Shin-kicking: A game created to troll 17th-century puritans is still thriving
"Dad, are you going to take us to that weird olympics again?"
Modern-day sports are calibrated balancing acts of order and chaos. This is not one of them.
The Cotswold Olympick Games, the home of competitive shin-kicking, doesn't care for finicky rules. The games have existed for over 400 years to fly in the face of them.
The Cotswold Olympick Games is a (mostly) annual festival in Chipping Camden, a small town in Gloucestershire, England, that dates back to 1612. The games include a variety of events like running races or Tug O' War. But the perennial crowd-pleaser is competitive shin-kicking – a truly gnarly event where two competitors line up, grab each other by the lapels, and try to bring one another down.
Much of what we know about the games comes from the Annalia Dubrensia, a series of pamphlets from 1636 that include poems written to Robert Dover, a 17th-century lawyer credited with creating the games. That book includes one of the first-ever drawings of shin-kicking that inspired the sport's modern reboot.
Martin Polley is a sports historian, author of The British Olympics, and has attended the Cotswold Olympick Games (he runs in the cross country event) since 2008. He tells Inverse that these games are ultimately defined by tradition and chaos. There's no micro-chip tracking or performance analytics. It's that stubbornness that perhaps promoted The Daily Mail to call it "Britain's stupidest sport." But it's also the reason that it's still standing 400 years later.
"Basically, the emphasis is still very much on fun, participating, having a laugh," Polley says. "It's very unlike every other modern sporting event."
"My kids always used to say, 'Dad are you going to take us to that weird olympics again'?"
What makes shin-kicking a sport – The point of the sport isn't to be professionally organized, but there are still rules.
Tom Threadgill is the chairman of the Cotswold Olympick Games. He's lived locally for about two decades and was married on the very hill (Called Dover's Hill) where the Games and the shin-kicking takes place every year.
"It is essentially an Old English martial art, like backswording," Threadgill tells Inverse.
Two competitors face one another with their arms on each other's shoulders. Blows should be landed between the ankle and knee. You can stuff your socks with straw to cushion the blows, but you'll find no other protective gear on a competitive shin-kicker. Alcohol is banned on the hill, but Polley says that people clearly drink before and after anyway.
That whole train of events is overseen by a "stickler" – a referee who wields a large staff Gandalf might hold. That staff is used to separate the kickers. Once it's removed, the game is on.
Shin-kicking itself likely began as a variation of wrestling, explains Polley. But aside from that evolution, the sport hasn't changed very much, Threadgill adds. The one exception he notes is that now, steel toe boots are blissfully banned.
When the stick comes down, it's clear why steel-toes would take a festival game and turn it into quasi-medieval torture. Even without augmented digits, the damage gets real, says Polley.
"Trousers get ripped, the straw falls out, people are bleeding from the shin – it's very brutal," he says.
The Michael Jordan of shin-kicking – A short shin-kicking competition takes about 10 seconds, says Polley. A long one can drag on for minutes. Surviving is about balance and brute force, says Polley. The winner has to demonstrate the willingness to both take pain and dish it out.
"It's basically just having the will to do the thing that the other man won't to be honest: to keep standing and taking a kick," said Ben Greenwall, a stickler in 2019.
Adam Miller, a farmhand who has won multiple championships, has honed that skill. "Miller is a big guy really," says Polley. "He won the shin-kicking for a number of years and he had to retire so somebody else could win."
He's so good, he had to retire. That makes him the Michael Jordan of shin-kicking to Inverse.
The spirit of shin-kicking – The spirit of shin-kicking is inseparable from the deliberately messy ethos and the Cotswold Olympick Games. It's about stubbornly standing your ground, no matter what forces urge you to change.
The games were first created by Dover in the 17th century, essentially to focus on fun says Polley. Dover, who likely had Roman Catholic loyalty, like lightly trolling English puritans who were notably fun-averse (Puritanical values are cited for the a Parliamentary order in 1642 demanding closure of theaters and other festival-like events).
"It’s utterly beautiful and captivating."
Two-hundred years later, the games found themselves misaligned with national sentiment again. In mid 19th century England where they flew in the face of a push to modernize and codify sports.
This is a time when modern, regulated sports were coming out like soccer, like rugby union, organized swimming or boxing," says Polley. "There was a broader national movement against these folk-games that were relatively unorganized, didn't have actual rules and weren't regulated, and were quite rough."
"The Cotswold Olympick Games keeps that culture of being not like all of the other sports that went through that modernization process in the 1850s and 1890s."
The games were re-envisioned in 1951, but it hasn't been smooth sailing. They were canceled in 1953 due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Threadgill says the games "fell on hard times" in the early 2000s. Polley adds that the games didn't happen in 2018, seemingly as a warning shot after attendance waned (it was a reminder to "use it or lose it," Polley says).
Like the games, the best shin-kickers are stubborn enough to weather a few bruises. Champions stay standing, and they do it on the exact same hill where the games have occurred intermittently for 400 years.
"To sit on Dover’s hill looking out across the English county side in Spring, after a miserable winter, is like nothing else. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit the site, it’s utterly beautiful and captivating," says Threadgill.
"The games anywhere else wouldn’t be the same."