Hybrid Sports in a League of Their Own

From underwater hockey to chess boxing, could these unheralded hybrid sports be ready for prime time?

Last Page swimmer
For every hybrid sport that gets the Olympic seal of approval, there are dozens of others languishing in obscurity. Illustration by Eric Palma

Long winters without cable television in rural Vermont prompted some college friends and me to invent “tennis golf.” The game involved taking a racket and whacking a ball through a course of several landmarks, including a bronze panther, the school’s mascot. None of us were particularly good at tennis—or at golf, either, for that matter. But we were proud of our invention, even if we weren’t likely to make it to the Olympics.

Perhaps I would have stood a better chance of bringing home a gold medal if tennis golf were more physically demanding. Extreme hybrid sports are popular events at the Olympics. Athletes have competed in the biathlon, which combines skiing with target shooting, since 1960. Synchronized swimming, which incorporates dance and gymnastics, became an official event in 1984. Snowboard cross, which hit the slopes in 2006, combines elements of surfing and motorcycle racing. And, this year, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver planned the debut of ski cross, where four skiers tackle a course of jumps, rollers, hairpin turns—and each other.

But for every hybrid sport that gets the Olympic seal of approval, there are dozens of others languishing in obscurity. Have you heard of primitive biathlon, where snowshoes and muskets replace skis and rifles? Although period dress is not required, it is encouraged. Hence, every year, wannabe Davy Crocketts in coonskin caps and fringe leather jackets come out of the woods for the Smugglers’ Notch Primitive Biathlon in Jeffersonville, Vermont.

Another winter sport, skijoring, mixes cross-country skiing and dog mushing. Yes—cross-country skiers being pulled by their dogs. “Virtually any breed dog can learn to skijor,” one Web site declares, including poodles. (“Onward, Babette! Faster! Faster!”)

Are you wobbly on ice skates? Then consider underwater hockey (a.k.a. octopush), where two teams of six snorkelers duke it out on the bottom of a swimming pool, pushing a puck with a foot-long stick.

And the list goes on: canoe polo, unicycle hockey and chess boxing—which is, literally, alternating rounds of chess and boxing. (Bare fisted for the chess, of course.) Chess boxing combines “the #1 thinking sport and the #1 fighting sport into a hybrid that demands the most of its competitors—both mentally and physically,” states the World Chess Boxing Organization. Finally, an opportunity to pummel that snarky opponent who forced you to sacrifice your rook.

Excelling at any sport requires physical and mental discipline. But hybrid athletes must bear an additional burden—convincing people that their sports are actually sports. They point to governing bodies that operate under the belief that legitimacy is directly proportional to the number of “official” rules on their Web sites. Sometimes, hybrid sport enthusiasts resort to more desperate tactics. For instance, while you may find it hard to believe that getting a tow from your labradoodle provides roller-coaster-type thrills, one skijoring site begs to differ: “Do you enjoy the rides at Six Flags or Busch Gardens?” it asks. “If so, Skijor Sprint Racing is for you.” The Underwater Society of America points out that, on top of being an incredible workout, underwater hockey is an “instant conversation starter at dull parties!” (“Did you hear about my hat trick in the deep end?”) And the World Chess Boxing Organization trots out a time-honored pitch: “Women think chess boxing is sexy.”

So, what’s next? Reverse skijoring, where the owners pull their dogs? Kayak archery? I have an idea that’s even better than tennis golf: pole vault diving. Just imagine pole-vaulters hurling themselves over the crossbar and then gracefully somersaulting into a pool. If only the International Olympic Committee would return my calls.

Megan Gambino is an editorial assistant at Smithsonian.

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