Breathing Heavy

How the sport of kabaddi takes freeze tag to the next level.

By / July 2012

Let’s face it: the game of tag isn’t all that tough. Freeze tag adds a welcome nuance, but still — there’s a reason why most of us leave tag behind on the kindergarten blacktop. As we get older, we gravitate toward team sports that pair physical ability with the need to strategize, sports that engage the brain and the quadricep.

Enter kabaddi, a South Asian pastime that blends elements of tag with wrestling, rugby, and Marco Polo. Two teams made up of raiders (offensive players) and stoppers (defensive players) line up against each other on a 12-meter field divided by a center line.

Play commences when a raider from one team invades enemy territory and lands a tag on one of the opposing team’s stoppers. Once the tag is issued, the raider hurries to get back to his teammates across the center line.

But here’s the catch. The raider, poor chap, must chant without ceasing the word “kabaddi” during his raid, an action that simulates the experience of holding one’s breath. The stoppers, therefore, do whatever they can to delay the raider’s retreat. They push, grapple, pin, kick. They dog pile.

It is a no-holds-barred goal line stand of sorts. But the attack is not over until the raider runs out of breath or the timed, 30-second window of attack elapses.

If the raider succeeds, he earns a point for his team. If the stoppers block him, they get the point. And so the game rolls on for 40 minutes, broken up by two halves. The team that amasses the most stops and completes the most raids wins. Strong lungs are a necessity, but the top dogs of the kabaddi world tend to have the build of fullbacks rather than 100-meter freestylers.

Kabaddi goes way, way back. The sport is mentioned in Hindu epics. The Buddha, by some accounts, played it for exercise. The game remains immensely popular in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, but the presence of Italian, German, Canadian, Norwegian, and American teams in last year’s Kabaddi World Cup highlights the sport’s increasingly global appeal.


Patric Brasher is the sports columnist for EthnoTraveler.