Where Did We Get Tug of War? | Tug of War History

(Last Updated On: October 6, 2021)

Ever done a weird team building activity in your childhood or for your job? You know the days. The ones where you’re all weirdly just brought out to a field and an overly optimistic person tells you it’s time for a bunch of activities. One of those activities was probably a really long rope with a flag in the middle. If we unlocked a bunch of old memories, enjoy reliving how awkward those experiences were. Now that we’re thinking of yard activities, where did we even get tug of war?

Etymology

The term “tug of war” dates back to the 1670s, though not in the same way you’d have played the game. It just referred to a figurative contest. By the 1870s “tug of war” came to refer to the game that you know and love. Or feel incredibly awkward about because you were shy and didn’t want to do team building exercises. For a time, tug of war was actually referred to as “French and English,” which is pretty funny. The rules were the same as tug of war now. Two teams pull on a rope until one team falls over or the center of the rope moves too far from a mark in the ground. 

Maybe you can make it relevant again if you were to play tug of war with a baguette. 

Tug of War Is Super Old

Tug of war seems to have pretty ambiguous origins, since records of it being practiced exist in a lot of different places. Records from the Tang Dynasty indicate that tug of war was used to train warriors between the 8th and 5th centuries BC. Translated to English, the Tang Dynasty called this “hook pulling.” Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty was a big fan of super big tug of war (hook pulling) games with ropes longer than 500 feet and teams of 500 people on either side. With so many people, they had to have drummers to encourage teams (like a coxswain for rowers). 

Records of tug of war exist worldwide–from Cambodia to ancient Egypt. The ancient Greeks used tug of war as a technique for training warriors like the Chinese. Tug of war was incredibly popular as a strength building exercise and often done so soldiers would have the strength to move around in full armor. It dates back to at least the 12th century AD in India, and was likely popular with the Vikings

Other variants are similarly old. One brought to New Zealand in the 1790s is done lying down on boards. The Korean juldarigi (줄다리기) dates back to the 1500s and was a common ritual in agricultural communities. The ritual is performed with a giant rope where each team pulls either to the east or west. Depending on the victor the next harvest would be poor or bountiful.  

Tug of War at the Olympics

For a brief time, tug of war was at the Olympics. Specifically from the years 1900 to 1920, meaning it was present at 5 Olympic games. After the 1920 Summer Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee decided there were too many sports and culled a handful. Of them tug of war was included–though it is still recognized as a sport by the IOC.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a ton of tug of war events worldwide. There is a Tug of War International Federation, and they have over 70 member organizations, where each organization represents a different country. 

There are also some pretty nutty tug of war events around the world, like the Naha Great Tug of War Festival in Japan. If you thought the Tang Dynasty’s 500 person teams were nuts, the Naha Great Tug of War has them eclipsed. They use a 656 foot (200 meters) rope that weighs 43 tons. They don’t even say the rope is pulled to the left and right, they describe it as tens of thousands pulling it to the east and west. Which is technically more accurate but it just gives the game that much more scale. Locals and tourists often keep bits of the great rope as a good luck charm to cut off and take home. 


Speaking of weird yard and field activities, how about a trivia field?

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About Kyler 560 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and has just finished his undergraduate at the University of Washington. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019 and has accumulated so much random, general knowledge he'd rather not think about it. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.