When you think of culture, you think of food, language, art, music. But these attributes are just part of what differentiates one country from another. Games, and as an extension, sport, are an important component of this abstract notion. Sports are not only deeply rooted in tradition and history; they can bring nations together (or bitterly divide them, as Boston and New York well know). If a Brit came to visit you in the States, you’d take him to a baseball or football game to show him popular American pastimes. So when you jet off on your adventure, seeking culture and a foreign experience, don’t forget to snag some tickets to a local sporting event! From the hugely popular to the fairly obscure, here’s a list of 10 sports around the world that you’ll want to catch live!
Where? Latin America, Europe
Soccer (football to the rest of the world) is a fast-paced sport of endurance and footwork. The most popular sport in the world, it's also one of the oldest, with football-type games recorded in Ancient Greece and Rome. Today there are numerous professional leagues worldwide. And while you may have watched or even played soccer in the U.S., nothing compares to the sheer energy inside a football stadium in South America or Europe. Join the fans during your gap year by donning the local team’s colors and screaming your head off in the stadium. But beware, football rivalries are taken seriously, so be careful who you taunt! Olé, Olé, Olé!
If you’re looking for a full-contact sport, look no further! Sumo has a long history, from its Shino origin and trial of strength to its development through influences from China and Mongolia. In a match, two wrestlers face off, and the first one to force his opponent to step outside the ring or touch another part of his body besides his feet on the ground wins. Matches typically end quite quickly. With no weight class in sumo, those with greater size are at a definite advantage. Sumo wrestlers have a highly regimented lifestyle, living among other professionals in a communal training stable. Because this sport involves much ritual, it’s a great peek into Japanese history and culture during your Gap Year in Japan. Gambatte Ne!
Where? New Zealand, UK, mainland Europe (France), Australia
They say football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen. Whether or not you agree, you have to admit you’ve got to be next to crazy to play it. An injury-prone sport, rugby is action-packed and hard-hitting. It's comparable to American football, except the game doesn’t stop to setup plays and rugby players don’t wear pads. There are two “types” of rugby - Rugby Union and Rugby League - which play by slightly different rules. Both involve lobbing and running the ball down the pitch to cross over the line and score a try. Regardless, you’re in for entertainment. And be sure to join in on the rugby songs! Ruck & Maul!
4. Australian Rules Football
Better known as “Aussie Rules” or AFL, this rough and tumble sport seems a bit of a cross between every ball sport imaginable! No one seems to be able to agree on its origins, but it’s safe to say it’s become as unique as the country it’s from.
Players run the ball down the field (throwing is illegal!) with the intention of kicking it through the goal posts. AFL is a contact sport and a high scoring game -- so you won’t be bored. As the biggest spectator sport in Australia, it’s a great opportunity during your gap year or workaway to live like the Aussies do!
Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!
Where? India, Australia, England
As Americans, we look at cricket as a confused version of baseball, but the rest of the world likes it well enough! One of the most popular sports in the world, cricket can be traced back to the Tudors in 16th-century England. As the British expanded their empire, so too did cricket spread. The basics of the game will sound pretty familiar: the bowler throws the ball and the batsman attempts to hit the ball as far as he can to score a run. There’s a bunch of other complicated rules, so find a local on your gap year in England, India, or Australia who can teach you the inner workings of the game! Did we mention that test matches are spread over 5 days?! Farm the strike!
6. Muay Thai
One of the martial arts originating from Thailand, this combative sport is also called the “art of eight limbs.” Using fists, elbows, knees and shins, fighters in great physical condition strike at each other. Judges score the rounds, and unless one fighter is completely dominating, the first two rounds come to a draw. The third through fifth rounds are decisive and the scoring is continuous. Developed from fighting techniques of actual warfare as well as kickboxing, muay thai became a spectator sport and was included in celebrations. Both the sport’s long history and its characteristic sense of control make muay thai a glance into Thai culture on your gap year in Thailand. Round 1!
Similar to Gaelic football, hurling is part of the traditional Gaelic games, dating back several thousand years. Hugely popular in Ireland, it has spread to other countries as a way to maintain Irish heritage. Each side has 15 players. Using a hurley (wooden stick), players hit a sliotar (ball) over the opponents’ crossbar for 1 point, or into the goal for 3 points. There is no professional league so all the players are amateurs. A physical sport played without padding, these games can get rough and extremely competitive! In 2010, the All-Ireland Hurling Championship Final drew a crowd of 82,000 people in Dublin. This is not a sport you’ll want to miss on your Ireland gap year, so pick a team and get cheering! Sláinte!
Did you know the Dutch have an actual sport of “canal jumping”? Originally a way to hop to the other side of waterway without a bridge, this peculiar sport held its first competition in 1771. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that it became structured and today you’ll find clubs dedicated to it.
Fierljeppen involves a long pole with a flat round plate at the bottom to prevent slippage. Jumpers sprint to the pole, jump, climb up it and proceed to propel themselves to the other side of the canal. The longest jump wins. Though not as serious as some countries’ national sport, the Netherlands does claim one of the most creative pastimes on the list. Ready, set, jump!
Where? Pakistan, India, Bangladesh
With teams on opposing sides of the field or swimming pool, each takes turns sending a raider in. The raider tackles members of the other team for points and then returns to his side while holding his breath and chanting “kabbadi” throughout the raid.
Tagged members are out and have to leave the playing field temporarily. Defenders try to stop the raider, forcing him to take a breath before he returns and causing him to be out. We can’t say we particularly understand it either, but we definitely want to see it played on our next gap year!
Kabbadi, kabbadi, kabbadi!
10. Caber Toss
A traditional Scottish event, the Caber Toss is one of many events you’ll see at the Scottish Highland Games. A caber is a 19.5 foot, 175 lb tree trunk. The tosser squats down to throw the caber, trying not only for distance but also maximum vertical angle. He must make it flip over once, with the best score with the small end landing at the 12 o’clock position. Scoring for the throw is based on accuracy more than anything. Dating back to the 1500s, a gap year in Scotland would be incomplete without watching (or participating in!) the Highland Games and the Caber Toss.
I’m fair puckled!