The World Games lacks the history or prestige of the Olympic Games, but for those who dedicate themselves to more than two dozen sports - among them ten-pin bowling, squash, powerlifting, rock climbing, waterskiing, bodybuilding and lacrosse - the World Games are the Olympics. They're a chance to win glory, and gain a wider audience. Yet many people, when browsing the sports schedule for the World Games, express both astonishment and puzzlement: Lifesaving is a sport? What on Earth is korfball? And aren't archery and gymnastics in the Summer Olympics?

Events you've never heard of

Korfball (shown below) is similar to netball and basketball in that points are scored by throwing the ball through your opponents' basket (known as a "korf"). However, the basket is higher in korfball than in basketball (3.5m above the ground compared to 3.05m), and not set at the very back of each half.

KorfballCredit: Hazelares via Wikimedia Commons

At the international level, each team consists of four females and four males, and players can only challenge opponents of the same sex. There is also a women's-only league in the Netherlands, the country where korfball was invented several years before World War I. The Dutch continue to dominate the sport, winning every World Games tournament since it debuted in 1985. Neighboring Belgium is also a korfball superpower, taking World Games silver eight times in a row. The third-best korfball nation is, surprisingly, Taiwan - an island where few people take any sport seriously. Forced to compete under the Chinese-Taipei banner for political reasons, Taiwan has secured bronze in four of the five most recent Games.  Korfball seems to be a growing sport, there now being associations in China, Russia, India, Brazil, the US, Canada, Australia and almost 50 other countries.

Competitive lifesaving (shown below) is a way of testing the skills lifeguards need. The sport is in effect "swimming while encumbered," because athletes must race while carrying manikins or rescue equipment. The Oceanman/Oceanwoman category is lifesaving's equivalent of the triathlon: Competitors must swim, board, surf ski and then spring on the beach; the total distance is 1,200m.

LifesavingCredit: Ciacho5 via Wikimedia Commons

Likely you've never seen a canoe-polo match, and you wouldn't be alone if you find the idea no more convincing than extreme ironing. But it's not a lark concocted to attract YouTube viewers. Canoe polo (sometimes called "kayak polo") was first played in the early 1970s, and there have been bienniall world championships since 1994. Each team has five players, plus three substitutes, who battle it out in lightweight, ultra-maneuverable kayaks. It can be played in lakes as well as swimming pools. Protective head- and face-gear is compulsory because collisions and capsizes are very frequent. Germany has assembled the most successful canoe-polo teams in World Games history, with France and Great Britain being consistently strong competitors.

Canoe Polo at 2013 World Games

One of the IWGA’s stated aims is "to develop the popularity of the sports governed by the member federations, to bolster the prominence of those sports through excellent sporting achievements, and to conserve all the traditional values of sport."

Played with a difference

In keeping with this goal, the Games includes variants of certain popular Olympic sports, such as archery and gymnastics. Field archery differs from the Olympic sport in setting - it's typically held in woodlands - and also because the skills it requires make it far more like hunting. Shooters must be able to judge irregular distances, hit animal-shaped targets in poor lighting, and aim at higher and lower elevations. Aerobic gymastics is performed to music and draws on choreography, much like cheerleading. Also falling into the category of Artistic and Dance Sports are tumbling, trampoline, acrobatics, and the three divisions of dance sports (Latin, Salsa and Standard).

Most people are familiar with sumo, the highly-ritualized Japanese form of wrestling which pits one flabby but extremely strong man against another. In Japan (where the photo below was taken), sumo is a major industry. As an amateur sport it's growing in popularity in Eastern Europe, as well as Hawaii and other places where many residents are of Japanese descent. The leading lights of Japanese sumo don't lower themselves to competing in the World Games, which has included sumo since 2005, yet the eight gold medals on offer in each edition of the Games (four for men, four for women) are fiercely contested.

Sumo in JapanCredit: GI Jack via Wikimedia Commons


Blasts from the past

Two World Games staples are sports more usually associated with the character-building ethos of old-style British education, when young men were being trained to run the empire. One is tug-of-war, which was an Olympic sport between 1900 and 1920. In the World Games as in international championships, eight-person teams must meet weight limits; the men's categories are

The other is orienteering, in which competitors find their way from one point in a wilderness to another, and then another and another, using a map and compass. It therefore combines cross-country running with navigation skills. It's the kind of thing soldiers, special forces in particular, should be good at.

As with the Olympics, the roster of sports at the World Games isn't set in stone. Every four years, a sport or two is added while others are removed. There are also invitational events, which in recent Games have included softball, wushu (an entire category of Chinese martial arts, among them kung fu), dragonboat racing,  tchoukball (an indoor sport in which the ball is thrown by hand, but physical contact and interception of passing isn't allowed), indoor hockey, and akido. The last of these is a Japanese martial art which allows practitioners to defend themselves without seriously harming their attacker. At the next World Games, which will be held in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2017, the following invitational sports are planned: American football, indoor rowing, kickboxing, and speedway.