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The No-Holds-Barred Georgian Folk Sport That Looks Like a Brawl

Lelo—a sport beloved in Georgia's southwestern villages—combines elements of wrestling and rugby and can result in trampled trees and broken bones.

by Jordi Perdigó and Cristina Aldehuela
May 12 2014, 3:10pm

Lelo is the Georgian version of rugby, only with fewer rules, no time limits, and an indiscriminate number of players. It's been played in the region for centuries, and it's still big in southwestern Georgia, where the village of Shukhuti holds a match every Easter Sunday in remembrance of the dead.

Two creeks, set about 150 yards apart, mark the goal lines for each team, which are made up of local residents, though anyone is free to join in. Between the creeks is a playing field full of houses, yards, and a road. The object of the game is simple: whichever team meakes it back to its creek with the 35-pound ball wins. It's a game that's meant to test players' passion, strength, faith, and devotion, and it gets pretty violent as the gangs of burly men stampede through the village—fences, saplings, and the occasional bone often end up broken in the melee.

Winning a game of lelo doesn’t just mean beating your opponent, it’s also a tribute to those who are no longer with the winning team, and the ball is placed on the grave of a deaceased villager after the match.