Never underestimate humanity’s ability to turn the mad or the mundane into a competitive sport. In our pursuit of amusement, we have brought some wonderfully weird sports to the fore, which not only offer an insight into the psyche of nations but also provide travelers (and those quarantining at home, online) with a unique opportunity to meet eccentric – and passionate – locals.

So switch up that afternoon at the football or evening hockey game for something a little more...unique, and grab tickets to one of these unusual spectator sports from around the world.

A sheep shearing competition
Wool flies at New Zealand's annual sheep shearing competition © chris2766 / Getty

1. Sheep shearing, New Zealand

Competitive sheep shearing? Ewe better believe it. In fact, it’s kind of a big deal in New Zealand, which proudly hosts the annual Golden Shears International Championships; a lanolin-infused jamboree touted as 'the Wimbledon of sheep shearing'. Due to the pandemic, this year's 2022 competition was canceled. 

Held in the town of Masterton in March, the four-day event seeks to identify the world’s fastest sheep shearer, with spectators merrily fleecing themselves out of a few dollars as they bet on the outcome. The event provides an illuminating insight into local life, but it’s not all about shearing; live bands bring a party vibe to proceedings and there’s much food and drink to be enjoyed. Can’t make the Masterton event? Fear not, shearing competitions are also held in Europe, Australia and the US.

2. Lawnmower racing, UK

Like all the best ideas, lawnmower racing entered the world via a pub. It was 1973 and Jackie Stewart was winning his third Formula One title while a group of wannabe racers from West Sussex dreamed of making motorsport – historically the preserve of the wealthy – more accessible to the masses.

Over a few pints they came up with lawnmower racing, which now has its own governing body – the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLRA) – and a 30-race championship that runs from May to October. Most races are part of larger rural events, such as the Cranleigh Show in Surrey, where spectators can experience other eccentric pursuits such as ferret racing. The BLRA remains defiantly uncommercial and donates all profits to charity. It also advises spectators to bring packed lunches with them to races.

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Lucha libre wrestling in Mexico City
Lucha libre wrestling in Mexico City © Pamela Ibarra / 500px

3. Lucha libre, Mexico

Part sport, part amateur dramatics, lucha libre is a form of freestyle wrestling with a devoted fan base in its native Mexico. Competitors are renowned for their elaborate masks, which keep their identities a secret. That’s until they are defeated in a high-stakes fight, which often requires losers to reveal their faces (other ignominious forfeits include having their heads shaved).

It certainly makes for compelling viewing, and the tequila-charged atmosphere adds to the sense of occasion. Don’t forget to bring some loose change: when spectators are impressed by a victorious wrestler, they throw money at them. The coins are then collected by the wrestler and stored in a commemorative vase to remind them of the victory.

4. Wife carrying, Finland

Legend has it this curious sport is a nod to the ancient custom of wife stealing, whereby gangs of Finnish robbers supposedly raided villages and made off with other men’s wives.

Mercifully, this nefarious activity has been confined to the pages of folk tales. But in an amusing subversion of this fabled criminal act, wife carrying continues, albeit with consenting females, who acrobatically cling to male counterparts as they navigate an assault course – climbing over large wooden obstacles and plunging headlong into cold-water pools in the process. The quickest pair win the wife’s weight in beer. As you might expect, much lager is consumed on the sidelines too, particularly in Sonkajärvi, Finland, which hosts the original Wife Carrying Championships in July. Competitions also take place in Australia, Estonia, Hong Kong, the US and UK. And before you ask, no, the participating couples don’t actually have to be married.

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Kabaddi at Shoolini fair in Thodo ground, Solan, Himachal Pradesh
Kabaddi attracts large crowds in India © gawrav / Getty

5. Kabaddi, India

A variation of a game most of us played in the schoolyard, kabaddi is a lot like tag, only with a rulebook and scoring system that could reduce a child to tears. In essence: two teams of seven players face off on a rectangular arena. One player from the offensive team, the ‘raider’, crosses the midline in the center of the play area and attempts to tag as many opposition players as possible. If the raider makes it back to their team’s side, that team scores a point for every opposition player tagged. However, the other team are able to physically restrain the player from making it back, in which case the team scores nothing. An additional point is awarded if the raider steps over the 'bonus line'. Also, this must all be done on a single breath. Simple enough, right?

Though considered a national sport in Bangladesh, it is India that has perhaps the most competitive league. Dubbed the Pro Kabaddi, it unfolds dramatically in stadiums across the country, where players twist, kick, duck and dive around the arena, cheered on by huge, vociferous crowds spilling from the grandstands.

6. Chess boxing, worldwide

Brains and brawn combine in this thinking person’s combat sport, which brings together the unlikely bedfellows of boxing and chess. Matches unfold over 11 rounds – six chess, five boxing – and competitors (or 'nerdletes', as the nerdy athletes are known) must either KO their opponents in the ring or outwit them on the chessboard.

The sport is popular in India (the believed birthplace of chess), where it is reported to have lifted some professional competitors out of poverty. However, perhaps the best place to watch a match is in London, where spectators can enjoy the all-out action of a big fight mixed with the quiet suspense of a chess match (plus a series of weird and wonderful ringside performances between bouts) that culminates in one of the Big Smoke’s most memorable nights out. Fights are organized by London Chess Boxing and take place throughout the year. There’s also the hotly-anticipated World Amateur Championships, which take place in December, and in 2019 will be held in Turkey.

Gamers get serious at the Call of Duty Championship
Gamers get serious at the Call of Duty Championship © Long Visual Press / Contributor / Getty

7. Call of Duty Championship, US

It was once something you begrudgingly did while waiting for your turn on Mario Kart, but now watching other people play computer games is a bona fide spectator sport, with e-sport events now taking place all over the world (and also streaming to huge audiences online).

It’s particularly popular in the US, where fans pay upwards of $50 to watch pro pad-bashing players battle it out in the biggest shoot-‘em-up of all: Call of Duty. The first-person shooter series, which has been a firm favorite with gamers for over a decade, has its own World League Championship. Held in August, the tournament’s winning team nets a cool $2.5 million. In terms of the spectator experience, expect a largely male and millennial crowd, who typically sit in neat rows, clutching beers and watching the drama unfold on huge screens. And just think, your parents told you playing video games would get you nowhere in life...

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Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

This article was first published Aug 15, 2019 and updated Feb 1, 2022.

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