by Henning Eichberg / University of Southern Denmark
Folk sports is the general term for a diverse group of sports and games whose common element is their status as being “popular” or related to folk culture. Folk sports include especially traditional, ethnic, or indigenous sports and games, but also new activities that are based on traditional practices. Pub games, noncompetitive volkswalks, mass gymnastics, spontaneous sports of the working classes, and games and sports associated with festivals all may be termed as “folk”. Despite the origin of folk sport activities in the pre-industrial world, the idea of “folk sports” is itself an invention of the industrial age. Folk sports stand in opposition to the specialized modern sport and are more related to recreational Sport for all. Folk sports are based on festivity and community, rather than disciplinary rules and production of results.
Folk sports are neither one sport nor a well-defined group of sports, and so they have no single, linear history. They are as distinct in different countries as the words for “folk” in different languages: volk (Flemish, German), narod (Russian), peuple (French), folk (Danish, Swedish, English), popolo (Italian), and folk or people (English). The concept is European, but games around the world are often labeled as folk sports, too. Folk sports and the terminology of “folk” may be attached to a particular ideology, whether rightwing (völkisches Turnen) or leftwing (sport popolare), but is in most cases neutral in relation to political ideas.
Pre-modern folk games and festivities
Folk sports as a concept did not exist before the industrial age, because there was neither "sport" in the modern sense nor the notion of "folk" with its modern connotations of a collective cultural identity. In earlier times, sport meant pastimes (hunting, falconry, fishing) of the upper classes, mainly the nobility and gentry, who distinguished themselves from the "folk." Also the aristocratic tournaments and the later noble exercises were exclusive, both by gender and class. Meanwhile, the common people, both rural and urban, had their own culture of festivity and recreation. Games and competitions of strength and agility were combined with dances, music, and ritual to form a rich array of activities at festivals and celebrations. These were connected with religious and seasonal events – often Christianized forms of pagan celebrations – like Christmas (Jul), erecting the May tree, Shrovetide and carnival, Midsummer dance (Valborg, St. John), harvest festivals, local fairs, a saint's day or church festival (kermis), marriage, revel, ale, and wake. Games brought suspense and excitement into a world of routine, and allowed flirting and physical contact between men and women. That is why the erotic and gender relations of traditional folk sports deserve special attention. Their diversity mirrors the inner tensions and distinctions inside the folk.
Many pre-modern folk sports were reserved for men. When they were competitions based on strength such as wrestling, stone lifting, tossing the caber, and finger drawing, the "strong man" was the admired image, not the "strong woman”. In Scotland, the "stone of manhood" (Gaelic claich cuid fir), placed beside the house of a chieftain, was used as a test of strength by the young men who had to lift it to prove their masculinity. Games of skill such as the bat and ball game tsan played in the Valley of Aosta, in which a batter hits the ball as far as possible into a field where it is caught by the other team, were also traditionally reserved for men. Participation by girls since the 1990s represents the recent transformation of tsan into a modern "traditional sport."
However, even such “typical male” sports as wrestling could in pre-modern times be practiced by women. Japanese women engaged in sumo wrestling, onna-zumo, as early as the eighteenth century, and although they were forbidden to take part during the Meiji era, they began participating again at the end of the nineteenth century. In Brittany, women participated in jacket wrestling (gouren).
There were also folk competitions, which were especially for women. Women's foot-races or "smock races" were a typical feature of local events in England and Scotland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. There were races for "respectable" women and races for women from the lower social classes including Gypsies, immigrant Irish women, and itinerant traders. The corresponding competitions for men were usually wrestling, cudgeling, stick matches, sack racing, and others, rather than foot races. Despite the popularity of women's races between 1790 and 1830, they disappeared and did not become the forerunners of modern women’s track and field. Women’s folk racing has survived in Württemberg, Germany, in the form of a race among shepherdesses that dates to the fifteenth century. As a modern folkloristic event, the competitors maintained the tradition of preventing each other from winning, thus causing much stumbling and laughing, traits that were characteristic of European folk culture.
Certain ball and pin games were also played by or even reserved for women. For example, in England, Shrovetide football pitted married women against unmarried women, and Shrovetide stoolball was a women’s sport that resembled modern cricket or baseball. In Aragon, Spain, women played and still play a special form of skittle, known as birlas de mullés.
In the rich world of Native Americans folk sports, both men and women played many ball games, which were similar to each other, but had gender modifications. Women held also their own footraces and even horse races. Pima and Papago women raced while tossing sticks ahead. Among the Tarahumara in Mexico, women played hoop race, and in eastern Brazil, women took part in log running, though this normally was regarded as young men's test for marriage.
Whereas men’s folk sport could have connotations of warrior training, women’s sport was nearer to ritual practices – including female shamanism – on one hand and joking with the human dimension of bodily prowess on the other. Anthropological interpretations as “fertility rites” should be regarded with critical reservation, as they mirror the one-sided view on the female from Western nineteenth century.
Difference, togetherness, parody
A fundamental feature of folk sports was the marking of differences. Just as folk competitions marked marital status differences by placing teams of married men against teams of bachelors, they also marked the status differences between men and women. Among the Sorbs of Germany, men engaged in ritual riding (Stollenreiten) while girls competed in egg races (Eierlaufen) and other games of agility. Among the Inuit of Greenland, the drum dance (qilaatersorneq) of both women and men was an important ritual. Although men and women danced to the same music, women and men used different rhythms and movements.
While marking differences inside the community, folk sports also contributed to social cohesion and a sense of togetherness – among women and men, among old and young people, and among people from different professions. However, there was considerable variation across cultures in the extent that men and women competed together. In Swedish folk sports, women participated only with men and did not compete against women. On the island of Gotland (off the coast of Sweden) there was a special type of festival, våg, during which teams challenged each other from parish to parish, with both men's sports and boys-and-girls' competitions. In the latter, girls were normally given certain advantages. A girl could, for instance, use both hands in the pulling competition (dra hank) while the boy used one hand only. These Swedish folk sports contrasted with the English smock races, where competitions between women and men were rare.
Some folk sports were especially invented to promote togetherness. In Shrovetide races in Denmark, one boy had to compete with four, six, or up to twelve girls who used a handkerchief in a sort of relay. The result of the race was not important for the participants, as the prize (money or goods) would be given to the joint feast, regardless of, whether is was the boy or the girls who won. More important was the sexual joking that took place as the girls flirted with the boy to distract him and cause him to stumble.
Flirtation was an important element of folk festivals. Along with dances, the folk sports contributed to the playful encounter between boys and girls, between men and women. In societies where rigid segregation of the sexes was the norm, folk sports made flirtation possible by allowing participants to take a time out from the norm and to run and capture, to touch or even kiss members of the opposite sex. Many folk games and dances in northern Europe had a strong erotic component including Shrovetide pageants, Easter fire (which included dancing around a fire, jumping over a fire – often in couples, and flirtatious joking), Maypole festivals, Sankt Hans (midsummer night bonfire), and New Year’s fun. Folk sports were often arranged by so-called youth guilds or "game rooms" (Lichtstuben), which placed possible marriage partners together. Such activities are also known from Central Asia, where Kazakh youths played the White Bone Game ( ak suiek ) on warm summer nights. Two teams of young people, boys and girls, tried to find a bone that a referee had thrown as far as possible into the dark. While the two teams were searching and fighting for the bone, some pairs of boys and girls searched for erotic experiences and temporarily disappeared in the vast steppe.
Folk sport, however, did not only affirm gender identity, but could also mock it in the form of parody. In dance and game, mummery and scene play, men could appear as women, and women and men. Wearing the clothing of the opposite sex and using body movements that fit the stereotype of "the other sex" appealed to the spectators’ sense of humor. When the European ruling classes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tried to suppress the popular games as part of their attack on folk culture in general, they used the games’ sexual content as moral arguments for their elimination.
Modern sport against folk sports: Separation and sameness
Modern sport, as it developed in the Western world beginning in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was to some extent based on folk sports, but at the same time marginalized it. Modern sport brought a new sense of discipline and a new set of rules for social relations. What was folk sport before, became now highly organized in strictly separated disciplines, which aimed at systematizing results and maintaining records. Festivity was replaced by specialization, and many old folk sports were abandoned or relegated to folklore.
Alongside mainstream sports, some folk sports persisted or reappeared in different forms. The circus and freak shows at fairs served as one arena for such events. Workers' sport movements was another. In Danish workers' festivities (Fagenes Fest), domestic servants raced with buckets and scrubbers, pottery workers walked with piles of plates on their heads, strongmen and women pulled the rope in the tug-of-war, and people ran obstacle races while eating cream puffs.
Modern folk sports: Walking, games and festivals
Folk sports in their modern form emerged as a reaction against the specialization of sports and against the disappearance of the festival atmosphere from sporting events. In addition, people sought to resist the anonymity of modern life by engaging in physical activities in community.
Modern folk sports developed in three main stages. The first stage was linked to the Romantic revival that emerged in early nineteenth century Europe. While so far the term folk had derogatory undertones of plebs and Pöbel, the low and vulgar people, a new positive understanding of Volk spread all over Europe. Johann Gottfried Herder (1774-1803), a literary and cultural critic, gave impulses to reevaluate and re-appropriate folk traditions. The new fascination with "folk" and "popular" culture merged with ideas of democracy, the idea of peoples’ rights and the quest for national identities, as in German Turnen, the Slavic Sokol (Falcon) gymnastic movements and the Danish folkelig gymnastics, which was based on Swedish or Ling gymnastics. In some of these patriotic gymnastic movements, folk sports and games (Volksturnen) were revived in contrast against English sport. In Ireland in the 1880s, the Gaelic Athletic Association promoted folk hurling as a sport of liberation from the British rule and was closely connected with Republican nationalism. The Icelandic glima wrestling gained similar significance as “national sport”.
The second stage in the modern development of folk sports began about 1900 and involved “back to nature” movements and progressive youth movements, some of whose activities were labeled as "folk." Woodcraft Indians, originally from America, and groups of Woodcraft Folk turned to nature and used names, ceremonies, and practices of the Native Americans while also advocating peace and social community. Boy Scouts competed with this approach through the use of a more military model. The German Naturfreunde movement began as a workers' tourist movement, wandering and building shelters for volkswalkers across the country. The German youth movement Wandervogel developed outdoor activities in small, self-administered groups of boys and girls. Their members walked, sang, folk-danced, competed and played in the green nature.
After 1945, German and Austrian Volkswandern was discovered by soldiers of the occupation forces, who took it back to the United States. The American Volkssport Association promotes noncompetitive volkswalk (volksmarching), volksbike, volksski, and volksswim, typically as family activities, under the umbrella of the International Federation of Popular Sports.
The third stage in the modern emergence of folk sports began in the 1970s. It was initially linked to New Games and the “new movement culture”, which began in California. In connection with the movement against the war in Vietnam and hippie culture, young people engaged in noncompetitive play and game.
At about the same time, in several European countries there arose a new interest in reviving and preserving traditional folk sports. From the 1970s on, folk sports were organized in national and regional festivals. Among the first to systematize this was the Flemish volkssport (typically urban games organized by local clubs), Basque competitions of force and Breton folk games. The Danish traditional games movement began in the 1980s, with links to the folkelig gymnastic movement. The International Sport and Culture Association serves as an umbrella organization for folk sports, popular gymnastics, and festivals in about fifty countries.
New was also the spread of folk sports from Third World countries to Western metropolis – and influences into the inverse direction. Capoeira, a traditional Afro-Brazilian sport, became popular among young people in European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris. Tai chi and wushu – historically based on Chinese warrior training and magic folk practices – are now practiced worldwide. The Indonesian martial art pencak silat became a Western sport, and even Japanese sumo wrestling has appeared in Western countries. Immigrant cultures (re-)invented new movement forms like the bhangra dance of South Asians in Britain.
By these diffusions, on one hand, folk sports were often transformed after Western model into specialized sports of achievement with tournaments, bureaucratic organization and controlled production of results. On the other hand, the diffusion of “exotic” folk sports has also created new practices in the Western world, which are alternative to modern standard sport. And a third effect was, that new activities developed, which cannot any longer be placed in traditional categories of sport. Bungee jump is one such innovation, based on a Melanesian folk ritual of “land diving”.
Conversely, Western practices have also given birth to new folk practices in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Trobriand cricket became the most well-known example, transforming a colonial sport into a Melanesian folk festivity of dance, sport, carnival and gift exchange. Disco dance appeared in China as disike, old people’s disco, which became especially popular among elderly women. Danish sport development aid supported local folk culture of dance and festivity, ngoma, in Tanzanian villages, while at the same time Sukuma drumming appeared in Danish youth culture.
Some political implications of modern folk sports showed when the Soviet Union broke down around 1989/91 under the pressure of democratic movements and ethnic nationalism. Folk sports, which had been repressed in the Soviet era, were revived in many parts of the former empire. The Kasakh New Year’s festivity nauryz reappeared with its dances and games. Mongolians returned in the sign of Genghis Khan to ancient festivities with nomad equestrianism, belt wrestling, and bow and arrow. Tatars helt their spring time holiday sabantuy again, with belt wrestling korash in its center. The Baltic peoples assembled at large song festivals. Inuit people from Siberia and Alaska met in drum dance and winter festivity kivgiq.
In post-Franco Spain, too, folk sports accompanied the process of democratic federalization. In Basque country, Catalonia and on the Canary Islands, folk sports became active factors in the marking of regional identity. In August 1992, the Olympic Games of Barcelona were supplied with a festival of Spanish folk sports, showing 40 activities of force, casting, wrestling and ball game pelota. The European Traditional Sport and Games Association was founded in 2001 as an umbrella organization for folk sports with a regional perspective.
Nature of folk sports
Folk sports are based not on specialized disciplines and bureaucratically defined rules, but on festival and meeting in an atmosphere of festivity.
Tendencies inside folk sports are working for their integration into the systems of competitive sports. Among the so-called Non-Olympic sports, which hold their own competitions especially in China and Russia, there are many folk sports. Some of their organizations – as the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF) – strive for Olympic recognition by transforming classic folk sports like tug-of-war into a standardized sport of achievement. (Tug-of-war was in fact on the Olympic program from 1900 to 1920.) The Olympic sport system also uses folk sports for the cultural framing of competitive events.
On the margins of mainstream sport, Sport for all movements use folk sports for the promotion of a healthy life style. Large folk sports festivals were arranged by the Trim & Fitness International Sport for All Association .
European Traditional Sport and Games Association/Association Européenne des Jeux et Sports Traditionnels (ETSGA/AEJST): http://www.jugaje.com/
Amador Ramirez, F. et al. (1997) eds.: Luchas, deportes de combate y juegos tradicionales. Madrid: Gymnos.
Folk sports in workers’ festival
"There was a gigantic performance. The blacksmiths quickly defeated the bakers, and the tailors could not stand long time against the coal-heavers who weighed at least twice as much. But there arose a gigantic competition between the dairy workers and the brewery men – and much to the distress of the agitators for abstinence, the beer won. The final was between the brewers and the coalmen, and here the brewery workers had 'to bite the dust'. 'This is not at all surprising', said the captain of the coal-heavers. 'You only carry the beer, but it is us who drink it'."
Folk sport and self-determination in Tatarstan
“We see a wrestler walking proudly around the arena, surrounded by thousands of spectators. He bears a sheep on his shoulders, the prize of his victory, he laughs and waves to the enthusiastic crowd. He has just won the final match in belt wrestling, the Tatar korash, where one puts one's girdle or towel around the waist of the opponent, tries to raise him from the ground and to throw him down on his back. After old Tatar tradition, the winner of the last fight has won the ram, which he is bearing triumphantly through the crowd, as well as an embroidered towel. And he obtains the title of a batyr, a Hercules, a strong man.
The triumph of the batyr is a central event in the springtime holiday which the Tatars call Sabantuy, the ‘ploughman's festivity’. This ancient cultural event had been suppressed for generations as being ‘reactionary’, ‘religious’ or ‘separatist’, anyway as ‘un-Sovietic’. But the peoples' rising of 1989/91 brought it to life again. By the festivity, a people expressed its cultural survival. It showed that a new – and old – nation was striving for self-determination, Tatarstan.
The festivity displayed ties between different peoples, while nations in other parts of the earlier Soviet Union clashed in bloody conflicts. In Sabantuy, not only Tatars were showing their costumes, flags, dances and musical performances, but also other peoples and minorities living in the region, such as Bashkirs and Finns. And not least, Russians were active both by their performances and by their expert work in communication. They brought – as journalists, scholars and film producers – informations about this alternative event of sport and festivity out into the world.
The Tatar springtime festivity includes besides korash wrestling: running competitions and horse races, performances of strength (as weight lifting), jumping and several types of games. Many of the competitions have a humorous character, provoking laughter and enjoyment. They display the grotesque sides of the human body – by sack race, pole climbing, balancing on a swinging beam. These performances do not only put on stage the success, but also the failure, the stumbling, the comic and the ridiculous. Some of the dances, too, are part of the popular culture of laughter. We see a woman showing movements, which a man tries to imitate – and all burst into fun. By this sexual parody, the tensions and unbalances between the genders in Tatar patriarchy is displayed and exposed to common laughter.
Other dances have a more formalized and folkloristic character. This is reminiscent of the Soviet period when state ensembles demonstrated ‘living folk culture’ by measured choreographies, theatrical pathos and reconstructed costumes. Again other performances are more sportive in character, such as parachute jump.
Chinese disike – old womens’ new folk sport
"Disike is a phonetic approximation of 'disco'. As a fitness activity it emerged around 1985 and became very popular over the next few years. It bore a little resemblance to aerobic dancing or jazzercize and a lot of resemblance to the radio broadcast exercises it had supposedly replaced. The types of body movements characteristic of disco were Western-inspired. Hip-swiveling and shoulder-rolling, hand-clapping and cross step. The music tended to be slightly outdated Western pop music, which was lively by Chinese standards of the time. 'Old people's disco' was said to be one of the 'Three Hots', or three biggest crazes, in China along with billiards and qigong.
Handfuls of older disco dancers could be found in almost every Beijing park in the early morning hours, and the same was true in other cities. It seems that the women usually outnumber the men by quite a bit.
A few years prior, disco was viewed askance by the authorities and banned as decadent, bourgeois, and Western. But in 1987, old people's disco was even broadcast by the national television station on the eve of the Chinese New Year, during the most-watched television program of the year. It featured the disco performance of a Shanghai club founded by a 70-year-old woman."
Volkswalking as a family sport
“Volkswalking in each of the 50 states and in 12 foreign countries has been an exciting experience, but a walk I did this past August was a red letter volkswalk for me. I took two of my grandchildren, Erik, age 13, and Karil, age 10, down ‘memory lane’. In the small town of Evanston, WY, where I grew up, there have been many changes over the years since I have lived there, but still enough of the familiar places that I could show them. For example the place where I went to a movie every Saturday afternoon, and the park where band concerts were held on summer evenings. I also pointed out the library, where I loved to spend time, and the location of the 10 cent store. The walk route did not go by the schools I had attended, but we took a drive around town after the walk and I showed them the school locations. The kids found out that Grandma had a long way to walk to school with the snow ‘up to her knees’. It was a very special day for me to share my childhood scenes with my grandchildren and also to share the sport of volkswalking. I am now looking forward to taking my younger grand children on this walk when they are old enough.”
New games and folk sports
"New trends have made their appearance in the past few years in physical culture – New Games... To some extent it resembles games and play in small medieval towns when the townsfolk was not yet differentiated regarding wealth and prestige. Such game and entertainment on holidays was noisy and merry and the entire urban population took part in them. But this is only apparently a return to the past. It is rather a look at the future world, once again integrated, though on a new and different basis than in the past."