Obscure competitions like table tennis and fencing are part of the joy of the Games. Here's how to keep the spirit going now.
The joys of Olympics-watching include, but are not limited to, judging the aesthetics of team uniforms, criticizing the host country's opening and closing ceremonies, and, of course, rooting for the athletes themselves. And while the standard fare of basketball and swimming is all well and good, half of the fun of the games is the delightful obscurities we're able to spectate. The massive popularity of curling, in the winter games, and archery, this summer, shows that sports often considered mere curiosities can have mass appeal. Would the Olympics be the same without the race walk, table tennis, or fencing? Of course not.
If the rules of these sports confound (who knew ping pong "racquets" must be at least 85 percent wood, or that the ribbon used in rhythmic gymnastics is 7 meters long?), the stories they produce are among the most compelling in the games. From shirt-shredding celebrations to gut-wrenching tears, the agony and ecstasy of the games is perhaps most clearly visible in these types of events.
So now that London 2012 has concluded, (and since Stars Earn Stripes is probably not the answer), where can fans turn to ease their withdrawal symptoms?
Starting August 20th, the World MTB Orienteering Championships is what happens when mountain biking is combined with Hunger Games-esque disorientation. Held in Veszprém, Hungary (the Hungarian "city of queens"), the competition will combine intense biking with navigation challenges (think maps and compasses). A disclaimer on the event website cautions, "Stones and thorns are abundant. Puncture protection is strongly recommended." Teams from China, Chinese Taipei, Romania, New Zealand, Turkey, and the U.S. plan to compete. However, because the event is unlikely to end up on ESPN, interested parties should check the orienteering website for coverage options.
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If you're looking for something a bit more dangerous, Gaelic football might be the perfect remedy for your Olympics hangover. The game is based on caid, which is centuries old, and massively popular in Ireland. (London and New York have clubs as well.) It's a bit like soccer, a bit like rugby. To score teams kick the ball past a goalkeeper into a net, or kick or punch it over a crossbar. The All-Ireland Final is just around the corner in late-September, and 40,000 - 60,000 spectators typically turn out to watch cup games of the more popular squads. In the semi-final round Cork will play Donegal while defending champion Dublin faces off against Mayo.
Hurling, another Irish sport, compounds the likelihood of brutality by introducing small wooden bats to the equation. No protective padding is worn, except for plastic helmets which were made mandatory only recently. (Praising the game's "warrior sport" mentality, US troops set up hurling matches in Iraq.) It's only moderately controlled chaos. Galway is through to the All-Ireland Final (a cup they have not won since 1988), where they will face either the defending champions Kilkenny or Tipperary in the showdown of "the fastest field sport on earth." (Kilkenny and Tipperary are bitter rivals.) The final is set for September 9th.
If you go in for more international events, the Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri-Nations) gets set to kick off on August 18. This competition between Southern hemisphere nations introduces Argentina to the stage of world class rugby. (They join Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in the competition.) Perennial powerhouse New Zealand (The All Blacks) will look to carry on their tradition of recent dominance while Argentina will hope to prove up to the level of competition. On the up side, the New Zealanders will presumably be performing the haka before their matches, which always makes for good/terrifying watching.
Jai-Alai, "the world's fastest sport," might be another cure for the post-Olympic blues--but don't expect to find it on TV. Popular in Miami, the game with the ridiculous looking scoop basket derives from Spain's Basque region. It's star, Iñaki Osa Goikoetxea (call him Goiko) is better than Lebron; he's won nine world titles and is only in his early 30s. He also, somewhat depressingly, has a five-figure salary. The ball travels over 150 miles per hour, which is nothing if not outright dangerous. Players have been known to drop dead on the court. (Still, the charms of the sport did seemed to be lost on Don Draper.) So head down to your local fronton, if you have one, and get your fix.
Finally, don't forget the less obscure but always entertaining Little League World Series, which starts on Thursday. 16 teams (8 American, 8 international) will face off at the fabled stadiums in South Williamsport, PA. The Mid-Atlantic team, Par-Troy East from Parsippany, NJ, faces off with the Southwest regional champs, McAllister Park National Little League (of San Antonio, TX) on Friday afternoon. ESPN will broadcast all of the games (though some will be aired on ESPN2, 3, and 3D), and bosses everywhere should be bracing for a drop in productivity. Though the Olympics have just ended, the preponderance of unusual sports seems to be picking up speed (and we haven't even covered chess boxing, underwater hockey, or Bo-Taoshi, the Japanese pole toppling game).
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