Everyone pulls in the same way: eight people to a side; the first one to pull the middle past a certain point wins; the matches are best of three.
The history of tug of war stretches way back to ancient China and Egypt. People all across the world have been pulling the same rope in opposite directions for a really long time. So long that it was part of the program at the second-ever Summer Olympics in Paris in 1900. (A combined Sweden/Denmark team won. The United States withdrew because three of their pullers were scheduled to compete in the hammer throw at the same time as tug of war. The 1900 Olympics were weird.) Tug of war continued on as an Olympic sport through the 1920 Games.
After the 1920 Games, tug-of-war-as-legitimate-sport faded out of the cultural consciousness, and re-entered it as an overused metaphor and a farm-like game for field days and celebrity-decathlon television shows. Through no fault of its own—other than its absolute simplicity—tug of war doubled back in on itself and became an easily-mocked cultural object rather than any kind of serious pursuit.
Except, that’s not true.
Forty years after the Antwerp Games, the last time the world took tug of war seriously, the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF) was founded. In 1965, they held the first-ever European Championships in London. From 1968 to 1974, there was a European Championship every year. In 1975, TWIF held the first-ever World Championships in the Netherlands. Every year since, there’s been either a World Championship or a European Championship, with the two alternating years. Tug of war is also part of the World Games, an every-four-year competition for non-Olympic sports.
At the competitions, male, female, and co-ed teams are divided by weight class and compete in club and nation-versus-nation tournaments. Everyone pulls in the same way: eight people to a side; the first one to pull the middle past a certain point wins; the matches are best of three.
And that’s the one big problem with international tug of war: it’s tug of war.
CATHAL MCKEEVER IS A retired school executive in Northern Ireland. He’s also the president of TWIF and has been for the last five years.
“You ask my wife, she’d say I spend all my time [on tug of war],” McKeever told me. “Since I became president I spend a sizable amount of time every day. Never a day goes past that I’m not involved in some aspect of tug of war, in some capacity.”