Bucket list: 10 sports every traveller should see at least once

Think sport begins and ends at the AFL Grand Final? Think State of Origin is the pinnacle of fearsome rivalry? Think again.

Travellers who love sport know there's a whole world of skill, grace and ferocity out there, games and pastimes that provide the perfect window into local culture and people. In this extract from his new book, World of Sports, Ben Groundwater chooses his favourites.

Ice Hockey, Canada

You know the old saying: I went to a fight and a game of ice hockey broke out. Yes, this is a violent sport. Surprisingly violent, in fact, given its popularity among ultra-polite Canadians. Their sport of choice is essentially UFC on ice, a game of grace and beauty in some respects (huge men in full protective equipment gliding across the ice like figure-skaters), and wince-inducing brutality in others. Ice hockey is fast, it's skilful and it's hardcore.

Lucha Libre, Mexico

Nitro, a Mexican Lucha Libre wrestler travels in a Trajinera flat bottom boat in Xochimilco, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. After most wrestling venues closed during the new coronavirus pandemic, Lucha Libre wrestlers will perform on top of Xochimilco´s floating gardens starting Sept. 11. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Photo: AP

Mexico's most popular sport? Football. But how about Mexico's second most popular? This particular sport is one that involves comically macho men (and sometimes women) dressed in spandex and brightly coloured masks hurling themselves at each other from great distances and great heights. It's a sport that seems to have no rules or regulations, held in a boxing ring. It's an event of huge fanfare, a manly pantomime with heroes and villains who are cheered and booed as their reputation befits. It is lucha libre.

Football, Argentina

SAN MIGUEL DE TUCUMAN, ARGENTINA - SEPTEMBER 18: Edwin Cardona of Boca Juniors and Matías Orihuela of Atlético Tucumán fight for the ball during a match between Atlético Tucumán and Boca Juniors as part of Copa De La Liga Profesional 2021 at the Monumental José Fierro stadium on September 18, 2021 in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina. (Photo by Hernán Cortez/Getty Images)

Photo: Getty Images

This is it: the pinnacle of football fandom. Nowhere will you find fans as raucous packed into a stadium as intimidating. Nowhere will you be so enthralled and so amazed. This is La Bombonera, home to Argentina's Boca Juniors football club. The experience of seeing a game here is intense from the moment you step into working-class La Boca. The stadium sits in the centre of the suburb, amid houses and bars within touching distance of its grafitti-covered walls. Inside, the crowd is a roiling sea of yellow and blue that dances and shouts and cheers and screams. There's nowhere else like it.

Capoeira, Brazil

Capoeiristas practice Capoeira on Flamengo beach. Capoeira is a mixture of martial arts, games, and dance that originated in Brazil created and developed by African slaves during the 16th century. Participants form a roda (circle) and take turns playing instruments, singing, and sparring in pairs. Enormously acrobatic, Capoeira was for most of its existence banned by the Brazilian authorities. It is now seen as a national sport. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. tra21-online-sports
Ben Groundwater story on best sports for travellers to see. Extract from his book World of Sports published by Hardie Grant

Photo: Getty Images

Is this a sport or a dance? Is it a martial art or a show? With capoeira it's sometimes difficult to tell, and that's part of the attraction. Capoeira is the perfect snapshot of Brazilian culture and history, a pastime with roots in African slavery, inextricably linked to local passions such as music and dance. To see capoeira is to witness the joyful flow of movement, as two "capoeiristas" engage in a series of high kicks and low sweeps, as they feint and weave, dodge and duck, all while accompanied by musicians and other performers.


Camel Racing, UAE

In this Friday, April 14, 2017 photo, camels run towards the finish line as their owners in SUVs control the robotic jockeys from cars, at the Al Marmoom Camel Racetrack, in al Lisaili about 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Camel racing is a big-money sport and fast thoroughbreds can fetch well over a million dollars. As rising temperatures across Gulf Arab countries signal the end of the winter camel racing season, Dubai is wrapping up its races with the annual Al Marmoom Heritage Festival that has drawn thousands of camels from across the oil-rich Gulf. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Photo: AP

First thing you're probably going to ask yourself about camel racing in Dubai is: what the hell is going on? There's a lot to take in. There's the sight of the camels themselves, beautiful beasts that are treated as royalty by their owners (who might be actual royalty). Then there are the jockeys: not people, but small boxes strapped to the camels' backs. Then there's the size of the track, which seems to stretch past the horizon. And then there's the fleet of luxury cars poised trackside, ready to roll. What's going on here? Emirati camel racing.

Basque Stone Lifting, Spain

PAMPLONA, SPAIN - JULY 12:  A stone lifter competes during a rural Basque sports championship on the seventh day of the San Fermin Running Of The Bulls festival on July 12, 2014 in Pamplona, Spain. The annual Fiesta de San Fermin, made famous by the 1926 novel of US writer Ernest Hemingway 'The Sun Also Rises', involves the running of the bulls through the historic heart of Pamplona.  (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. tra21-online-sports
Ben Groundwater story on best sports for travellers to see. Extract from his book World of Sports published by Hardie Grant

Photo: Getty Images

Surely not. Surely that guy is not going to be able to lift that rock. It weighs 150kg. No one could do that. But then, he does lift that rock. He grapples with it, flipping the huge stone onto his knees, bracing as he hauls it up to his chest and onto his shoulder. A referee yells and he drops the stone to the ground with a deep thud. And then… he picks it up again. And again. Welcome to harri-jasotze, or Basque stone-lifting. Join the cider-sipping crowds in the Plaza Trinidad in San Sebastian and marvel at the big men doing their thing.

Darts, England

Michael van Gerwen in action during his match against Ricky Evans during day ten of the William Hill World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace in London on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020.  (John Walton/PA Wire via AP)

Photo: AP

Somehow, at some point, darts became fun. In fact, not just fun, but a riotously good time. Somehow the World Darts Championship, held each year at London's Alexandra Palace – aka the "Ally Pally" – became the social event for sports loving English people who enjoy mixing fancy dress and copious amounts of alcohol with their consumption of the big game. And so, this sport that features everyday men and women throwing tiny arrows at a circular target has morphed into a cultural phenomenon.

Schwingen, Switzerland

Savognin, GR / Switzerland, - 12 October, 2019: two men in the ring during a Swiss wrestling match Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. tra21-online-sports
Ben Groundwater story on best sports for travellers to see. Extract from his book World of Sports published by Hardie Grant

Photo: Getty Images

It begins with solemn prayer. The competitors gather high in the rich green hills of Switzerland and pause respectfully as Sunday mass is observed. And then it's time to wrestle. This is schwingen, traditional Swiss wrestling. It's little known throughout the rest of the world, and yet passionately revered in its homeland. This is a rural sport, a sport for farmers, for workers, for strapping lads in checked shirts who gather on these beautiful hillsides, don their "schwingerhosen", the traditional hessian trousers, enter sawdust-covered rings and then attempt to throw each other to the ground.

Naadam, Mongolia

FILE- In this Sunday, June 5, 2016, file photo, a mongolian archer shoots a bow and arrow as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends a Naadam ceremony, a competition which traditionally includes horse racing, Mongolian wrestling and archery, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Mongolians vote in parliamentary elections Wednesday, June 29, 2016,  with sentiment weighed by a sharp downturn in the landlocked Asian nation’s crucial mining sector, rising unemployment and political disillusionment. Mongolia’s mining- and animal herding-dependent economy has been dragged down by weak domestic demand and a sharp decline in exports, impoverishing thousands of former herders who had moved to its few cities looking for jobs. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Photo: AP

First, you need to know about the Three Manly Pursuits: wrestling, archery and horse-riding. It doesn't take long in Mongolia to realise why these three sports are held in such high regard. This is a traditional society of genuine nomads who still live in felt gers, hunt for food, travel on horseback and value physical strength. To witness their feats, simply attend Naadam, an annual festival dedicated to the Three Manly Pursuits in Ulaanbaatar. It's a feast for the eyes, as arrows are fired, oiled-up men in leather underwear tackle each other to the ground, and wild horses are raced over distances up to 30km.

Sepak Takraw, Thailand

BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2002/11/21: Thais playing sepak takraw. (Photo by Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. tra21-online-sports
Ben Groundwater story on best sports for travellers to see. Extract from his book World of Sports published by Hardie Grant

Photo: Getty Images

Wow. That's the word you will utter when you see your first game of sepak takraw. How do these guys get so high in the air? How do they twist themselves into those positions? How do they land without breaking something? Sepak takraw is basically volleyball, only the ball is a small rattan sphere and players can't use their hands to control it. What that results in is both male and female players leaping high into the air and performing entire somersaults in order to "spike" the ball over a high net. You will find this sport played throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Laos, everywhere from dusty clearings to modern stadiums.

World of Sports by Ben Groundwater (Hardie Grant, $19.99) is out now. See smarturl.it/WorldofSport

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