Yesterday, I watched live coverage of the women's and men's finals in a big Beach Tchoukball tournament played on an artificial beach in the middle of rainy Geneva in Switzerland. (Trams occasionally ran past in the background, which made it feel rather Blackpool.) I'd seen the name Tchoukball before, presumably when looking at lists of sports for ones whose names I didn't recognise, but hadn't seen it being played. All told, it was perfectly diverting stuff. The most usual comparisons suggest that Tchoukball has similarities with volleyball and handball, though I can see just the tiniest bit of Fives in it as well.
To score a point in Tchoukball, players essentially have to bounce a ball off a small, angled trampoline so that no player from the opposite team can stop the rebounding ball hitting the ground. (I slightly over-simplify; there are rules about where the ball can and cannot bounce, where the ball must be thrown from and so on.) The most unusual feature of the game is that either team can score points from either goal. The pitch is reasonably small; accordingly, fast moves from one end of the pitch to the other are usual. This pleasingly subverts the familiar concept of end-of-the-pitch goals being associated with teams; on the downside, it takes some getting used to as a viewer and the fast moves can be disorienting. The ebb and flow of the game is slightly less intuitive than you might hope.
The game has an elegantly-designed, unfussy ruleset; it would pass my Dad's "kids mucking about" test, in that if you had a ball, a trampoline and no other equipment (except possibly a wall against which to angle the trampoline) then a group of eight-year-olds could probably evolve a set of rules adequately close to the real ones for themselves without having to be taught them. For instance, compare with rugby, Dad's usual example of a game that fails the test; it's not really possible to play pick-up playground rugby in the same way simply because there is so much to learn and so much to referee. (Don't get Dad started on the issue of American Football, even in its touch football form.) There is no contact and the game was designed to attempt to avoid engendering injury. The full set of rules can be written in five pages and a close-enough-for-jazz set in probably a hundred and fifty words.
Tchoukball also scores kudos for having an Ultimate-like vibe where the players call their own fouls; there are referees, but they don't have much to do. I loved the fact that after the women's final, all the players from both teams huddled together happily so that the referee could take a big group photo of them. That should be part of more referees' job descriptions. Similarly, Tchoukball earns extra kidos for having a rather high-minded charter (.pdf file) explaining the philosophy behind the game design. It's pretty right-on and Swiss, but that's by no means a bad thing.
There's a good deal of thought that goes into the positioning of the players to deal with the rebounds and the reflexes required are appropriately swift. You might expect the fact that either team can score at either end would tend to lead towards the action sticking at one end for a while, then the other, but if team A has made an attempt on goal that was fielded by team B, team A are normally going to find themselves very well-placed to defend against an immediate counter-attack by team B on the same goal, which is why it doesn't seem to happen. (I think, though I might be missing something here.) This is evidence of clever and pleasing gameplay design.
I'm pleased to see that Tchoukball is on the list of invitational sports for the 2009 edition of the World Games, the multi-sports festival for sports that aren't in the Olympic Games. (Incidentally, I wonder if a channel in the Eurosport family will be televising the 2009 World Games. Alternatively, how about one of the minor US sports networks like Versus? ESPN 2? ESPN 8 - the Ocho - perhaps?) Unfortunately the World Games Association's site does not have an archive of results from previous events, or even what sports have been played, but I have at the very least a strong suspicion that there are some damn interesting sports that don't even make it to the World Games - or, at best, only ever get a try as a demonstration sport. This might be an assertion too far, but I'm thinking of the likes of cricket, Aussie Rules football and a little sport called golf here. (Tchoukball also appeared at the 1989 World Games, too.) That said, I can't help wondering how presence at the World Games aligns with sentence one of the sport's charter which leads off by saying "The game excludes any striving after prestige, whether personal or collective".
I was also pleased to hear that the British teams were successful at the Beach Tchoukball championships, both making it into the 3rd/4th place matches in their tournaments. Investigating further, British teams have a decent record at Tchoukball internationally, winning the European Championships in 2006 (and highly competitive for years). I was interested to discover whether there is a hidden hotbed of Tchoukball activity in this country. However, looking through the Results tab of the Tchoukball Association of Great Britain web site, it looks like our internationally competitive team is drawn from only about half a dozen (...at most?) club sides domestically. The Where To Play page reveals considerable swathes of the country without a single team.
Accordingly, if you ever set yourself the goal to represent the UK at sport, Tchoukball may be the one. I reckon a large proportion of moderately fit non-specialists could be within 3-5 years' hard work of international selection for GB at Tchoukball and I don't reckon there are many sports where that could be said. It's not a massive sport, but it's not a tiny one; evidently it does get on TV from time to time, it's played in at least four continents and it's in the World Games. There's a famous blog where a chap said to himself "I want to win a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, so I'm going to learn a sport from scratch in six years". He's picked archery and, so far, he's doing pretty well. Not Olympic class yet, not even Bowman (top 15% nationally), but certainly a decent start. If he had set his sights, no pun intended, on the World Games rather than the Olympics then Tchoukball looks like a good way in to me.
Incidentally, looking at the UK national results, I was pleased to see mixed tournaments where male and female teams compete against each other on level terms. As it's a non-contact game, this works perfectly well. If you remember "Superstars", in which sporting stars compete against each other in sports which are not their own, you might also remember the spin-off "Superteams", where strong teams in entirely different disciplines compete against each other on neutral ground. Tchoukball strikes me as eminently suitable for such inter-sport comparisons. (In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the brain-surgeon sports scientists like Sam Allardyce or Sir Clive Woodward used it for cross-training already.) England footballer Gary Neville famously has a sister who plays netball for England; I'd probably slightly favour Tracey and her team over Gary and his at Tchoukball, but it would certainly be an interesting contest - and potentially one of the most interesting and closely-matched ones possible.
I'm not sure if there are any Tchoukball bloggers; if not yet, then it seems likely that a Tchoukball player may find this at some point. If you are they, hello! I admire the elegant design and philosophy behind your sport. I would be keen to watch it again, though I reckon there must be better ways to present it than the one Eurosport 2 managed. I wish the "New Year, New Sport" campaign well. That said, you've got to admit: no matter what noise a ball on a trampoline might make and how desirable an invented name might be, "Tchoukball" is frankly a silly name. No, I don't have any better suggestions.
I reluctantly admit that there's an undercurrent of "if that can get on television, then why can't..." at work here; I'm not sure whether the sponsorship at the tournament drove the television coverage or vice versa, but it does drive home the publicity and sponsorship failures of, for instance, many mind sports. I can recall Evian taking out pitchside advertising, for instance. That's a good quality brand, and an impressive sponsor because water is generic and has nothing overtly to do with Tchoukball. In contrast, when a tournament is sponsored by a company that makes equipment used in the sport played in the tournament - for instance, a darts tournament sponsored by a manufacturer of darts or dartboards - then it looks a little desperate. Similarly, Internet gaming and gambling companies have the air of the last-refuge sponsor about them; the common theme is "we're sponsoring this tournament because you won't get a chance to use our services if we don't", not "we're sponsoring this tournament because we want to be associated with it".
Some day I dream of producing a league table of "all" sports, once I've worked out what the criteria should be and properly researched how the various sports fulfil them. The constant invention and development in the world, pace this cynical article about new sports, makes this a fool's errand and so inherently all the better suited to such a frequently-updated league table. Early indications point to Tchoukball being somewhere on a par with Real Tennis and possibly artistic billiards, which should be taken as a compliment.