Around the world, enthusiasts, daredevils and offbeats have found the typical, popular sports just won’t do. For those people and more, just underneath the surface in countries large and small there’s a community of athletes who are pushing the limits, creating new sports or riffing on old traditions.

Going to see these games and contests can be adventure-worthy events in themselves, so here’s our list of the world’s most unbelieveable sports – the ones you have to work to find.

A man slides down a snowy hillside on a single ski, which he is sitting on like a chair; Unique sporting events
A Jack Jumper heads down Mount Snow in Vermont © Courtesy Mount Snow

Jack Jumping – Dover, USA

The California Gold Rush era wasn’t all about the sparkle in the mountain, it was also about the sparkle on the mountains. Jack Jumping started in the 1850s as a fast way for prospectors and support staff to get down the mountain and quickly became a competitive sport after gold-digging hours. It gave birth to modern competitive skiing and held its own as a premier competition in the region for a good 80 years. After a lull, jack jumping has seen a rebirth in, of all places, Vermont. Rooted to a history in French-Canadian logging, skiers race down the hill in homemade, seated skis and riders leash themselves to the skis to prevent runaways.

More info: www.mountsnow.com/events/calendar/jack-jump-world-championships/

The 10,000-calories-a-day diet of a sumo wrestler

Sumo Wrestling – Tokyo, Japan

Sure, Sumo is a very popular sport, but the mechanics and culture behind it are unique to Japan and nowhere else in the world is there anything like it. The sport comes from ancient Shinto rituals and started as a form of entertainment in the 1600s. The Grand Sumo Tournament has been an annual fixture since 1958 and now takes place across several dates each year across the country.

More info: www.sumo.or.jp/En/

Two competitors paddle their kinetic vehicle in Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore. Unique sporting events
Two competitors paddle their amphibious kinetic sculpture vehicle in the Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore © Photo courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum

East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race Championship – Baltimore, USA

Think of Kinetic racing as an exercise in art and overall determination of design. Each May, the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) hosts the championship on the shore of Baltimore’s Harbor in central Maryland. The eight-hour race covers 14 miles — mostly on pavement, but also including a trip into the Chesapeake Bay and through mud and sand. The sculptures are amphibious and while there are other races that highlight this unique style of race, Baltimore’s is one of the nation’s most dynamic.

More info: www.kineticbaltimore.com

Players in red jerseys run across a field with broomsticks between their legs; Unique sporting events
The fictional sport of Quidditch from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, has come alive on college campuses and other venues around the world © Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

Quidditch

Believe it or not, Harry Potter fans have taken the made-up sport and turned it into reality. Players run around with broomsticks between their legs (firmly on the ground instead of flying, of course) as they score with the quaffle and try to catch the Golden Snitch. There is a full governing body and World Cup for the sport, with 2020’s edition being held July 18-19 in Richmond, Virginia. Dozens of teams compete for the title, and the USA are reigning champs.

More info: www.iqasport.com

Competitors throw themselves down a steep hill in England in a race to the bottom behind a rolling wheel of cheese; Unique sporting events
Competitors tumble down a steep hill in Brockworth, England, in 'pursuit' of a wheel of cheese © Ben Birchall / PA Images / Getty Images

Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake – Brockworth, England

Each spring, a nine-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese begins its descent down a steep hill. Not far behind are hundreds of willing participants rolling (chasing) after the dairy round with the first to cross the finish line the winner. Although it has been disbanded as an official event, many still keep the tradition alive. It finds its roots sometime in the 1800s and still thrills today as much as it did then.

Two men are tangled up while trying to kick each others' shins under the watchful eye of a referee and observers; unique sporting events
Shin-kicking is an event where the primary objective is to be the last one standing © Anna Lythgoe / PA Images / Getty Images

Shin-Kicking – Gloucestershire, England

Leave it to the Brits to have another bizarre sporting tradition – this one involving the literal kicking of each other’s shins to bruised and battered levels. As part of the Cotswold Olympicks, the goal is to outlast your foe by literally being the last person standing. It’s a brutal sport and often requires medical attention following the battles.

Two men celebrate in a pink soapbox derby racer during a race in Portland, Oregon; Unique sporting events
The adult soapbox derby is quintessential Portland event - quirky and competitive © Dee Browning / Shutterstock

Portland Adult Soapbox Derby – Portland, USA

Portland summers are legendary. While the weather is typically mild and pleasant, it’s also known for a fun annual race every August at Mt. Tabor Park on the city’s east side. Amateurs build full-scale soapbox cars and send them down the hill at sometimes-blistering speeds (or no speed at all) towards the finish line at the base of the park. The vehicle designs are often quirky and as much of a celebratory piece as the winner themselves.

More info: www.soapboxracer.com

A man uses a specialty bicycle to hit a small ball across a hard gym floor; unique sporting events
Cycleball takes incredible balance and dexterity – and deep pockets © Victor Fraile / Getty Images

Cycleball

Think soccer, but on a bike. Athletes use special (expensive) bikes to push a ball up and down and small court in the hopes of scoring a goal in a small net. The sport has mixed opinions on where it originated, but it has become popular in western mainland Europe and even as far as Japan. The sport is officially organized through a broader cycling union and has its own World Cup tournament. 

More info: www.uci.org

A man is tackled in a muddy arena as both men - and others around them - watch a ball bouncing erratically; unique sporting events
Mud, swinging fists, a bouncing ball, and lots of tattoos – that's the Calcio Storico in a nutshell © Antonio Masiello / Getty Images

Calcio Storico – Florence, Italy

The game of ‘historical football’ has its roots somewhere in 16th century Italy, but really blurs the line between soccer, rugby and wrestling. A four-team tournament is played once a year with local teams in the middle of Florence and the event draws thousands to watch. In short, two teams of 27 players have at it in an effort to score goals by any means necessary. There are no pads and it gets fairly violent, although efforts have been made in recent years to tamp down the gruesome end result of the contests.

More info: www.thestoryinstitute.com/calcio-storico 

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This article was first published November 2019 and updated January 2020

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