Tug of War Has a Tug of War Problem

An Olympic sport at the turn of the 20th century tries to find its way back into the modern Games

    Photo: A.S.B./Shutterstock

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.” 

That’s because he has tasked himself with bringing tug of war back to where it once was: the Olympic Games. When you’re trying to create an Olympic sport from near-scratch across the world, there aren’t enough hours in the day—especially if you’re not getting paid. (McKeever and the four other members of the TWIF executive board are all volunteers.) 

McKeever says there are more than 60 member-countries currently in TWIF, including the United States. Many of the world’s best teams practice four or five times leading up to competitions. Most of this country’s best pullers, as they’re called, live in the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota area because, for whatever reason—possibly because of the Midwest’s more rural longings and characteristics—it caught on at local fairs and festivals enough for teams to be formed, a national federation created, and tug-of-war practice to become a real thing in America. 

But therein lies one of the first problem-blessings with tug of war: it’s highly centralized. So centralized, in fact, that certain towns in certain countries tend to produce the world’s best pullers. Without tug of war as an Olympic sport, it had to become more of a tradition that got passed down in order to stay alive, a game you played only if you knew it existed.

“Tug of war is one of these sports where people grow up in communities that have a history of tug of war,” said McKeever, “and tug of war becomes a part of their psyche, almost in their blood. Over the years it’s tended to be a very rural sport because of the nature of it.”

Those are all great things—the kind of the things you’d see on some ESPN piano-and-weepy-commentary special about an already-Olympic sport—but not necessarily so for something that’s trying to break through. So, across the world, you’ve got these super-dedicated tug-of-war communities—in the U.K., Ireland, Holland, Switzerland—that have been pulling for decades while everyone else has been doing something else. That fosters an intense passion around the tradition—it’s your thing and it’s still going because of you. But by being so centralized, by definition, the sport hasn’t come close to the growth needed for Olympic inclusion. For a new sport, passionate amateur clubs in the United States, the United Kingdom, a few other European spots, Japan, and China just isn’t enough.

With that in mind, McKeever’s made international development one of the foundations his regime stands on, but again, he’s not getting paid and none of this is easy. 

“You need development courses trying to improve the standard, bringing out world-class coaches to different parts of the world,” he said. “Actually holding development courses where coaching is given and training is given, hopefully putting them on the right way toward improving their standard.”

OUTSIDE OF CASKET-CARRYING and three-legged racing, which might not actually be sports, there’s nothing that’s more of a team sport than tug of war. Yes, it definitely has its intricacies—you usually line up from smallest puller to tallest, for example—and each person has a slightly different job, but all of their jobs are also the same: pull a rope farther than the other team. 

It’s total self-sacrifice-for-the-good-of-the-team because there’s literally no advantage to trying to stand out or doing something different, being spontaneously creative. Any creative approach comes from all eight pullers together. If there’s an Olympic-spirit definition engraved on some flaming cauldron atop Mount Olympus, it definitely includes something about “teamwork,” which is exactly what tug of war is about in both the immediate and the larger, moral, sports-translated-beyond-sports sense.

“It’s eight men on a tug-of-war team,” said McKeever, “and it’s often said that it’s like a chain—it’s only as strong as its weakest link. If you have one weak person in your eight-man team, then you aren’t going to get very far because you had a weak link. On an American football or soccer team, you can maybe carry a weak link and get by. You won’t do that in tug of war.”

Which is all great in theory, considering the idea of sports as a way of building something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, but not necessarily in reality. Think back to the Olympics and you probably think of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Maybe Bradley Wiggins or Mo Farrah. The U.S. men’s basketball team stood out, but more so because they were a team of so many identifiable-on-their-own athletes. And for the second summer running the U.S. women’s soccer team flared onto the scene, but again in no small part due to outsized personalities like Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo—or, you know, a pretty and also really great player named Alex Morgan. 

“Obviously the sports that have big stars like Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, they draw attention to their sports, as well as to the individuals,” McKeever said. “We don’t have that of course, but that can be a hindrance as well because sometimes the money in a certain sport will go to the stars and not to the other individuals.” 

While McKeever did admit that sometimes he wonders what it would be like to have some kind of individual international star, he knows that it’d probably compromise the integrity of the sport for that to even be possible. 

EVERYTHING CIRCLES BACK TO one main problem, one that McKeever brought up throughout the course of our conversation: the image.

Retro, classic-type style—collared shirts with ice-cream cones and lens-less oversized plastic-rim glasses—is definitely in when it comes to athletes’ style, and a lot of recent uniform choices have trended toward the simple, primary-color, round-edged old-school template, but that’s where it stops.

Just look at our gear page. Everything is futuristic, bright, lightweight, and wouldn’t be out of place on a moon colony. Everything is getting faster, sleeker, neon-er, pushing performance to the outer limits of all sports. Bikes weigh only ounces, the latest cleats are basically spiked alien-skins, and flannel shirts are now breathable. The retro-trending stops when it comes to actual performance, the playing of the sport itself.

So, where does that leave a sport with rural origins and, for most people, one that never advanced past the final event on Field Day? 

It leaves it looking like a simple, harmless-fun game that is—other than the bigger men and women, wearing different hairstyles and different Nike and Adidas shoes—the same as it ever was. And in most ways, it still is. But just because a game’s simple and seemingly unchanged by the forces that have swept up every other sport doesn’t mean some people don’t take it seriously. The perpetuation of that surface-level image—most notably, by America’s most popular sports writer—is basically a fart in the face to anyone who competes as part of TWIF.

“Many people who are not involved in tug of war actively,” said McKeever, “see tug of war as a local, fun-activity type thing. That is not the image we put forward for out world championships.”

In no small part because of that, the International Olympic Committee recognized tug of war, which is certainly a positive step as it provides the federation with grant money to devote to development purposes. (This is pretty much the only external revenue they receive; advertising is non-existent.) TWIF had hoped tug of war might be considered for a spot in the 2020 games, but the recently-announced shortlist didn’t include it. Their next shot will be in 2024. 

Until then, it’s more teaching, more developing, and more unpaid, passionate pulling of ropes in open fields. Simplicity that, McKeever thinks, especially in lean economic times, makes his sport a perfect fit for Games of the Future. After all, it's just tug of war.

“We need a piece of grass, and we need an audience—and we need a rope.”

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