Rataj / Berard
Olin Park was the site of the action. No grass was permanently harmed in the pulling of this rope.
Cathal McKeever's large right hand, roughened from years of pulling a thick 110-foot rope in countless tug-of-war matches around the world, firmly gripped my (much) smaller right hand as he explained why the United States is integral to the continued success of the ancient sport.
"The U.S. has a large role to play in tug-of-war, because of the country's high profile in the rest of the world," says the president of the Tug-of-War International Federation (TWIF), who hails from Northern Ireland and was in Madison last week to oversee the 2014 World Outdoor Championships at Olin Park. "From 1900 to 1920, tug-of-war was in the Olympics, until there were not enough countries to participate. We're still trying to get back on the program. In due time, I think it'll happen."
Considering that the United States Amateur Tug-of-War Association (USATOWA) consists of clubs rooted in the Upper Midwest (including ones in Oregon and Mount Vernon), it's tough to imagine the U.S. playing a major role in that Olympic movement.
Yet make no mistake: These championships -- featuring club and national teams from 15 countries as far-flung as South Africa and Chinese Taipei -- were a big deal.
Fans filled the temporary bleachers and stood three deep along barricades surrounding a grass pulling surface quickly worn by incredibly fit but not overly large men, women and teens wearing steel-heeled boots and short shorts. (Don't worry, conservationists: The city will assess TWIF a grass-restoration fee.)
ESPN cameras captured the action from the pullers' perspective, and coaches yelled in their pullers' grunting faces. International flair came courtesy of cowbells, flags and a matter-of-fact announcer from the Netherlands ("It's raining, but the competition will go on and on").
The previous three world championships held on U.S. soil were in Oshkosh (1984) and Rochester, Minn. (1998 and 2004). The Madison Area Sports Commission began working in 2008 to secure this year's championships, with assistance from USATOWA president Shelby Richardson and several other board members who live in or near Dane County.
Despite free admission for spectators, the event brought in more than $500,000 in local economic impact and may have generated new fans.
"Tug-of-war is a good sport to teach communication and respect for each other, just like rowing," says Tiny Langeveld, the sport's international representative for the Netherlands, who has spent nearly two-thirds of her life involved in tug-of-war. "But when you do this for the first time, you discover muscles you didn't know you have."