Did you know the Vikings were passionate about sports? Yes, that’s true. We’d probably be surprised if we travelled back a thousand years and witnessed their commitment to physical fitness. I’ve been a competitive powerlifter since my early teens, so this really resonates with me. I think everybody should do some kind of sport! That said, it seems sports were mainly a man thing back then. I have not found any evidence that women were involved in sports, though I suspect they were practicing archery.
I have a lovely, old book written by Bertil Wahlqvist. It tells of sports achievements in the Viking age and it’s a really interesting read. Obviously, most of the achievements found in the sagas and other literature from that era, are probably a tiny bit exaggerated. But still, you will find evidence that the Vikings were great sportsmen.
It is usually assumed that the main Viking sports were archery, wresting (glima), swimming, javelin and picking up heavy stuff. (Fighting was not a sport, by the way, but a matter of survival.) Especially the heavy stuff lifting seems to have been popular and it was probably seen as a test of manhood. If you go to Iceland, you can still find the rocks they used as a measurement of strength. You pick it up and walk as far as you can. You should try. It is a great experience and it is usually not the grip, but the nausea that gets you. A man called Orm Storolvson, who was a famous strongman, is known to have walked three steps with the mast of Olav Tryggvasons giant longship “Ormen Lange”. Such a mast would have weighed between 600 and 1000 kgs. It is said that he was never the same man after that achievement.
By the way, I may not be as strong as Orm, but I like to think that my lunchbreak workouts are part of a Viking tradition! Sorry about the nudity in the following video, but I train alone in my garage and here I am, big belly and all, coming back from an injury, with 2 reps at 573 lbs:
While being strong was probably considered very cool back then, other sports had greater usefulness. Most boys practiced wrestling – glima – from a young age and those wrestling skills could help you on the battle field.
The Vikings also had their own version of land hockey – knattleikr – which didn’t involve the complicated rules of today. Teams often consisted of men of the same clan, which likely made knattleikr matches resemble some brutal form of rugby, involving sticks. Viking warrior and skald Egil Skallagrimson, a notorious troublemaker, is said to have joined a knattleikr game back in 922. That he was only 12 at the time, did not stop him from getting furious and violent and as was his habit, he started using the stick to hit his opponents instead of the ball. Among those was his own father, the 60-something Skallagrim, who got so upset that he threw Egil’s friend Tord up in the air – he hit the ground so hard that it killed him – and then tried catching his disobedient son. Egil escaped, only to return later that evening to kill one of his father’s best friends as revenge. No more was spoken about the matter after that.
The stories about my Nordic ancestors’ achievements in sports go on and on. There is the famous story about Einar Tambarskjelve (Einar Who Makes The Bow’s Back Tremble), who was so strong that his specially made bows sent his arrows “right through the king’s ship mast and into the king’s shield, through the ship itself and out into the sea”: As his borrowed bow broke, he stated that it was Norway itself that “broke”, meaning that the king was about to lose both the battle and the kingdom.
Throwing the javelin was also quite popular. But it was not like today. Real hunting spears were used, and while throwing far was great, it was even more important to hit the target. Both arms were used, and the thinking behind this was likely that if you had one arm immobilized during battle, you had to be able to use the other. Sports were meant to harden and prepare men for battle, so even running and swimming was practiced, though running is sometimes referred to as a “niding’s sport”. The thinking behind this was probably that a man will stand and fight against any opponent, no matter how many they are, while a niding – a coward – will run away.