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What are the Top Sports in the World?

Written by; Tao MacLeod


There are many, many sports played by a variety of different athletes and are enjoyed by fans the world over. Every sport has a unique quality that separates it from the others. Whether this is attacking flair, aesthetic style and quality, physicality and power, or general atmosphere within the stadia there is plenty of entertaining options for us to sink our teeth into. Here, the Half Court Press provides our picks for the best sports in the world. 


We have looked to gauge a variety of different disciplines that test teams and athletes in different ways, requiring skill, as well as psychological and physical fitness. We will look at some of the attributes mentioned above, but also participation rates, as well as the amount of spectators who enjoy watching the matches live in person and on television. Popular sports also tend to grab our imaginations in other ways as well, so in addition to these traditional methods of comparison, we’ve taken a look at those activities that appear in popular culture, such as film and literature. As per our previous articles, this is a conversation starter. We would love to hear your opinions. 


Spurs fans at the old White Hart Lane stadium. Photo Copyright; Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

Invasion Sports

Football

This is the most popular sport in the world and was described as  the ‘beautiful game’ by the late, great Pelé. It seems that any news report from a far flung corner of the world has, in the backdrop to the television images is somebody wearing a replica football shirt. The FIFA World Cup is one of the largest sports competitions on the globe. In terms of viewership and sponsorship potential it is the only other spectacle that can rival the Summer Olympic Games. It has, quite probably, the highest global participation rates of any other sport. Additionally, it’s a hugely rich and commercially viable part of the entertainment industry. The English Premier League is a perfect example of this, as it is now one of the most viewed sports products on television screens around world. 


This is in part due to football’s media profile, as well as its aesthetic passing qualities and tactical nuance, but also due to its accessibility for those who want to play. All that the participants need is a ball. There are many images and anecdotes of people without the ability to get an ‘official’ or regular footy making their own out of whatever materials they can find. Jumpers for goalposts in the local park, or in the street outside wherever the local kids are living is a nostalgic memory of childhood common for many people of my generation. 


The World Cup has grown larger and larger over the years. The men’s tournament was first held in Uruguay in 1930 with 13 countries competing for the title. The hosting rights has gone around the world, traditionally switching between Europe and Latin America, but in more recent years we have seen the World Cup in Qatar, Russia and South Africa. The next men’s championships will be held across the USA, Canada and Mexico and will see an increase from 32 to 48 participating nations. The Women’s World Cup has had more of a recent history, officially starting in 1991 in China, with 12 teams. This saw the Americans get over the top of Norway in order to start their journey to become the most successful country in the women’s game. We’ve recently seen Australia and New Zealand act as co-hosts to a record high 32 national sides. Here Spain won their first title, beating England in the final. 


Scottish Women’s Premier League 2008/09; Boroughmuir Thistle F.C. Vs. Hamilton Academical Ladies F.C. Copyright; Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

There have been great leaps forward in recent years for gender equality. In December 2022, the Guardian Newspaper’s website reported that there have been 100,000 new players joining clubs since 2017, with more than that saying that they played in an informal setting. Record viewings of women’s football on British television seems to be broken on an almost yearly rate, with ever consistently higher attendances at matches also apparent. Football, whether it’s played by men, or women, girls, or boys, seems to have captured the imagination of sports fans the world over, with people turning up to games and spending their money on pay-per-view television to create a huge part of the entertainment industry. 


There have been many forms of cultural work created within the context of football. There have been plenty of pop songs produced and charted over the years. Literature, theatrical and film fans can also enjoy the game in these forms. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was adapted to from page to screen, with Colin Firth playing the lead role in the movie, showing a glimpse of what fandom means to some people and how football can affect our lives. 


Rugby Union

A sport born out of the English public school system, it shares its roots with its cousin association football. The traditional format is 15-a-side, while its smaller version, Rugby 7’s, is a widely recognised and popular version of this code that has gained Olympic level status. The seven-a-side format first appeared at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016. Rugby is a sport played all over the world. It’s very popular in the British and Irish Isles, as well as across other European countries, but also Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Oceanic and Pacific Islands. The recent 2023 Men’s World, held in France, had 20 teams participating in the tournament. Women’s rugby has been growing in recent years as well. The 2021 tournament, won by hosts New Zealand, saw 12 sides competing, with England coming second and the French getting over the Canadians in the third place playoff. 


Ryan Godsmark of Belgium Rugby. Photo Copyright; LLefebvreSports. Click of the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

The playing style of the sport is a lot more physical than football, with heavy hitting tackles allowed from defenders. Nor is it played solely by big growlers, with players who are short and tall, big and small being on the pitch at the same time. It has been said that there is a place for every type of pupil on the school team. The ball is also only allowed to be passed sideways, or backwards, which creates a different focal point for the attack to most other invasion games. This has created a unique spectacle that means that the team in possession has to work together in order to create angles, whilst being brave in possession whilst leading defenders away from the attacking space. There’s a grace under pressure quality needed by the players, who have to be fast of foot, agile as well as powerful. 


There have been several cultural references of rugby over the years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had the fictional lead character’s sidekick Dr. Watson penned as a rugby player. The most well known interpretation of the sport has come through the film Invictus, based upon the non-fiction political book Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin. This is about the desegregation of South African politics and society, as Nelson Mandela’s ANC came to power. The rugby team became a focal point for the country as different communities broke down boundaries and came together. Matt Damon played the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and Morgan Freeman was cast as the former President. 


London 2012 Olympics; fans looking for seats at the Women’s Hockey Semi-Final. Copyright Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast

Invasion Sports with a Lever

Field Hockey

There are some debate as to the true origins of this game, which you can read more about in our article Origins of Hockey, but it is most commonly accepted that it was developed and codified by suburban cricketers in the south of England. It is also, I suspect, a more popular sport than most people think. England Hockey wrote on their website that around 140,000 people play across over 800 clubs within their membership. Having become an Olympic sport in 1908, and joined the Commonwealth Games community in 1998, it has had a long and distinguished international tradition. Although dominated by European based clubs and international teams, games are played all over the planet, with internationally renowned players also hailing from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The list of Summer Olympic champions is quite diverse and includes countries such as India and Pakistan from Asia, Australia and New Zealand from the South Pacific, as well as the Netherlands and Germany from Europe. In the women’s competition Africa’s Zimbabwe even won the inaugural Moscow 1980 event. 


It is a sport that requires speed and strength, thus creating powerful athletes running about in all different direction. It is both an invasion sport, with two teams attacking and defending opposing targets, and a game that involves a lever (something that is used in addition the physical body). In this respect it is a rarity in that unlike tennis, badminton and other racquet sports, it involves teamwork, tactical nuance with formations and an aesthetic that comes with the thrust and repost interplay between many different players. 


England Ladies at the Women’s Hockey World Cup, London 2018. Photo Copyright; Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

As a spectacle television coverage is improving with a variety of state broadcasters and pay-per-view channels picking up coverage of different tournaments and competitions. Attendances at games within the stadia are quite high in Asian countries. Players continually state that playing India, in India is quite a rambunctious experience with fans filling out the stadium. As I understand it, Malaysian hockey fans are also quite passionate about the sport. Hockey in Argentina is also quite big, being one of the most popular sports in the country, with very strong numbers in terms of female participation and support. An international player once told me that whilst playing Las Leonas in the 2010 World Cup in Buenos Aires, she struggled to hear the umpire’s whistle being blown due to the noise levels from the crowd. 


There have been several non-fiction books written about hockey over the years, including coaching guides, biographies, photo-journals and historical based publications. In terms of fictional books, author FJ Campbell penned No Number Nine, is a coming of age story, set to a back drop of hockey, sport and the Summer Olympic Games. In 2016 a documentary on Argentine hockey legend Luciana Aymar was released, entitled Lucha: Playing the Impossible. It follows her as she winds up her international career. There have been more and more podcasts springing up recently that focus on hockey, helping to create more and more information for players, coaches and umpires, as well as promoting a fan culture for the sport. 


Ice Hockey

Arguably the most complete sport within the mainstream sporting sphere, ice hockey players need to be fast, strong and well co-ordinated. A player’s ability to control a small puck with a stick, whilst skating quickly in all directions is made even harder as he or she comes under pressure via physical challenges from opponents. Power and grace under strain is something that is often seen in any given fixture. It incorporates many of the attributes that we see in football, field hockey, rugby and figure skating all at the same time. 


The national sport of Canada, it’s very popular across north America, as well as in eastern Europe,  Eurasia and the Scandinavian countries. The USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden and China have high levels of participation. However, it is not just the countries with colder climates that play. Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and India all have over 1,000 registered players, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. 


Streatham Redskins Ice Hockey Club. Photo Copyright; Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

In terms of international competition, ice hockey was originally seen at the Summer Olympics at the 1920 Antwerp Games, which also doubled up as the game’s World Championships. This saw Canada (who also have won the World Championships a record number of times), the USA and Czechoslovakia take gold, silver and bronze medals. It was in 1928 that the men’s tournament moved across to the Winter Olympics, with the women’s competition being inaugurated in 1998.


Ice Hockey has been embraced within popular culture. There are several books and films based upon the sport. Like most popular activities there are a litany of non-fiction literature out there. However, it’s the visual experiences that seem to be more popular. The Mighty Ducks, which  starred Emilio Estevez and Joshua Jackson, became a cult classic. Miracle is a 2004 film that depicts the famous ‘Miracle on Ice’. This is the story of how the USA national team overcome the odds in order to beat the much fancied Soviet Union side at the 1980 Winter Olympics. It starred Kurt Russell in the leading role and is a story that lives in the sporting folklore of American sports fans.  


Spurs stand at White Hart Lane. Photo Copyright Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

Racquet Sports

Squash

Personally I have always preferred watching squash to tennis. I find the smaller, more confined space makes for a more entertaining spectacle. By limiting the playing area, with walls that the ball can rebound off I think that games can become quite dynamic. Doubles matches can become very busy indeed, with loads of movement in order to get out of the way of each other, whilst playing at a high tempo. Players need to be quick, agile and able to think ahead whilst constantly moving in different directions. 


Played globally, it is popular in the United Kingdom, Egypt, Pakistan and the Oceanic countries. The first World Championships were held in 1976. The men’s event was in London. This saw Australian Geoff Hunt (who would win the next three tournaments as well) get the better of Mohibullah Khan in the final. The women’s tournament was in Brisbane and was dominated by the Aussies. Heather McKay won gold, with Marion Jackman took silver, with their compatriots Margaret Zachariah and Sue Newman also reaching the semi finals. 


The Aussies have gone on to dominate the women’s side of the sport, particularly in the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships, in both the singles and doubles events. The men’s game have been dominated by the Pakistanis, with Jansher Khan and Jahangir Khan both reaching nine World Championship finals each and also doing well in the popular British Open. Many well renowned players have come from Egypt as well with Amr Shabana, Ali Farag, Ramy Ashour and ladies player Nour El Sherbini all having huge amounts of success.


Squash has been at the Commonwealth Games since 1998. The sport has been trying to get into the Summer Olympics for years, without success, to the point where many of the long standing fans were thinking that it would never happen. However, it has been recently confirmed that the game will be at the Los Angeles Games in 2028 for the first time. At present it is not confirmed that it carry on after that, but the omens are good. 


Hockey fans at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo Copyright; Tao MacLeod. Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

Martial Arts

Judo

This what is sometimes referred to as an unarmed modern martial art, originating from Japan. It is the predominant version of jacket wrestling and is more about using an opponents body weight against them, rather than hitting, or striking the other competitor that is common in other combat sports. The focus is on control, grappling and wrestling, as well as ground fighting, which I find is a much more intellectual sport instead of relying on brute force. A participant is called a Judoka, but typically those at a lower level is called a kenkyu-sei. 


Judo was first seen at the Summer Olympics in 1964. Japan has dominated the medal tables over the years, taking 48 gold medals and a total of 96 across all disciplines. However, France sit in second place at the Games, with South Korea and China just behind them. Skill grading and weight categories mean that Judokas are competiting on a level playing field and therefore is something that anybody can get involved in.


Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.

Click on the image to listen to the Half Court Press Podcast.