Working the ropes at tug-of-war practice

Pictured above, competitors with the Mount Vernon club practice their tug-of-war skills leading up to the 2014 Tug-of-War World Championships hosted in Madison's Olin Park. 

Competitive tug-of-war is planned to return to Madison over Labor Day weekend, four years after the city hosted the sport’s World Championships.

The United States Tug-of-War Association is proposing to host an invitational tournament at Olin Park that would celebrate the 40th anniversary of the organization and bring international competitors to Madison, said Shelby Richardson, the association’s president.

The tournament is set to feature teams from the United States and other countries. Tug-of-war clubs from countries including Northern Ireland, Canada and Sweden have been invited, Richardson said.

Competitive tug-of-war involves opposing teams of eight people pulling on either hemp or manila rope with the goal of moving it 4 meters. Richardson said the Madison competition would start in round-robin style with the best two out of three pulls determining a match’s winner. The last four teams would face off in finals.

Men, women and mixed teams of various weight classes are set to participate.

The free-to-attend competition, planned for Sept. 1-2, goes before the city’s Parks Commission for possible approval on Wednesday.

Richardson said it would be the first tug-of-war tournament held in Madison since the 2014 World Championships, which also took place at Olin Park. This year’s World Championships, held every two years, will be in South Africa from Sept. 19 through Sept. 22.

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2014 Tug-of-War World Championships

Teams compete during the 2014 World Championships. A tournament planned for Labor Day weekend would be the first return of competitive tug-of-war to Madison since the city hosted the international competition in 2014.

Richardson has been involved in the sport since the association began in 1978, first as a competitor and now as a coach.

In the past four decades, she’s seen improvement in the United States’ ability to compete internationally. Several women’s teams have won medals at the World Championships, including a first gold medal for the United States in 2004, while men’s teams have placed in the top five at the competition in recent years.

European teams can be at an advantage, Richardson said, as it is easier and cheaper for them to attend competitions and hone their skills across the continent than it is for Americans looking to join in on competitions across the Atlantic Ocean.

“We do always kind of play catch-up with the Europeans,” Richardson said.

Throughout the United States Tug-of-War Association’s history, there have been clubs from states across the country, but now it is largely a Midwestern affair, she said.

There are three clubs in Wisconsin: Brooklyn-based Girls Love Dirt, Mount Vernon Tug-of-War club and the Oregon Tuggers club.

Aside from testing the strength and skill of teams, Richardson said the Madison event plans to honor members of the men’s team of 1978, who traveled to Ireland to be the first U.S. team to compete in the World Championships.

“It’s one of those sports, if you’re competitive, it gets to you,” Richardson said. “Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to get rid of.”

While the sport hasn’t been featured in the Olympics for nearly a century, tug-of-war is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, making competitors subject to anti-doping regulations.

Before the Madison tournament, Monroe is set to host the U.S. national tournament during the Green County Fair on July 21.

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Logan Wroge has been a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal since 2015.