Forget the 100-meter sprint or the soccer final: The hottest ticket at this year's Olimpick Games in England will be for the world championship of shin-kicking — you know, the sport where two contestants dressed in shepherd's smocks kick at each other's legs until one of them falls over.
Don't worry; you haven't missed a late addition to the London 2012 Games, where women's boxing is still the only newcomer. Shin-kicking is only to be found at the carefully named Olimpick Games, a bizarre contest featuring traditional British sports and challenges.
The Cotswold Olimpick Games will take place June 1 in a grassy natural amphitheater in the charming market town of Chipping Campden. But this is no hastily organized tournament exploiting the 2012 Olympics happening in July, 100 miles to the east. This year, the homegrown Olimpicks celebrate their 400th anniversary, making them nearly 300 years older than the glitzy, big-budget official Games.
In 1612, a lawyer by the name of Robert Dover decided to hold a sporting fair in honor of the ancient Greeks. He arranged for events such as fighting with sticks, dancing, jumping in bags and, of course, shin-kicking. The competition even enjoyed the blessing of King James, the monarch famous for both uniting England and Scotland and almost getting blown up in Parliament by Guy Fawkes.
Little has changed over the last 400 years. Like the earliest games, today's feature a temporary wooden "castle," 17th-century clothing and referees known as sticklers — the origin of the phrase "a stickler for the rules." These days, however, shin-kicking's few rules are only laxly enforced. You won't find any slow-motion replays or infrared cameras in Chipping Campden, as sticklers quickly settle disputes with the stout staff they are required to carry.
Amateur athletes might be interested to know that there is no rigorous selection procedure for Olimpick competitors. If you want to try your hand (and foot) at shin-kicking, simply arrive early and sign up. You'll be loaned a shepherd's smock and a plentiful supply of shock-absorbing straw to stuff down your pant legs. If your shins are tough enough, you could be a world champion by the end of the day.
You don't need to be a reluctant lawyer to "spurn the barre." This is a West of England sport that involves hoisting a long shaft of wood, like a shortened telephone pole, as far as you can. The subtle differences between spurning the barre and tossing the caber — the highlight of Scotland's annual Highland Games — will probably be lost on anyone who doesn't fling trees competitively.
Get a few mates together and you could also try the self-explanatory straw bale race or tug-of-war competitions. Brawny farmhands are usually shoo-ins for victory, although free-flowing ales and ciders can reduce some teams to legless losers for events happening later in the day.
One event that requires a minimum of fitness or sobriety is the traditional art of gurning: contorting your face into the most distorted expression possible. It is traditionally performed with your head through a horse collar, and it's usually judged by the laughs (or screams, ideally) of the crowd. Sadly, there is little chance of passers-by winning a gurning contest. The champions are almost always wrinkled old men without their natural teeth, which allows for some truly grotesque facial gymnastics.
Speaking of spectators, the Games also include traditional folk music, Jacobean entertainers, a fireworks display and a torch-lit closing ceremony. Best of all, tickets are significantly cheaper and easier to source than those for the London games. All-day entry to the Olimpicks costs just £6 ($10) for adults and £3 ($5) for children. Something tells us the Greeks, both ancient and modern, would certainly approve.
by Mark Harris / photo by Betty Stocker