A friend asserted that China wins so many Olympic medals because it trains athletes to compete in events other countries don’t care about. She was not specific about which events she had in mind, and I assumed that her comment showed a provinciality based on the notion that if an athletic endeavor was not popular in the United States, or at least in Europe, it did not garner much international attention. And although this ultra-liberal woman would be shocked by the thought, a bit of chauvinism may have been behind her remarks, but they got me to thinking about international sports.

If a sport is truly so widespread that it has a strong interest throughout the world, then you would think that the top competitors in that sport would be dispersed relatively equally throughout all the countries. Not many Olympic sports fall into this category, however. Instead, for most events, a handful of nations dominate. When the United States is not in that dominating group, it does not necessarily mean that the sport holds little international appeal. This assumption made me wonder about worldwide interest in various sports.

I did in-depth research on the internet for about ten minute and found different, but similar, lists of the most popular sports in the world. Several ranked sports by the number of worldwide followers. For example, one source placed soccer first with 3 billion followers followed by cricket (2.5 billion), basketball (2.2), field hockey (2), tennis (1), volleyball (900 million), table tennis (850), baseball (500), American football/rugby (410), and golf (390).

Few American sports fans would list soccer as their most favorite sport, although that number may be increasing. Fewer follow cricket, even though the devotion to that sport is fervent in much of the world. That was hammered home to me at a Thanksgiving dinner which we shared one year with five or six of the spouse’s students from India. They exchanged stories about how holidays and other national events were treated in their various parts of that subcontinent. The practices varied widely, and they talked further about the two dozen or more national languages and the many fractures in their societies, but when asked what it was that made India one country, they responded immediately and simultaneously, “Cricket.” Some of them set alarms so that they could watch matches aired in the middle of the night. An obsession in many portions of the globe, few Americans, even devoted sports fans, understand the basic rules of that game much less its nuances.

Many of us at least know that cricket is popular in many places, but that list of the world’s most popular sports also included field hockey, table tennis, and volleyball in its top ten. I know a few people who are college volleyball fans, but its worldwide popularity came as a surprise. It has to be a tiny percentage of Americans who, outside of the Olympics, watch or read about field hockey or table tennis. It’s not particularly surprising, then, that other countries perform better in these events than our athletes.

          The popularity list, however, must be viewed with some skepticism. Who lumps American football and rugby together as that ranking did? They are clearly not the same sport at all. Another list, however, gives similar rankings for worldwide followers of sports although it gives different numbers for the fans. Soccer is still first, but according to this ranking, it has a billion more followers at four billion. So what is it? Three billion plus or minus a billion? That’s a pretty big spread. It lists hockey third after cricket, but it puts ice hockey and field hockey together as the same sport. (I don’t think so.) However, like the other list, it also places volleyball and table tennis in the top ten for international popularity. It has rugby at ninth without combining it with American football, but it claims that rugby has 475 million followers–65 million more than American football/rugby had in the other ranking. Absolute numbers aside, the lists indicate that a good portion of the world are fans of sports that do not routinely get much attention in the United States.

          Another source listed the popularity of sports not just by the number of followers but by other factors including, among other things, the cost of TV rights, the number of sponsorships, the number of professional leagues, the number of headlines a sport produces, and the sport’s social media presence. This generated a ranking where soccer was again first, but it was followed by basketball, cricket, tennis, athletics (what I would call track and field), rugby, Formula 1, boxing, ice hockey, and volleyball.

          Another way to measure the popularity of a sport is to count those who participate in it. One internet source again ranks soccer at the top with 265 million participants and another five million referees. Second place is held by badminton with 220 million, followed by field hockey, volleyball, basketball, tennis, cricket, table tennis, baseball/softball, and golf. Active Americans participate regularly in only a few of these games and thus seem out of tune with the world.

          These listings remind me that although I am a sports fan and continue to be a participant, my interest and knowledge diverge from fans around the world. I truly do not know much about athletics around the world, something that struck home a few years ago on a trip to Sicily. I had asked the server in a Palermo restaurant how he had learned such excellent English. He responded that he had studied it in school but became more proficient because of American teammates on his professional football teams. He rattled off names as if I should recognize them. I was surprised that there were so many Americans playing professional soccer in Italy. Only as the conversation progressed did I realize that he was talking about American football. I had not known that there even was American football played in Italy, much less a professional variety. He had played for teams in several Italian cities and proudly reported that he had been on the Blue team, which he told me is the Italian national team. He did not look big enough to play professional football in America, and he said that his weight had dropped from 215 pounds to 170 since he stopped playing. (He did not quote kilograms for his American football weight.) He said that he was not smart enough to play offense and asked me to guess what position he played. Thinking of professional football in America, I responded cornerback or perhaps safety, but he said that he had been an outside linebacker and was proud of his pass-rushing ability. I jokingly said that professional football must have made him wealthy. He laughed and said that waiting on tables paid more than playing American football. He had made only $1,000 a month (he did not give his football salary in Euros) but went on to say that he also got his food, a place to live, and the use of a car. He no longer played football. He gave up the game after several surgeries. Now he was working on being a power lifter.

          There is so much to learn about the world that I do not know, and that includes sports.

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