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Sport should be a universal constant. The idea of watching athletic people competing in a ritualized form of combat (albeit one which substitutes inflated bladders for swords and shoulder-pads for armor) goes back as far as society itself, and is something all cultures indulge in, to some degree.
So quite why there should be such a clear discrepancy between the kind of sports British people get excited about and those which float the boats of Americans is anyone’s guess. Suffice it to say, our FA Cup and your Super Bowl are very similar, in that neither nation has the first idea which sport is competing for the other nation’s trophy.
Here are five British games that will never have to play host to Madonna at half time.
The classic British bamboozler, in that it’s a sport that has rules and traditions that are so anti-intuitive as to befuddle the minds of anyone who didn’t grow up knowing what was going on. It’s basically a throwing, batting and running game, like baseball, except you run backwards and forwards, instead of around in a loop. Oh and you’re in a partnership with another batsman, and if they start running, you have to go, or you’re out. If you hit the ball and it’s caught, you’re out. If the ball hits your leg instead of the stumps (the wooden Stonehenge thing behind the batsman), you’re out, and if the bowler knocks your stumps over, you’re out. Other than that, you can whack away to your heart’s content. Get the ball over the perimeter line, and you’ve got four points! Do it without bouncing and it’s six! Oh and did we tell you the matches go on for five days at a time? And that you swap ends every six throws? Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up…maybe.
You know we call soccer football and you call football football? Well to make matters more confusing, rugby is also known as rugby football and there are two variations on the game, rugby league and rugby union. It’s closer to the game you call football than the game we call football, in that the ball is a similar shape and you’re effectively running and pushing and fighting in order to carry it from one end of a pitch to another, followed by some kicking into the middle of a big H. However, rugby is the bare-knuckle backstreet brawl to football’s million dollar Vegas boxing bout. The most protective thing a rugby player puts on before he starts a game is a tooth guard, and even then, if he’s been playing for a while, he possibly no longer needs it. Rugby is one of those games where you can spot the people who play it in a crowd, just by their physical deformities: the cauliflower ears, the lumpen brow, shoulders you could hang drapes from. Heroes to a man. (Americans can watch rugby on BBC America. Check out the channel’s Six Nations Rugby schedule for more info.)
The Boat Race
More of an event than a sport, although one which does betray the British upper classes’ love of messing about in boats. Every year, representatives of Oxford and Cambridge University’s respective Boat Clubs do battle along the Thames in London. They start at Putney Bridge and end at Chiswick Bridge, and each team wears blue. Oxford wears dark blue and Cambridge wears light blue. As with many things which began a long time ago, the logic is lost to the mists of time, but the tradition lives on.
Here’s Hugh Laurie representing Cambridge, way back in 1980. Sadly his efforts were crushed by a rampaging Oxford crew, who sneaked up from behind and seized victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat.
Bear with me on this one, some of it may seem a little familiar. In British primary schools, in a tradition that dates back to Tudor times, everyone plays rounders. Never mind your baseball, with the big two-hander bat, or softball, with the big two-hander ball, rounders is the sport of Kings (when they’re at a British primary school). It’s exactly like baseball, in that there’s throwing, hitting and running round a loop. But the bats are only about 12″ long, and you hit with one hand. The ball is smaller than a baseball too, being about the size of a tangerine. Oh and it has to be bowled underarm. You’re out if your ball is caught without bouncing, or if the base you are running to has been ‘stumped’ by one of the fielding team. If you make it all the way round in successive stages, that’s half a point, with a whole point if you do it all in one go. Everyone loves it. Mind you, we don’t watch rounders on the TV, or offer any attention to professional rounders teams, so maybe baseball is safe for now.
Another schoolyard stable, and a rare example of a sport which is played by everyone, but dominated by girls. To those who are unaware (and there shouldn’t be too many, given the rising popularity of the sport in America) netball is effectively basketball without the backboard, or the dribbling, and was invented in reaction to basketball, as a sport specifically for British women to play. The game is otherwise pretty similar. Players pass the ball to one another in order to move it towards their opponents’ net, and only certain players are allowed to shoot. Consequently there is a lot of running and then sudden stops, as a player catches the ball and has to cease moving as quickly as possible, ready to pass again. It’s a very, very team oriented game, more so than show-offy old basketball, and as such, perfect for children to develop their teamwork skills.
Fraser McAlpine is British. This explains a lot.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic