The Most Unique Sports by Country
All over the world, with few exceptions, soccer is king. But it's not the only sport being played in countries spanning the globe. Not by a long shot.
On six out of the seven continents (sorry, Antarctica), vibrant sports cultures have thrived for centuries. Sometimes it’s with ancient (and dangerous) games that the rest of the world might not understand anymore. Sometimes the games evolved into something we recognize today.
Sometimes the sport might be familiar, but we just didn't know how well a particular country plays it.
Here’s a look at the most unique sports around the world — some unique for the sport itself, some unique for finding a way to thrive.
Note: All populations are according to 2019 projections, and all GDP numbers are according to the World Monetary Fund.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): $72.911 billion
Bottom line: This brutal sport originated sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries in Central Asia.
Ten to a side, on horseback and armed with whips, the objective of the game is to place a goat or calf carcass in the other team’s goal.
It's as gut-wrenching as it sounds.
Belgium: Touch Tennis
Population (2016 census): 11,420,163
GDP: $550 billion
Bottom line: Belgium is one of the frontrunners in this miniaturized version of tennis, with a specialized court, specialized rackets and a specialized foam ball.
It continues to grow in popularity, with a pro tour and four major Grand Slam events.
One major difference from tennis is you only get one attempt to serve.
Population (2016 census): 11,428,245
GDP: $95.0 billion
Bottom line: It’s a given that soccer is the most popular sport in almost every country in the world. But in Bolivia, after soccer, it’s racquetball all the way.
There, it’s not uncommon to see the country’s greatest racquetball stars plastered across billboards and being interviewed on the country’s most popular talk shows.
GDP: $3.524 trillion
Bottom line: They’re good at more than soccer in Brazil, where skateboarding went mainstream around the same time it did in the U.S.
The Brazilians have some of the best pro skateboarders in the world, and both their men’s and women’s teams have a shot at winning gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Population: 1.4 billion
GDP: $27.449 trillion
Bottom line: China’s worldwide domination in badminton can’t be overstated.
Its national team has won 13 women’s world championships, nine men’s world championships and more Olympic gold medals than any other country.
China’s Lin Dan is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in men’s singles and widely considered the greatest badminton player of all time.
GDP: $507 billion
Bottom line: The traditional Chilean version of rodeo is much different from the rodeo most of the world knows, and it dates back to the 16th century.
Riders are required to wear traditional huaso outfits, and the sport itself consists of two riders trying to pin a calf against large cushions, earning points for the style in which they pin the calf.
Czech Republic: Floorball
GDP: $417 billion
Bottom line: Ever wonder what would happen if they turned floor hockey we played in gym class as kids into a professional, nationally televised sport? Wonder no more.
The Czech Republic is one of the countries spearheading the push to make floorball an Olympic sport.
GDP: $2 trillion
Bottom line: Everywhere else in the world, we play darts when we’re at the local bar having a few drinks with our friends. In England, they still play it at the bar, but it’s also big business and governed by the World Darts Federation.
The greatest men’s player of all time, Phil Taylor (16 world titles), and the greatest women’s player of all time, Trina Gulliver (10 world titles), both hail from England.
GDP: $326.7 billion
Bottom line: The Americans aren’t the only ones with an Olympic "Dream Team." In Greece, that title went to its weightlifting team in the mid-1990s.
For the Greeks, there has been no more successful individual sport when it comes to the international stage, where they’ve dominated at the Olympics and at the World Weightlifting Championships.
GDP: $1.8 billion
Bottom line: This isn’t handball the way Americans think of it. This is 6-on-6, throwing a ball past a goaltender, and it’s pretty exciting to watch.
In a country where 75 percent of the surface is covered in a permanent ice sheet, is it any surprise that the national sport is one played indoors?
Iceland: Trouser-Grip Wrestling (Glima)
GDP: $19 billion
Bottom line: Iceland’s national sport requires a special belt with loops around the waist and thighs.
Competitors stand straight up, take clockwise steps in unison (it looks like they’re dancing) and look over the shoulder of the opponent until you get a good grip for a throw.
Then it’s on and popping.
Capital: New Delhi
Population: 1.3 billion
GDP: $10.5 trillion
Bottom line: There’s not even really a second-most popular sport in the second-most populous country in the world.
Matches against rival Pakistan routinely make the list of the most-viewed television broadcasts in history, and a five-day match in February 1999 against Pakistan set an attendance record with 465,000 tickets sold.
Italy: Calcio Storico
GDP: $2.397 trillion
Bottom line: Calcio Storico, which can trace its roots to the 16th century, has an argument for being the single-most violent sport in the world.
It’s 27 players on a side and one part MMA, one part rugby, one part bare-knuckle boxing. And 100 percent bananas.
GDP: $26.981 billion
Bottom line: Netball, which can be roughly translated to basketball without dribbling (or backboards), is the No. 1 team sport in Jamaica and the No. 1 women’s sport.
The national women’s team, "The Sunshine Girls," is pretty amazing to watch, and they’ve finished third at the World Championships on three separate occasions.
GDP: $5.071 trillion
Bottom line: Japan’s sports culture is diverse and vibrant, and no sport is as venerated (or controversial) as sumo, which dates back to the 16th century.
The top wrestlers — rikishi — have regimented lives, completely dictated by the Japan Sumo Association, down to meals and dress and all according to strict traditions.
GDP: $535 billion
Bottom line: You will feel like your eyes need to adjust the first time you watch bandy.
It’s like hockey, but on a rink the size of a soccer field, with a rubber ball instead of a puck and with nets twice the size of hockey goals.
And in Kazakhstan, they play it as good as almost anyone in the world.
GDP: $101 billion
Bottom line: Ritinis originated in Lithuania and is played on a soccer field with seven players to a side, trying to throw a hard rubber disc into the other team’s goal (3 points) or zone (1 points).
Here’s the twist — you can only block the disc using cartoonishly oversized hockey sticks.
GDP: $10.372 billion
Bottom line: Also known as tolon’omby, this sport consists of letting zebu cattle with humongous, sharp horns loose in a ring.
Then you put a bunch of men in the ring.
Then the men try to wrestle the zebu cattle to the ground.
We didn’t say it was for everybody.
GDP: $43.174 billion
Bottom line: Older Mongolians know what time it is when it comes to shagaa, where participants flick sheep ankle bones (shaped like dominoes) at a target on a platform several feet away.
Yes, it sounds weird. But it looks like it could be pretty fun.
New Zealand: Men’s Softball
GDP: $199 billion
Bottom line: The national men’s softball team in New Zealand is known as the "Black Sox" and compete at the highest level in international competitions.
They have won seven world championships since 1976, with the last coming in 2017 with a win over Australia.
GDP: $1.221 trillion
Bottom line: Is Scrabble even a sport? In Nigeria, it’s been an officially recognized sport since the early 1990s.
There are over 100 clubs with 4,000 players in Nigeria, and their own Wellington Jighere became the first African to win a World Scrabble Championship in 2015.
Norway: Ski Jumping
GDP: $397 billion
Bottom line: Norwegians invented the berserker sport of ski jumping in the 19th century, which is about as close to flying as human beings will ever get.
Norway won the first six gold medals in Olympic ski jumping and swept all three medals in 1948, and continue to dominate the event to this day.
Philippines: Jai Alai
GDP: $1.041 trillion
Bottom line: American sports fans will remember when jai alai briefly peeked its head into the U.S. sports scene in the 1980s.
It’s stayed popular in the Philippines, when they’re allowed to play. Every couple of years, it seems like the sport gets shut down because of match-fixing scandals.
Portugal: Horseball (Pato)
GDP: $239.473 billion
Bottom line: Horseball didn’t transition to using an actual ball until the 1930s. Before that, they used a live duck.
Also known as "pato," the game is a combination of polo, basketball, rugby and quidditch. Four riders on each side try to get a ball in hoops on opposite ends.
Portugal won the only Horseball World Championship in 2006.
Qatar: Camel Racing
GDP: $357.338 billion
Bottom line: Camel races were traditionally held only on special occasions, specifically weddings, until the first professional races in 1972.
There’s a dark side to the sport, however. The use of child jockeys, who were essentially held as slaves to the sport, wasn’t banned until the last 10-15 years.
Now, they sometimes use robot camel jockeys.
Russia: Women’s Basketball
GDP: $4.345 trillion
Bottom line: The best women’s basketball in the world is played in the Russian Women’s Premiere Basketball League. How popular is it?
WNBA star Diana Taurasi makes around $100,000 per season playing for the Phoenix Mercury.
Her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, pays her a reported $1.5 million.
South Africa: Nguni Stick-Fighting
Capital: Cape Town
GDP: $386 billion
Bottom line: First practiced among the Nguni tribes, stick-fighting pits two "warriors" against each other, each with a stick for offense/striking and defending, although some Nguni and Zulu tribes also incorporate a shield.
The sport is understandably banned in some parts of the country.
Watch and Watch
South Korea: Baseball
GDP: $2.139 trillion
Bottom line: Baseball has been in South Korea since 1905, and there’s a debate going on as to whether it has already passed soccer as the country’s most popular sport.
The pro-baseball argument can point to the Korean Baseball League’s attendance, which continues to go up every year. Along with ticket prices.
Turkey: Oil Wrestling (Yagli)
GDP: $2.274 trillion
Bottom line: The Turkish national sport is exactly what it seems. Wrestlers don a traditional kisbet (short pants made of buffalo leather), cover themselves in olive oil and get after it.
The annual tournament, held in Edirne, is the longest-running sporting event in the world and has been going on since 1346.
United States: American Football
Capital: Washington, D.C.
GDP: $20.891 trillion
Bottom line: What’s unique about football? Go anywhere else in the free world, and you’ll quickly understand it’s only popular in one place: America.
It’s the No. 1 sport in the U.S. and creating distance between itself and every other sport with each passing year.
Everywhere else? They’re not into it.
For more about unique sports around the world, click here.