, much to the amusement of the spectators. Nowadays, however, this has been declared illegal in many countries.
17. Muay Thai
This is the national sport of Thailand, and if you don’t like to keep your face and body free of pain, stay away from this sport. It is also known as “The Art of Eight Limbs”. What does this mean exactly? It means using eight points of contact in the body to recreate weapons of war. The hands are like swords and daggers, the shins and forearms harden against blows, the elbows become a kind of hammer, and the legs and knees are axe and staff. Today it is practiced all over the world, with competitors wearing bright colours.
How long can you hold your breath? This is a question you have to ask yourself before you start practising this strange old sport. It is one of the ancient sports in South Asia and is played by two teams. Originally developed to develop physical strength and speed in young Indian men, it is about wrestling with seven people while holding your breath. The catch? Only one member of each team may enter the opponent’s area. It is still frequently played in South Asia today, but old rules such as holding your breath have been changed. Now you play it in a safer way.
19. Shin Kicking
Yes, that exists. It’s one of the most bizarre sports ever. It is a martial art in which two competitors repeatedly kick each other in the shins to force the opponent to the ground. It originated in England and was even considered an English martial art. Usually the participants wore white coats and then tried to hit the opponent with their foot on the shin. You had to have a high pain threshold to win this, and the losers had to shout “Enough!” when they had enough. Very English.
Chunkey is a sport developed by civilization in the ancient Mississippi and is one of the earliest ancient sports in the United States today. It is usually a one-on-one sport, although any number can participate in one or both teams. It is not quite as violent as the others on this list, as it was simply a matter of rolling a huge stone across the ground and throwing spears at an area where the stone was thought to land. However, the game was sometimes taken so seriously by the players that they had to bet all their possessions. Sometimes losers even reached the point where they committed suicide.