Forest’s Fast Take: Obscure Sports
Issue   |   Tue, 02/21/2017 - 23:17

In the wake of one of the best Super Bowls of all time, there comes this lull in sport action. The time between the end of the NFL season and the beginning of March Madness, also known as February, allows us sports fans to check out some of the lesser-known competitions.

The new hurling season is underway in Ireland! Cork got off to a great start with a comfortable win, but Dublin surprisingly dropped all points in their first game. So what even is hurling? It’s an outdoor game played on a grass field — comparable in size to a soccer field, but longer — that incorporates the rules and skills of baseball, hockey and lacrosse into one extreme sport. It is a high-speed, high-scoring, high-octane event that keeps spectators keyed in at all times.

Often referred to as “the fastest game on grass,” hurling abides by a few simple rules that keep it from devolving into violent chaos. The objective of the game is to score as many points as possible in the two 30- or 35-minute halves, depending on the competition.

There are goals at both ends, much like soccer goals, that give three points for a successful shot. On top of the goal, there are posts that run from the edges of the goal upwards, much like uprights in football. If a player hits the ball through that empty space above the crossbar, their team is awarded one point.

Both teams play 15 players at a given time, each equipped with a helmet and a hurley. A hurley resembles an odd mix between a field hockey stick and a baseball bat. And that’s exactly how it is used. The cylindrical handle gradually flattens into a pancaked area at its end, which is used as the hitting surface. Players hit the ball to either pass or shoot; throwing the ball is forbidden. The ball, officially called a sliotar, is almost identical to a baseball down to the last stitch. Its rock-hard consistency is a big part of why this sport is so dangerous.

When players ‘dribble’ the sliotar, they can only take a maximum of four steps with the ball in hand. If a player is to chew up some ground on foot, they run with the ball balanced on the flat end of the hurley.

This is particularly difficult because although the field is so large, the tackling rules are lax and allow for some rough physical play. To ensure that the players don’t kill each other, referees are equipped with yellow and red cards: one for caution and one for ejection purposes.

As you can probably tell, hurling is an ancient sport — dating back to over 3,000 years ago — and it is still played all over the world. However, it’s most popular in its birth country of Ireland.

Hurling was highly popular among first-generation Irish immigrants in the States, but their children rarely maintained the same passion as their parents Thus, the sport quietly faded away over time.

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has made several outreach programs since the turn of the century and took hold in some colleges across the country. Midwestern state schools like Indiana University and Purdue, as well as big schools on the west coast like UC Berkley and Stanford, have bought in to hurling and compete in the National Collegiate GAA Championships.

Here at Amherst, we make big efforts to appreciate cultures from all walks of life, so maybe the purple and white will make a bid at the competition. But, then again, I do enjoy having all my teeth and not being concussed.

Sports don’t have to be violent and physical to generate excitement. One of my personal favorite Olympic events is catching fire in America despite its cool icy surface.

Just recently, curling was added as an official sport at the local high school in Lakeville, Minn. Coach John Anderson, Canadian born and raised, noted that curling is a popular high school sport north of the border.

He figured it would be a nice addition to the competitive realm of American high school sports, especially considering the proximity to Canada.

Joseph Finkel, one of Lakeview North’s players, agreed with Anderson. “It’s competitive, but also it’s really relaxed, like you don’t have to do a lot of physical activity, which I’m kind of happy about, it’s not strenuous,” said Finkel.

Curling is essentially shuffleboard on steroids — not that steroids would help any curler. Two teams, each consisting of four players, take turns sliding bulbous granite stones along a long, rectangular ice surface toward a series of concentric circles serving as the target. The innermost circle, commonly referred to as “the button,” determines the scoring. After both teams have thrown their four stones, the team with their stone closest to the button is awarded a point.

They are also granted additional points for any other stones closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone. At the end of eight or 10 rounds, depending on the dominion of competition, whoever has the most points wins.

Curling retains its excitement not through physical dominance or vibrant action, but through its meticulous and varied strategy. Of course, there is an incredible amount of finesse required to be at the top level, but the essence of the game resides in the strategic battle between the two sides.

The only physically demanding part of the sport is carried out by the two sweepers that follow the stone down the ice from the skip, the team captain, to its final resting place at the other end of the curling sheet. Their sweeping reduces the friction that naturally slows the stone, allowing it to travel further. The strategic elements are great to watch, but it’s also hilarious to watch how fast these men and women scrub the ice while on the move. Amherst students have an appreciation for the cerebral, so this sport could be a hit on campus.

If the school continues to use soy sauce as the chief method of ice reduction, curling could be a fun activity on the walkways around campus.

Although it would be fun, not all of these whacky sports rhyme with each other. There’s chess boxing, oil wrestling and Segway polo to name a few. Though those seem to be more about the event than the competition itself, there are others with established leagues that captivate their local areas. Aussie Rules Football is Australia’s pride and joy. It combines soccer and rugby to create a wild, hard-hitting sport that only the bravest can play. Even the more slow-paced affairs, that some would argue aren’t even sports, have huge followings that miss the front and back pages of America’s papers. Darts captivates the United Kingdom and most of northeastern Europe. Some kids even shaved their heads to a shiny bald so as to look like their favorite darts player, Michael van Gerwen, who is currently the world’s best. These are just random samples to show that sport can manifest in many different forms if people are willing to worship them as we worship our favorite sports.

It seems that America is all set when it comes to sports. The “big four” (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) get a lot of media attention, while equally deserving sports like lacrosse, soccer and more exist, but only on the periphery.

It seems likely that the nation won’t deviate from this state of affairs soon. However, if a love of sport is truly a love of competition, then even the obscure should have their day.