Summer sports offer windows into other cultures

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      From kabaddi and Australian rules football to pesí¤pallo and eukonkanto, Vancouverites participate in a wide world of games

      One of the pleasures of living in Vancouver is that you have seemingly unlimited access to a myriad of cultures from around the world. Many Vancouverites love the fact that they can sample a bowl of Malaysian laksa, dance to Latin salsa and merengue, and smoke sweet Ma'sal tobacco from a shisha pipe, all without leaving city limits.

      One overlooked benefit of living in a diverse city is the huge number of sports to enjoy from around the world for those willing to search for them. Although sports such as soccer and cricket tend to dominate many of the city's cultural communities, there are other, more culturally specific, sports that can be found in Vancouver parks and fields but not on TSN highlights.

      Perhaps the biggest of these sports is the Punjabi game of kabaddi. Wildly popular in Vancouver's South Asian community, the game consists of two teams of seven scantily clad players taking turns sending a “raider” into the opposing team's half in an effort to tag defensive players. The defenders then surround the raider, who tries to break through the human chain and return to his side of the field. “It's a little bit like wrestling,” says Gaganpreet Singh of the Vancouver Kabaddi Club. “The sport depends on the physical stamina of the player.”

      In addition to the club, there are numerous local teams that compete in several tournaments that run from May to September, many of them at the kabaddi field near Surrey's Sullivan Heights secondary school (14426 64th Avenue). The next tournaments at the Surrey field will take place on June 28, July 5, and July 19.

      It's not unusual for as many as 4,000 spectators to attend a tournament. In fact, the game has expanded to the point where it appeals to people outside the Punjabi community. Canadian wrestler Daniel Igali played kabaddi for years after being introduced to the sport by some Indo-Canadian friends. The Nigerian-born Igali has credited the sport with improving his wrestling skills. No doubt fighting five defenders on the kabaddi pitch made fighting one wrestler at a time during his gold-medal run at the 2000 Olympics seem easy.

      Singh says that local teams welcome newcomers and that those interested in trying the sport should contact one of the many teams in the Lower Mainland and take part in a training session.

      Another popular team sport is Gaelic football, one of Ireland's favourite pastimes. Gaelic football features two teams of 15 that try to kick or punch a ball through H-shaped goals at each end. Players move the ball up the field by kicking and passing to teammates while defenders try to gain possession through shoulder-to-shoulder tackles. “It's a very fast-moving game,” says Conor Walshe, president of the Irish Sporting and Social Club Vancouver. “It's physical and in-your-face to a degree, so you have to keep the ball moving.”

      The ISSC plays several tournaments throughout the year and has regular games played on local rugby pitches. The society also sets up games that combine Gaelic football with its rougher distant cousin, Australian rules football, which is played by several teams in the B.C. Footy League. Those interested in learning Gaelic football can attend one of the ISSC's weekly training sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For information on locations and practise times, visit

      To most of the world, Finland's greatest contribution to sport has been developing a legion of world-class hockey players, including talented but brittle Vancouver Canucks defenceman Sami Salo. The Scandinavian country is also home to some unique sports, including eukonkanto, or, as it's known in English, wife-carrying. These contests originated in Finland in the 19th century and have spread throughout much of the world. As the name suggests, the competition involves men carrying their wives on their backs as they traverse an obstacle course. The Scandinavian Midsummer Festival will be hosting a wife-carrying contest on Sunday (June 21) at 3:15 p.m. at the Scandinavian Community Centre (6540 Thomas Street, Burnaby). The winner will receive his spouse's weight in beer.

      For those not interested in strapping their significant other to their back, there's pesí¤pallo, a Finnish sport that's like baseball but with several critical differences. In pesí¤pallo, the pitcher stands next to the batter and throws the ball straight into the air. The batter can then hit the ball and choose not to run and be allowed to continue his or her at-bat. In addition, the field is far from a conventional baseball diamond. First base is located where we would expect third base to be, with runners forced to zigzag across the field to touch other bases.

      The Vancouver Finlandia Club hosts co-ed pick-up games held in conjunction with pub nights, which will take place July 17 and August 21 at the Scandinavian Community Centre. The game is perfect for pub nights because it's not too strenuous. Organizer Karina Ramsay also teaches peshpallo to kids who come to the centre for Finnish lessons. She enjoys teaching the game to a new generation, even if it mostly involves pointing kids to the base they are supposed to run toward. “I play a lot of softball,” she says. “It's interesting for me to see this other version of baseball that's from the other side of world. It's kind of similar, but not really.”

      In many ways, those differences not only provide a window into a new culture, they could make you a better athlete. A day spent trying to figure out an otherwise alien sport forces you to work new muscles and devise strategies that could cross over into other sports. Whether it's Finnish-language students trying to figure which way to run or Olympic wrestlers fighting off five men in loincloths, trying to cross cultures could prove to be the ultimate form of cross-training.