From pole-vaulting off rocky cliffs to tossing large logs, these folk sports are still wildly practiced by certain cultures.
You’ve heard of swimming, basketball, and skiing, but do you know about the shepherd’s leap or caber tossing? Traditional and folk sports have been around as long as most recreational competitive sports yet they’re still largely unknown.
The sports we know today originated out of necessity for survival or to groom young men for war. That’s why well-known activities like running, wrestling, and archery are some of the oldest-standing sports to date.
However, alongside them, other types of sport were also taking place: folk or traditional sports. These types of activities typically hold a strong cultural heritage and are often focused on community, camaraderie, and socialisation. As some of these sports have gained popularity over time, they have become more competitive, but by and large they have remained niche and as a stronghold to keep traditional roots alive.
One of the most wild and wonderful folk sports is the Salto del pastor or shepherd’s leap, dating back to the 15th century. Practiced throughout the Canary Islands, this activity has seen people pole-vault up and down sharp cliffs and rocky terrain and over deep crevices using a long wooden stick or lance. The Salto del pastor was not always a sport, though. It was originally a convenient and fast way for shepherds to traverse the islands’ uneven terrain where they kept their flock. Today, it has regained popularity as a hobby and sport, keeping the region’s traditions running strong among its community.
Another epic folk sport is Scotland’s caber toss. Picture men in kilts out in Scotland’s heather-covered plains hurling large logs into the air and you have an image of what caber tossing is. Born as a Highland Games tradition back when clans would compete against each other, caber tossing has been a part of Scottish folk sports since the 16th century. In caber tossing, a full-length log is stood upright and lifted by the competitor using both hands at the bottom, resting it against their body. The competitor runs forward to gain momentum and tosses the caber into the air so that it turns over end with the upper end landing before the end originally held by the competitor lands. It’s not just about a show of sheer strength but also skill. If the caber lands in line with the original run, as close to the 12 o’clock position, the competitor wins.
Another traditional sport that requires skill and stamina is Southeast Asia’s sepak takraw. A cross between volleyball and football with dashes of gymnastics and kung fu, sepak takraw is a spectacular feat of human sporting ability. Several variations exist across the region, but the main objective is to keep the hollow, grapefruit-sized ball from touching the floor by keeping it in the air using the feet, elbows, head, shoulders, knees...anything except for the hands. Known as sipa in the Philippines, sepak raga in Malaysia, kator in Laos, da cau in Vietnam, and takraw in Thailand, this distinctly Southeast Asian sport has been avidly played for thousands of years. Now a competitive sport, it was originally a cooperative display of skill made to move the body after long periods of sitting, standing, or working.
“They seemed to move with the ground,” Henry Dupre told The New York Times. “Kind of like a cloud or a fog moving across the mountains.” You might think this is a description of Kenyan runners but it is, in fact, one of the Tarahumara people from Mexico’s Chihuahua region. Not so much a folk sport as a unique and long-standing community sporting ability, the Tarahumara Amerindians are extremely potent long-distance ultrarunners. Living in altitudes between 800 and 2,400 metres, with large distances covered by foot between homes, fields, and villages, the Tarahumara people are essentially born into trail running. Add on the fact that they run barefoot or with thin sandals, eat a vegetarian diet, generally enjoy a strong tipple before running, and many chain smoke fierce black tobacco, they defy every known rule of physical conditioning yet still speed along for hundreds of kilometres.
Modern wrestling has been a popular sport since the Greeks invented it around 708 BC for the ancient Olympics and it has been most popular in countries like Russia and the USA. However, Senegalese wrestling is a type of folk, cultural, and spiritual wrestling traditionally performed by the Serer and the Jola people and widely performed in Senegal, the Gambia, and West African nations. Formally used as a preparatory exercise for war, a rite of passage, or to court women, in Serer tradition Senegalese wrestling developed two main types of techniques depending on the cultural intentions behind the spectacle. Wrestlers can fight each other with their bare hands or they can choose a more acrobatic version, where the first wrestler to have his back touch the ground loses the match and the fight is over. Oftentimes a match is preceded by mystical ceremonies or rituals to ward off bad spirits, with a procession of marabouts accompanying the combatants.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; there is a plethora of unique folk and traditional sport practices worldwide. These folk sports offer an insight into why certain sports came to life, how they kept cultural and community ties living strong, and how they are practiced today.