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Footbag (AKA Hacky Sack) Explained

Jan 16, 2008
The origins of the modern sport of footbag (or Hacky Sack) can be seen in many games which existed in ancient cultures throughout the world. One of the oldest can be traced back to a game called Kemari, documented in Japanese literature around 1400 years ago. It was played by noblemen in a flat area surrounded by trees and the object of the game was to keep a small deerskin ball in the air for as long as possible without it touching the ground. In Kemari the ball is called the Mari and the one who kicks the ball the Mariashi, it is an extremely athletic activity and requires great flexibility and balance, especially if more complicated moves are to be performed. All parts of the body may be used to keep the Mari in the air except for the arms and hands. Kemari is still played today in Japan with the players wearing traditional costumes and often watched by large crowds.

Also still popular in the modern day is Sepak Takraw which is played throughout East Asia and is especially popular in Malaysia and Thailand. It uses a larger ball and is often played by two competing players over a net, with players awarded points for getting the takraw to hit the ground on the opponent's side of the court. This game was invented by the Malaysian Royal family around 500 years ago and has since spread right across Asia (known in the Philippines as Sipa, in Burma: Chinlone, in Laos: Kator and in Indonesia: Raga).

Other similar games that have disappeared over the ages are Tsu Chu (which originated in China and is thought to have influenced the development of Kemari), and a game played by Native American Indians involving kicking around a small pellet-filled animal hide bag.

The modern game of footbag was invented in 1972 by John Stalberger and Mike Marshall of Oregon in the USA. They came up with the name 'Hacky Sack' but also registered it as a trademark, hence the two different terms that are used to describe the sport today (footbag and Hacky Sack).

In its basic form footbag does not have winners, losers, or direct competition between players, making it somewhat unique among sports. Of course in footbag tournaments a competitive element has to be introduced and comes in two forms; footbag 'net' and footbag 'freestyle'. The first, as the name suggests, is played by kicking the footbag over a net in a game with rules similar to volleyball (and Sepak Takraw). The second allows a player a set amount of time (usually a couple of minutes) in which to perform a pre-scripted routine involving linking a series of tricks together, often to music. The world's best players can put together some incredible sequences which become an almost balletic art form as well as a competitive sport.

The International Footbag Committee (IFC) is the body responsible for overseeing international footbag competition and agreeing the rules of the sport (they publish a rule book and update it annually). The International Footbag Players' Association (IFPA) is the other large international footbag organization, they are 'a non-profit public benefit organization dedicated to the growth of footbag play world-wide, as lifetime recreation and as a competitive sport' and their long-term goal is '...to have the world-wide sport of footbag become recognized by the International Olympic Committee and other international amateur sports organizations' (quoted from the official website of the IFPA). Every year many footbag events take place in countries across the world and competitions attract thousands of spectators and competitors.

As has been mentioned, freestyle footbag in the streets is very different from competition footbag. There are no winners, making it very easy for people to pick up and have a go. There are very few other activities where it is normal for complete strangers to join in a game and for novices to be welcomed and encouraged to try it out - a basic trick from someone who is learning the ropes is applauded just as much as an advanced trick from an experienced player. As someone who has spent many hours in the sunshine kicking a little sand filled bag around with a circle of friends, I personally have a real love for the game and the things it stands for. Rather than being a competitive pastime, freestyle footbag is more about group participation and appreciation of the skills of others. The two main rules are that you must always pass to someone else if you are the one starting off a game, and that there is no apologizing when the footbag is dropped. Footbag is all about having fun, advancing your skills and showing off your latest tricks.

Footbag is a growing sport, and with such deep roots in cultures around the globe it is only going to get more popular. The values of respect and sportsmanship that go with it are things that will only benefit the game and the people who play it. Footbag is also a great sport for improving flexibility, balance and reactions, and for general fitness, so grab yourself a hack, get out there, and give it a go.
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