Modern sports fans have a lot to be thankful for. Whatever your preference, there's likely a television channel just a click away catering to it. Professional Croatian hockey, college volleyball, darts—you name it, you can find it. Some sports, however, won't be featured on your cable guide.
Be they archaically crazy or crazily archaic, many games of yore are preserved only by uncovered rulebooks or historical descriptions. Edward Brooke-Hitching's book Fox Tossing and Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games catalogs some of history's most bonkers competitions, a few of which we list below. While we don't advise challenging your friends to a round of hnútukast, you'll at least know how to play should you have to.
In the 1920s, as air travel was being refined, a strange aeronautical pastime had a brief day in the sun. Balloon-jumping hinted at a future where humans would be free from the surly bounds of gravity, and all that was needed was a personal balloon filled with either hydrogen or helium (“the latter was preferred by most of the aeronauts,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “because it allowed them to light up a cigarette midflight”).
First invented by the U.S. Army, these personal, or “hopper,” balloons were simple to use: “Altitude was gained simply by leaping into a mild to mid-strength wind … unlike hot air balloons, there was no need to shed ballast or vent gas, because it was carefully ensured that the weight of the balloonist slightly exceeded the pull of the balloon.” With a leap, balloonists—who would either hang from ropes or sit on a bench suspended from the balloon—could float effortlessly across long distances.
“How helpful this sort of thing would be,” a 1927 article in the Joplin News Herald read. “We could dispense with elevators and enter our offices on the third or fourth floors by merely leaping in the window and crawling in.”
Besides revolutionizing transportation, balloon-jumping showed potential as the sport of the future. As a 1927 issue of Science and Invention predicted, “Races with balloons of this sort would undoubtedly be great fun and the danger would be very slight. Obstacle races of course would be the most fun because you then bring the advantages of the balloons into full play.”
However, personal ballooning never reached ubiquity, and its sporting promise was quickly dashed. It turns out that attaching yourself to a balloon and launching into the wind happens to be rather dangerous. This became evident as more and more people actually tried balloon-jumping. In 1927, "Brainy" Dobbs, a highly trained Royal Air Force parachutist and balloon-jumping pioneer, was performing in front of a crowd when he attempted to clear a set of elevated electrical wires. When his feet got caught in the live power lines, he tried to untangle himself and was instantly blown to bits. Needless to say, killing a decorated serviceman was not great PR for balloon-jumping, and the practice quickly died off.
2. BASEBALL WITH CANNONS
The purveyors of baseball are notorious for their cultish attachment to tradition, which is part of what makes the game’s brief flirtation with heavy artillery so intriguing.
In the late 19th century, British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton was teaching at Princeton when he decided to turn his scientific mind to the baseball diamond. Specifically, he aimed to solve the problem of pitchers’ sore arms. His solution was to use a cannon that fired baseballs.
His first attempt worked, but it was pretty straight-forward, and didn’t put curve on the ball like a human pitcher’s natural throwing motion. To rectify this, Brooke-Hitching writes, “[Hinton strung] a high-tensile wire across the front of the barrel, but that merely resulted in the field being sprayed with deadly pieces of high-tensile wire.”
Further updating his invention, Hinton put “small rubber pincers” in front of the barrel that “spun the ball upon its release.” It worked, and the future of baseball was set … until it wasn’t. “The cannon terrified the batters,” Brooke-Hitching writes. “The gunpowder blast had a tendency to cook and harden the leather surface of the ball … the machine also took a while to reload, which slowed the pace of both the practices and the matches in which it was introduced as a novelty feature.”
Explosions are cool, but baseball is slow enough as it is. Thus, the cannon-pitcher was wheeled away forever, never to see the mound again.
3. BOXING ON HORSEBACK
American boxer Bobby Dobbs made a name for himself fighting in Europe, but when the sport’s popularity dried up on the continent in the 1910s, he took it upon himself to think of a way to breathe some new life into it. His solution: Put the boxers on horseback.
It was just like normal boxing, except for the equine aspect. “A fighter was declared the loser if he was thrown from his steed by punch and was unable to remount within ten seconds,” Brooke-Hitching writes. The bouts didn’t produce much actual fighting, though, as the boxers found it difficult to both control their horses and square up for haymakers. Despite being briefly popular in Germany, boxing on horseback never caught on, much to the delight of the horses, one imagines.
4. DWILE FLONKING
This rather unique and deceptively complicated game was played in Norfolk in the 1960s and '70s. According to Brooke-Hitching, a round of dwile flonking entailed “locals gather[ing] in a large group, danc[ing] to an accordion, and hit[ting] each other in the face with beer-soaked rags.”
Rule changes were frequent but rarely remembered due to the exorbitant alcohol consumption that went along with the sport. Still, the gist of the game stayed the same: “The flonking team nominated a member of their rank to be the flonker. He or she was then encircled by the nonflonking team, who joined hands (in the style of hokey pokey) and danced … The flonker, meanwhile, was armed with a ‘drivler’—usually a broom handle with a rag attached to the tip. He then dipped his driveler into a mop bucket filled with beer … When the music stopped, he lashed out at the nearest player with his driveler in an attempt to flock him and score points.”
The points system is where it really gets confusing, and no one was ever quite sure who got how many points for what. One thing that was codified was that "anyone who was sober at the end of the game also lost a point."
Dwile Flonking became the subject of a few newspaper articles, and the game even appeared on the television program The Eamonn Andrews Show in 1967. Its profile rose to the point where overseas sports fans wrote to the ad-hoc governing body (the Waveney Valley Dwile Flonking Association) to ask where they could obtain a rule book.
After its brief brush with fame, Dwile Flonking faded into obscurity—but it was not totally forgotten. In 2010, a group of enterprising Dwile Flonking enthusiasts tried to organize the first-ever world championships, at the Dog Inn pub in Ludham, Great Yarmouth. The event never made it past the planning stages, however. It was canceled after the Norfolk District Council "decided that it contravened recently instituted speed-drinking laws."
This medieval game lasted in Holland until the 19th century. To play, a wire was strung across a river or channel, and the biggest, slimiest eel available was hooked at its center. Players would pilot boats beneath the slithering fish, and the first to yank it down was crowned the winner. Palingtrekken, as the game is called in Dutch, was a popular spectator sport, and crowds eagerly watched to see participants fall into the water as they desperately tried to rip the eel off its hook.
Seen even in the 19th century as cruel, eel-pulling was banned in Holland by the 1880s. It was still popular and frequently played, however, and a policeman’s attempt to stop a round of palingtrekken in 1886 sparked a violent riot in Amsterdam. Angered citizens threw stones at police, and the authorities responded with gunfire. “In the brief ensuing melee,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “twenty-six civilians lost their lives, some of whom were indoors hiding from the fighting; a further 136 were wounded.”
An ancient Greek drinking game, kottabos required skill, panache, and a whole lot of vino. Players would flick wine from their drinking cups at targets, which were saucers floating in water or stacked on top of each other. Directing the alcoholic globules meant having supple wrist control, as the participants were expected to “maintain a reclining position at the dining table" while playing. Clearly, kottabos is the perfect sport.
Known as hnútukast, this Viking sport was described in a 14th-century text, and the rules are refreshingly simple: 1. Two players line up across from each other. 2. Each takes a turn throwing a bone as hard as he can at his opponent. 3. Repeat until someone gets seriously hurt.
All illustrations by Lucas Adams.