My all time favourite thing to do when travelling is to take in some local sports action. It helps if its an indigenous game, but any tell you a lot about the country you’re visiting. It’s best expressed in the excellent book ‘Race Around the Sports World’. I interviewed the author for an essay back at university, and he was spot-on. Watching a crowd at a local sports event is how you can really get under the skin of the resident populace.
It’s not just for indigenous sports. I’ve seen football (yes, I’ve stopped calling it soccer) matches in Australia, Japan, Singapore, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany and they all had their differences. In Oz, half of us are just there because the footy season has finished and we’re desperate for something similar. In Japan, they were as cheesy cute as their manga and Hello Kitty creations. The match in Singapore was seemingly attended by more police than fans, and in Italy they were as passionate as you’d expect (see below). The Dutch smoke anything they want inside the stadium and the Germans seemed to have the whole thing organised to the most minute detail. The world game? It would appear so.
My next blog will be the last in this series and I thought about ending it on a high. I decided against it, as that would just be too easy, wouldn’t it?
10. Thai boxing, Ko Phi Phi Don
I racked my brain for a sport to watch when visiting Southeast Asia. It’s not exactly a region known for sporting prowess, so, eventually we settled on Thai boxing. We caught a tuk tuk out to Bangkok’s massive venue, only to find out that it cost about eighty bucks to enter. Convinced that this was the tourist price, we searched fruitlessly for a locals entrance and gave up. A couple of weeks later we discovered another tournament being held in Ko Phi Phi (about thirty bucks this time) and headed on down, together with just about all of the locals in town. The locals were hilarious, really getting in to it, pretty much throwing their money around and barracking loudly. The sport itself is entertaining, but the crowd made it worth it.
9. Tai chi, Hong Kong
One of the best things to do if you’ve caught an overnight flight to Hong Kong and can’t yet check into your hotel is to head down to Kowloon Park. The park is just like most in Asia; full of people and therefore full of life. You’ll automatically be calmed down by the sight of literally hundreds of older women performing tai chi throughout, as if it’s some sort of tourist demonstration. Not at all, they actually just do this every day. And it works out well for them; elderly Chinese women would be consistently passing me when climbing any sort of incline, with me puffing and wheezing below.
The Dutch are absolutely obsessed with speed skating; yep, you heard it here, I wasn’t aware of this either. But it dominates the sports channels in the wintertime – last weekend the World Cup was in Kazakhstan yet all of the advertisements around the track were for Dutch companies. Paul and I headed to the World Cup final last February in Heerneveen, in the north of the country, and were probably the only people there not dressed in fluorescent orange. They were a different sort of crowd – perhaps more excited about wearing so much orange than for watching Dutchies in lycra encircle a track – but it was fun all the same. I brought an Aussie flag along when I found out a countryman was competing – he was knocked out in the heats before we’d even arrived.
7. Baseball, Osaka
I had so, so much fun at the baseball in Osaka. I decided to go earlier that day after my hostel organised me a ticket, the only ones left being in the opposition area. I didn’t mind, as again the crowd kept me more than entertained. They would play their brass instruments, chant their catchy songs and eat strange snacks like peas in pods. Some fell asleep sitting up, just like on the train. It also helps that I love watching the game, despite knowing nothing about the players or the league. Best of all was at the top of the seventh inning, the whole stadium let go of the long balloons we’d been holding, sort of a Japanese version of a Mexican wave.
6. Gaelic football, Galway
I did lots of research to find a Gaelic footy match, or a bit of hurling, during my time in Ireland. I finally came up trumps with a local double-header at Pearse Stadium in Galway, and I was amongst the five hundred or so people there. You could hear the conversations of the players on the field, that’s how intimate it was. Despite never seeing a Gaelic footy match, only the International Rules version, I caught on pretty quickly. Soon enough I was verbally barracking too. And what did I devour when there? Ah, just a pie I’d bought on the way there from the corner store.
5. Sumo, Nagoya
There’s only three sumo tournaments on in Japan per year, and boy was I excited when I found out that I was going to be in the country for one of them. Put off by what I’d heard about camping out to get tickets on the day, I enlisted the help of my Kyoto hostel and bought tickets online for the day. I knew I was headed in the right direction once I got on the subway; also in my carriage were some of the day’s participants. My ticket was for the whole day and I stayed for about three hours – the bouts did get repetitive past the first few, but the atmosphere was unlike anything else and a world away from the rowdiness at the baseball only days before.
4. Ice hockey, Berlin
Feel like a rollicking night out, where mullets rule and there’s just as much blood off the field than on? Head to the ice hockey. Paul and I stumbled on this after reading an advertisement on an electricity pole, and we hardly even needed to discuss it. We were going. We headed down to the o2 Arena, directly opposite the East Side Gallery (so no forgetting where you were) and were treated to a night where the sport was only half the entertainment. The Berlin Ice Bears were no match for Red Bull Salzburg but we didn’t care – we joined in the chants, yelled at Salzburg for selling out and considered buying an oversized jersey just to fit in more.
3. Football, Rome
I’ve been to the football a few times now in Europe and Asia but my first experience has always stuck out the most. Held at the Olympic Stadium, this match was between local darlings AS Roma and good old Sampdoria who were never going to come close. The people all around me reminded me of similar people at the footy every week at the MCG; I could all stereotype them into the different groups of fans. Football is big business in Italy and no doubt the rest of Europe, but for that Saturday afternoon in the Roman suburbs it felt good.
2. Bullfighting, Valencia
I had never even considered going to the bullfighting in Spain. As someone who has no problem giving you my opinion on just about anything, political or otherwise, I hadn’t even taken a moment to think of my own opinion on Spain’s indigenous sport. When I found out that there were bouts being held during Las Fallas in Valencia, I didn’t have to be told twice. I was going; I had to experience it for myself. And it was an experience; incredibly gory, even though I knew that the bull was going to be killed I didn’t quite believe it until it happened. Again, the crowd kept me there; the Castro look-alikes, the chatty overweight older women and the high-rollers in the VIP seats. Worth it? Yes. Would I go again? No.
1. Wimbledon, London
I wanted to go to Wimbledon so much so that I specifically booked my return ticket to Melbourne from London in order to attend the tournament. The first day was a washout, so I was worried. Crossing my fingers, I left my friend’s house in Islington at dawn, zipping across the city to get a good spot in the queue. And so we queued, for a good five hours or so, until our mad rush for the courts. As it was day two the grass was fresh, the purple and white flowers were in full-bloom and the place was packed. It was smaller in scale than the Australian Open, but a lot more atmospheric; a bit like Lord’s might be compared to the MCG. Ever the backpacker, I only bought the program when I found a tenner on the ground when I was leaving for the day.