Some of the oldest sports in the world are still being played and are still popular to this day. Sports like wrestling, boxing, gymnastics, the javelin throw, and the long jump all live on throughout the world. Well, maybe javelin throwing and long jumping aren’t quite at the height of their popularity like they were in Ancient Greece, but when the Olympics come around every four years, you can bet people are glued to their TVs to watch.
That’s the key thing, popularity. In the world of sports, popularity and participation are vital. Without anyone to play a sport or anyone to watch, they fade into obscurity, only to be written about in hushed tones or laughed and pointed at. That’s no fate for a sport.
There probably isn’t a sport in the world that isn’t still played and watched somewhere, but mainstream culture and the world as a whole has certainly moved past some of them. The aforementioned javelin and long jumping wouldn’t be alive without the Olympics, mostly because they’re boring. That’s the thing, would any of these forgotten sports still be around if they were utterly dull or extremely dangerous. Well, perhaps those two things shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath, but you can see the correlation.
Or maybe the sport was just a bit too weird or confusing for anyone to get. There are always plenty of those.
What exactly makes a sport “forgotten,” in that case? A forgotten sport is anything that used to be played on a competitive level that has not played competitively for years, sometimes decades or even centuries. It could be a sport that was once played around the globe, but only holds on in small countries. Or, a sport that was once on the rise but suddenly vanished entirely from the face of the Earth.
Keep reading to find out more about forgotten sports.
10 The Arts
We begin our walk down forgotten sports history with a brief stop at literature, art, poetry, and writing, because how could a writer not mention a time when writing was a competitive sport?
Seven times between 1912 and as recently as 1948, the Olympics held a series of art competitions. These weren’t some honorary thing, or a sideshow they were actual Olympic games in which the “athletes” actually won real Olympic medals for.
Categories ran from architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture, and proposals were submitted for dance, film, photography, and theater. The caveat was that all the art entered had to have something to do with sports
The arts competitions were eventually discontinued, but not for the reasons you might think. It was ruled by the International Olympic Committee that artists were professionals, where Olympic athletes had to be amateurs.
Slamball was created in 2002 by Pat Croce as the go-to sport for people who want to play basketball, but can’t. That might seem pretty recent for a sport to be forgotten, but this is going somewhere.
The sport involves four players on each team running around a shortened basketball court with trampolines surrounded the basket and the inner part of the court consists of foam rubber. Each quarter is divided into five minutes, meaning a game can be completed in half an hour including half-time.
The sport got off to a huge start, being featured on ESPN, Yhe Tonight Show, and getting features in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. But just as quickly as the sport came to be, it faded into obscurity.
8 Distance Plunging
Distance Plunging is another old Olympic sport, going as far back as 1904, but it was also popular in America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
The goal of Distance Plunging, sometimes called Plunging for Distance, is to dive into a body of water and stay in it for as long as you can without moving. After 60 seconds, or when the plunger re-emerged, a referee would measure the distance the diver floated.
7 Jeu de Paume
Jeu de Paume, or Palm Game in English (don’t read too much into that), is a ball and court game similar to Squash. The only difference is that the sport didn’t use rackets, but the player’s hand. That is, until the late 17th century when racquets were introduced, sabotaging the very name of the game.
The sport can be traced as far back as the mid-17th century France. It was included in the 1908 Olympics, in which only the US and Britain participated, oddly France didn’t compete.
Today, Jeu de Paume is in a bit of an odd sport naming wise. “Jeu de Paume,” in France, generally refers to any kind of ball and court or racquet game. “Real Tennis” is what the game is called now, being played in only a hand full of cities and countries across the US and Europe.
Jeu de Paume also refers to a sports museum in Paris, also known as the Galerie Nationale de l’Image, that was originally built as a tennis stadium in the 17th century.
Pitz is a very old game, so old the ancient Mesoamericans played it. Archeologists simply call it the Mesoamerican ball game, while historians believe the Mayans called it Pitz. Way back then, sports weren’t just sports, they were a proxy for warfare, human sacrifice, mating, and okay, maybe they weren't all that different. But considering the losers of a match of Pitz were decapitated, it’s safe to say sports fans have eased up over the years.
The game involved a ball that weighed nine pounds, consisting of solid rubber. Teams were split up in a big room with four walls and had to bounce the ball off the walls using anything but their hands. The ball could not touch the ground, meaning players had to dive for the ball to get it airborne.
The goal of the game was to get the ball through a hoop on the wall. There are no records stating how high the hoop was or how wide the hole in the middle would be, but records show that it was such a difficult task and the game would instantly end when the ball passed the hoop.
To compensate for this, new rules were eventually introduced. Points were scored for hitting your opponent’s wall and fouls were given to players who couldn't get the ball past the center line or who used their hands the move the ball.
If American English is the bastardized version of British English, then Roque is the American bastardized version of Croquet. You can tell by the name, subtract the C and the T and you’ve got Roque, the hot old game no one quite understood.
Played on a hardwood surface, the game is an amalgamation of croquet, billiards, and golf. It’s rules are a bit convoluted, but fear not, because E. I. Farrington from a 1913 edition of The Outing magazine has us covered.
“When another ball is struck by the player’s ball,” Farrington informs us, “the player is entitled to two more shots, the first being made with his ball being in contact with the ball hit, which is called a split shot.”
You can read the article for yourself, which I highly recommend. There’s four pages of intricacies of the game, as well as an introduction on why Roque is the greatest game to ever be invented by mere mortals.
4 Ski Ballet
Ski Ballet isn’t exactly what you think it is. There aren’t any ballet dancers on skis, prancing around in the snow in leotards and skirts desperately trying to not bash themselves or their partners in the face with their skis. Rather, it’s an event for skiers that involves dancing with their skis.
These weren’t dancers either, they were freestyle skiers, alpine skiers and cross-country skiers who basically decided to take a break and do some dancing.
3 Cornish Hurling
Not to be confused with its Irish brother Hurling, Cornish Hurling’s origins lie in Cornwall, in the UK.
The game is similar to Soccer and Rugby, in that the player has to take the ball and score a goal with it, getting past the opponent’s defenders. The ball in question is slightly smaller than a baseball, weights over a pound, and is made from pure sterling silver.
The most recently documentation of the game comes in the 16th Century, when it appears that it was played between men from two parishes.
2 Skin Pulling
Imagine a nightmarish game in which Vikings played tug of war, only instead of rope they used animal hides and instead of a pond or some mud in the middle, it was a massive fire.
At stake was literally a matter of life and death. No one from either team was allowed to let go, meaning the losers would be dragged into the pit of fire and burned to death. The winners, meanwhile, got exclusive “rights” to rape and pillage whatever town they had beaten.
That’s right, Skin Pulling was played in the middle of towns that Vikings had just won in battle and when there wasn’t enough money, booze, and women to go around, the Vikings settled on a sport of death.
Naumachia is the weirdest sport ever played. Not in the silly, hyperbolic sense of Horse Cricket, where cricket players ride on horses and not in the aforementioned Ski Ballet where some skiers dance around. No, this really is the most bizarre sport ever.
To put it simply, Naumachia is an Ancient Roman sport that involved filling a coliseum with water, putting in war ships, and having sailors fight and kill each other in real naval combat for the enjoyment of an audience. That’s right, Ancient Rome filled up coliseums and stuck war ships in them, and they didn’t have the benefit of waiting until the summer when all the hockey rinks melted either.
You’d think they’d have their fill of naval combat with all the real wars they were constantly fighting, but it would appear they were unsatisfied with the competition.
The first recorded “match” came in 45 BC, created by Julius Caesar after he ordered a giant lake be dug and made prisoners of war fight each other in primitive war ships. By 52 AD, Naumachia was just as popular, and bloodier, than gladiatorial combat.
The Romans even started to incorporate aspects of theater in the games, depicting naval battles with the Greek and Persians. Then, one day in the Flavian period, mentions of the sport suddenly vanished from Roman texts. It’s unlikely the sport just stopped being played, but it’s equally unlikely that it kept going without ever being mentioned. Historians don’t know what happened to the sport.
It’s a shame we got Gladiator with Russel Crowe, because Naumachia would have been much cooler. What would you rather see, Russel Crowe fighting some people in a stadium, or a bunch of massive war ships duking it out in a small area, indoors?
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