Five for Friday: Wacky Geographical Sports

Sometimes we fail to consider how much of our lives are affected by the places we live. The needs and resources of different regions have an impact on everything from jobs to food to recreational activities. The five sports I will describe below are all products of their distinct locations, but even sports that can be played anywhere often have their origins in a particular country’s geography.

1)    Elephant Polo

ELE.JPGYes, it’s polo played on the backs of elephants. The sport dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was first played in Nepal, Sri Lanka, some parts of India, and Thailand. In 1982, the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) held the first World Elephant Polo Championship. WEPA adopted strict rules to ensure the safety of both the elephants and the riders, including limitations on the number of games each elephant can play, and when they can play–all games must end by noon so that the elephants don’t get too hot.

The elephants that participate in polo were originally domesticated by humans for their immense strength.

Some elephants were used for logging, others for tourism–an industry that continues to grow in places such as Thailand. WEPA claims that currently there are only around 20 wild elephants in Nepal –the rest are all domesticated. Here is a video of an elephant polo match in India.

2)    Wife Carrying

The name says it all; Wife Carrying is exactly what it sounds like. Husbands throw their wives over their backs and run through obstacle courses. Over logs and through muddy water, they race against other couples, competing for the grand prize: the weight of winning couple’s wife in beer. The only real rules on wives are: they have to be over the age of 17 and they have to weigh at least 108 pounds. Costumes are encouraged, and in some countries rewarded with prizes.

Wife Carrying originated in Finland, where a 19th century legend has it that men stole wives from neighboring villages. The Wife Carrying World Championships are hosted in the Finnish town of Sonkajärven each July. The contest’s popularity has inspired similar events in the United States, Australia, Ireland and even China. In 2008, 39 couples competed, and, historically, the competition has included Finnish, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, American, Australian, English, Kenyan, Swedish, German, and Estonian competitors. However, the Finnish competition is the mother race, its origins lying in legend and tradition, rather than in natural resources.

3)    Noodling

An amusing name that brings to mind images of wrestling noodles,
Noodling is actually a sport that involves using one’s fingers as bait
to catch catfish. During the spring and summer months, Noodlers boat out
to rivers where catfish make their nests in sunken logs, mud banks, or
under rocks for the spawning season. Once they’ve found the nests,
noodlers provoke the catfish to bite their fingers–out of irritation
and/or hunger. Once a catfish takes the “bait,” the noodler attempts to
haul the fish out of the water. Here is a short video about noodling,
[Okie Noodling trailer], taken from a USA Today article about the sport.

Noodler.JPGJerry Rider, a celebrity noodler, suggests that the name actually comes
from the 17th century practice of digging or “noodling” opals from
Australian mines. Others think it’s because the catfish are slippery and
wet like noddles. When I first heard of noodling, I imagine it’s
because of another suggested reason: that when you wiggle your fingers
fro bait, they look like spaghetti.

Noodling is dangerous, both to the people participating, and to the
habitats that are home to catfish. Noddlers work in groups, because some
catfish can weigh up to 50 pounds, and when they clamp down on
something, they spin like alligators to drag it deep underwater. The
sport has restrictions just like any other, including a five-fish
limitation per day, and size restrictions. Some states, like Texas, have
made the sport illegal. If caught noodling in Texas, you can get
charged with a 500 dollar fine.
4)    Volcano Boarding

A relatively new arrival on the scene, this extreme sport has
participants “surfing” down the side of volcanoes. It was created by
Darryn Webb, an Australian tour guide and duneboarder, who started
running volcano boarding tours on Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro Mountain in
2005.Volcano2.JPGPeople race down the 2,380-foot high active volcano, reaching
speeds of up to 50 miles-per-hour, with nothing separating them from the
volcano’s ash other than a jumpsuit, goggles, knee pads, a helmet, and a
sled-style board made of metal and reinforced plywood. The sport is an
adaption of snowboarding, duneboarding, surfing, and sledding, developed
for a place where snow isn’t readily available and dunes are few and
far between. Laura Siciliano-Rosen, a writer for the New York Times, is
quoted in this article describing the sport as “… hot, dusty, a little
scary–and crazy enough to be fun.”

While it doesn’t have competitions yet, the sport is already evolving. 
Some have created standing boards–previous experience snowboarding is
strongly recommended.

5)    Extreme Ironing

We’ve saved the oddest for last. Extreme ironing is a mix between any
sport you can think of, and ironing: spelunking and ironing, mountain
climbing and ironing, even diving and ironing. It all started in the
city of Leicester in the U.K. in the summer of 1997, when a man named
Phil Shaw grew tired of having to either do the ironing or go outside
after a long day of work. He launched a tongue-in-cheek website about
the idea of combining ironing with more adventurous activities, and soon
all of the UK and the world were trying to outdo each other, ironing in
more and more outrageous and dangerous places. Ever since there has
been a lot of psudo-serious debate of whether or not Extreme-Ironing is
actually a sport.

The first ever Extreme Ironing World Championship took place in 2002 in
Germany. Twelve teams participated. Competitors were tested on their
abilities to cope with five arduous ironing tasks on a variety of
fabrics and in different environments ranging from rocky cliffs to dense
forests to urban streets and water. A 70-strong contingent gathered in a
muddy field to combine the often mundane household task with “extreme”
pursuits such as rock climbing. They were judged on their creative
ironing skills as well as the creases in the clothing.

Why extreme ironing originated in the UK, I cannot say.  It could be
that the Britons tend to dress quite properly, their clothes needing
more ironing, or maybe it is because other countries take better
advantage of dry cleaners. But it only takes one person with an idea and
the internet to make it a sensation. The internet has changed the
limitations of sports like Extreme Ironing, the whole point of which is
to be more outrageous than the person before you. If people around the
world couldn’t post and view videos on YouTube, competition in such a
niche sport might be more geographically limited.  With the help of the
internet, the sport was able to extend to far-reaching corners of the

The title of this post is Wacky Geographical Sports, but in fact they’re
not all that odd when you stop to think about them–well except for
Extreme Ironing. Some represent evolutions of activities over time–the
approach of diving and hand picking pearls applied to handfishing
catfish from a river, for example. Others arise of our needs or changing
circumstances–from elephants endangered of losing their homes comes a
sport that uses them and gives them new homes and a purpose. Still
others are adaptations of existing sports to new environments–when
there’s no snow or sand to slide on, why not sled down a volcano?!

Whatever the reason, even if it’s just boredom that leads to an internet
sensation, the geography of a place inspires and challenges people to
find different ways to compete and stay active. I say that, no matter
how “wacky” the sport may seem, as long as there are people out in the
world, exploring and pushing boundaries, having fun and being active,
I’ll support it.

Alison for My Wonderful World

Photos from My Shot Your Shot:
Elephant by Julia Ninefeldt
Noodling by
Laura Gingerich
Volcano by 
Gerard Boragay

3 thoughts on “Five for Friday: Wacky Geographical Sports

  1. Hi Julia,
    Thanks for your comment. We got your photo from National Geographic’s My Shot gallery, where you must have uploaded it. Because the My Wonderful World Blog is a part of National Geographic’s Education division, we are able to use My Shot photos for certain purposes (for example, we can use them educationally, but not to make money, and YOU own all the rights to the photos).
    I’d be happy to talk with you more about the specific ways National Geographic can and cannot use your photos in order to address any concerns you might have.
    Please contact me at if you’d like to speak further, and thanks for submitting your photo to National Geographic’s My Shot. We were delighted to include it in this blog post!
    Sarah Jane
    My Wonderful World Editor

  2. I am just wondering how you got my photo on here and how you got permission to use it since its mine and I didn’t even know?

  3. This arcticle was really interesting to learn about. I never knew there could be anything called “Elephant Polo.” It shows that the people living in Nepal might not have horses for polo, so just use elephants. “Wife Carrying” wouldbe a funny sport to watch. It originated when a legend stated that men used to steal wives from neighboring villages which is really interesting. You can start a sport from basically anything that you do in your home; like ironing clothes. “Extreme Ironing” takes an ordinary house hold chore to a fun competition. Overall, these sports are definently different and unique from the noraml ones we see every day.

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