It takes nerves of steel to ride India’s Wall of Death. In fact, it takes gumption just to watch cars and motorcycles swirling on the walls of a 30-foot diameter, near-vertical barrel. For the drivers, it’s a chance at fame and fortune—this sport carries a huge amount of status in places like Srinagar, Kashmir, where career opportunities are few and far between. So when the chance arises, drivers rev their vehicles, accelerating and climbing the wall until they’re roaring just inches away from the cheering crowd’s faces.
The Wall of Death and other wacky, local sports transport you inside a culture faster than any museum tour. In this case, you’ll get a taste of the chaos and passion that makes India so exhilarating. Of course, not all wacky sports are so death-defying, but they still garner a ton of enthusiasm. Why? “Elite sports are unattainable for many people,” muses sports organizer Sheelagh Tompkins. But with local sports, she says, “There’s always the chance to come away with a world championship.”
Tompkins, it turns out, organizes a world-championship swimming event in Wales that has taken place every year for 23 years: bog snorkeling. Swimming through a stinking marsh the texture of pea soup might seem unconventional, but it gives the 170 mere mortals who participate every year a chance at stardom—no matter how provincial.
Money is often an incentive as well (though it’s safe to assume that no bog snorkeler is going to snag Tiger Woods’s Nike deal). Take competitive eating. Gurgitators (as they’re known on the circuit) might win up to $10,000 for gobbling grits or $5,000 for chowing down on chili spaghetti. As a result, it’s highly competitive and physically demanding. Pro eaters gorge themselves on 10,000 calories in a sitting, yet many manage to remain spectacularly thin. (We attempted to contact the International Federation of Competitive Eaters to solve this paradox but, ironically, their inbox was full. Really.)
While several of these sports are fairly new, some—like the Central Asian game Buzkashi—are unusual for their rigid adherence to tradition. Using an animal carcass as a ball, the sport has remained insulated from progress and remains true to the war-like origins that many sports represent.
In an era where the World Cup final is watched by an estimated 715 million viewers, there’s something comforting in choosing competitions based on skills, lifestyles, and locally available materials. Take Farmer Danny Dill in Nova Scotia, Canada: when he introduced pumpkin regattas in 1999, five pumpkin paddlers thrilled 4,000 spectators in Windsor, Nova Scotia; now the event attracts over 50 entrants cheered on by a crowd of 10,000. “There are a dozen regattas held around the world,” said Dill. “It’s even taken off in Europe. Pumpkin regattas will definitely be around in 100 years.”
With oddball sports offering rare glimpses into the history and values of local communities, we certainly hope he’s right.