In a world where oiled muscles and swordplay have become the stuff of historical fantasy, typical people have turned to athletes for strength, glory and cereal. Athletic skill is the new heroism, and it has spawned an industry that commands more money and influence than all others combined. Unfortunately for most of us, the closest we will ever come to slamming a basketball is the "Dirty Dunk" bag on the closet door. Sure, we may have won a three-legged race or two and been dodgeball champ in third grade, but nobody is going to pay us to wear sports bras and douse ourselves with Gatorade!
There is, however, a venue where average folks can claim their inner badass. In the comfort and privacy of our own homes, we are free to experiment with the kind of games that can only be played on real grass. They are called "yard games," and though all of them have extensive cultural backgrounds and international recognition as real sports, we know better.
The first and best loved has got to be badminton. A favorite of P.E. teachers and retirement communities, this game looks and plays like a mixture of tennis, volleyball and Ping-Pong. The racquets are extremely light with long shafts and small heads, and in keeping with such questionable phrasing, the ball, now called a "birdie," is traditionally known as a "shuttlecock." The originals were crafted with the feathers of the left wings of geese and whacked or "shuttled" across a net (hence the name), but most modern sets come with a disposable plastic design that features a white latticed plume and a pink rubber beak. These little guys are fun and easy to bat back and forth, but the pros play with a model that is adjusted for air pressure and temperature and can travel almost 200 mph at top speed. That is faster than any ball in any other sport, a fact that seems to legitimize an otherwise "delicate" game.
While badminton is championed by China and Indonesia, it is officially enjoyed in the 131 countries that make up the IBF (International Badminton Federation). For competition or recreation, it works for doubles or singles play. The serving rules mirror that of tennis, and the scoring is a lot like volleyball. Other than that, badminton is all about style, speed and physics, and being good is as easy as skidding through the geraniums for a killer save.
Croquet, on the other hand, is a game loved best by Canadians. Over 100,000 recreational sets are sold there every year, and the number of competitive players in North America has risen from 50 to over 8,000 in the last 25 years. It was first played by French peasants in the 13th century and is at its modern best when set up on the vicious curves of an unkempt lawn. Every blade of grass is a silent enemy such that you must conquer the course and up to five opponents. The weaponry consists of a long wooden mallet with a matching ball. The order of play is determined by the colors that adorn the equipment, and the rules of engagement are akin to pool. If you successfully shoot a ball through one of nine metal arches called "wickets," you are granted another turn. If your ball connects with another player's ball, you have several options for making him miserable. The rest, as they say, is geometry.
The most elementary yard game is Bocce. It is an ancient test of precision that passed from Egypt to Greece to Rome to Italy, and from there it spread to the rest of the world. It was once so popular in Europe that it was dubbed "subversive" by the ruling class and banned from public and private play. It was as simple as throwing balls toward a target, yet the concept endured to found many other sports. Some believe it is the most popular sport in the world next to soccer, perhaps only for the fact that the rules require the losing team to buy drinks for everyone. And appropriately enough, there is a cocktail named after the game (one ounce amaretto and two ounces orange juice topped with soda).
While not competitive as such, the art of sliding on wet plastic is one of America's favorite yard games. From Slip 'n Slide to Crocodile Mile to a homemade strip of Hefty Cinch Sacks, a lubed ride through the grass is one of the best ways to cool off and impress your friends. There are countless tricks to be mastered with ominous names like the "flying squirrel" and "death banana." All such acrobatics should be attempted under supervision, and don't be discouraged by the fact that CBS Sports doesn't provide professional coverage (there's always Jackass).
Whether you prefer the grace of a shuttlecock or the glory of a double-wicket-sink (I made that up), yard games are the common man's Olympics. There may not be medals, but a solid victory feels almost as good as a million-dollar endorsement deal ... almost.