Pull for Gold

For twenty years, tug of war bathed in Olympic glory. But since 1920, the sport has drifted into obscurity. It’s time for a revitalization.

“Tug of war wants to be an Olympic sport?” This question is often accompanied by a shake of the head – despite the fact that tug of war was part of the Olympic calendar from 1900 until 1920. During the “Intercalated Games” of 1906, a team comprised of weightlifters and gymnasts won the gold medal. Indeed, the sport is one of the world’s oldest. It originated from the rites of many tribes and countries: some used a rope to stage contests between good and evil, others tried to forecast the weather or plant growth. We know of competitions in China and Korea as early as the year 1000, when whole villages competed against one another to resolve disputes.

When tug of war became an Olympic sport, it was grouped as an “athletic event” alongside track and field, since it was held inside the Olympic stadium. Things went well until the inauguration of the International Association of Athletic Federations in 1912. It questioned why one of its sports required the weight of the athletes to be recorded before the competition. When the number of sports and athletes was reduced after the 1920 Olympics (as a consequence of World War I and the Great Depression) to keep the Games attractive to potential host cities, tug of war caught the short end of the rope and was cut. It completely disappeared from the international stage and was relegated to obscurity in many countries.

One of the few countries that continued to cultivate tug of war as an athletic event was Germany. In 1974, Germany was admitted to the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF), which had been founded in 1960.

In the half century that has since passed, tug of war has continued to struggle. The lack of funds complicated outreach efforts. And the International Olympic Committee has also tightened the screws: now, an international federation must have 50 national members (instead of 40, as before) to become a “recognized federation” within the Olympic family. And it takes 80 members to become an “Olympic federation” – a goal that will not be accomplished in the near future by the TWIF, which currently has 62 members. One chance remains: every four years, the IOC compiles a short list of ten sports, of which one becomes an Olympic event, while another sport is eliminated from the program.

Thus, tug of war enthusiasts are currently limited to the World Games, a competition held every four years for non-Olympic sports. But its appeal is unbroken: during the 2005 World Games in Duisburg, organizers had to close the gates to the competition area after more than 1200 people rushed in to see the contest. We can expect that tug of war would have a significant fan base as an Olympic sport as well.

But while tug of war is fair, honest and cheap to stage, its financial appeal is limited. Different weight classes create a fair competition environment and the simple rules (a team wins if it succeeds in moving the rope four meters in its direction) make it easy to watch. And there’s an additional benefit: with eight to twelve competing teams, the winner can be decided in about half a day. But because it doesn’t require expensive equipment or clothing, tug of war lacks a business lobby. Often, new sports are introduced or pushed precisely because of their appeal to marketing firms and big companies. Even today, tug of war is seen as a “poor man’s sport.”

But why should that label be rejected? In a time when many attempt to escape the spiral of increasing costs and the craze for the spectacular, being a simple and low-cost sport holds its own appeal.

When doctors, physical therapists, and biomedical engineers study tug of war, they are still surprised: we learn that the amount of force involved is similar to other Olympic sports. Without specialized training for legs, thighs, back, arms, and hands (with a focus on strength and power-endurance), athletes would not last long in international competition. A game of tug of war usually lasts between three and eight minutes, and the maximum break is six minutes long.

Alongside rowing, tug of war is the only sport where athletes move backwards to win. Even just for that, tug of war deserves a sport in the canon of Olympic sports once again.

Read more in this debate: Robert Rauch, Farid Lounas, Jahangir Khan.

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