Sports are ruled by lines. There are starting lines and finish lines, sidelines and service lines, baselines and goal lines, bloodlines and free throw lines. There are lines that divide foul from fair; lines that are toed by sprinters, picked by skiers, cast by anglers and set by handicappers. Golfers line up putts; their agents, endorsements. Groundskeepers line fields; promoters, their pockets. Some athletes snort them; most sportswriters recycle them. In baseball, managers make out lineups, fielders hug the line, and batters hit line drives that, if caught, are called line-outs. In football, linebackers form a second line of defense behind the linemen at the line of scrimmage. It wouldn't be out of line to say that without lines, sports would border on chaos.
The equator, that great imaginary band that cinches the earth, is the sporting world's greatest midcourt line. In his transglobal travelogue Equator: A Journey, Thurston Clarke describes a soccer-mad governor of Macapá, Brazil, who wants to erect a stadium at 0° latitude. "The equator will be at midfield," Clarke writes, "with each team defending a hemisphere."
Brazil is just one of many equatorial nations that twist their recreational lines into the most amazing configurations. Follow us now as we hopscotch the invisible line created by humanity to cut the world in half. If you disapprove of any sports highlighted in this literary circumnavigation, feel free to exercise your line-item veto.
TOP OF THE LINE
Ecuador, the nation named for the equator, squats squarely astride it. Of all the lines that crisscross the Ecuadorian countryside, the most spoiling of them is the dirt road that leads into and out of Cochasqui, an arcadian hamlet surrounded by Incan temples. This road is almost always clogged with traffic: short, stocky men and women in straight-brimmed fedoras, their hair braided into thick black ponytails; buses of every description, color and state of preservation; farm women balancing baskets of fruit on their heads, and motorbikes bearing mom, pop and two kids; knots of schoolgirls in elaborately embroidered blouses, and little old ladies with gilded glass beads piled high around their necks; lazing dogs and grazing cattle and bikes, bikes, bikes and more bikes.
Once a year this rural traffic artery becomes a playing field for the national championship of trompos. Each match begins in the central square, where two teams of five players battle in single-elimination heats. After tightly winding a string around the top of a trompo—an eggplant-sized wooden top into which nails have been hammered for balance—a player flicks it onto the road while pulling the wound string, which sets the top spinning. A teammate quickly but carefully scoops the gyrating top into his hand and heaves it at a round, radish-sized wooden plug set a few feet away on a flat, persimmon-sized rock called a piedra platforma. The object of the game is to strike your stationary radish with your spinning eggplant and propel it down the road. When your radish stops rolling, your opponent gets to spin his eggplant and knock his radish forward...and so it goes, down the road. The team that knocks its radish around the 2½-mile course in the fewest heaves wins.
On a sun-baked afternoon last November, dozens of locals turned out to watch the national championship. The eight teams had qualified by finishing either first or second in one of half a dozen regional tournaments. Hour after hour passed as the spinners and heavers plodded back and forth over the road's dips and swells and the occasional rock. The humming of trompos and the jostling of spectators was interrupted by a sudden hailstorm that pitted the road with puddles. Play continued, though many a trompo got stuck in mud—the equatorial version of blowing your top.
LAYING IT ON THE LINE
Hold your horses! All down the line, a dizzying array of equatorial creatures clashes in woolly and furry and sometimes feathery bouts. Rams butt heads in Kalimantan, water buffalo lock horns in Sumatra and ostriches wing it Kenya, where, three years ago, in the country's first sanctioned ostrich footrace, Flash Harry beat Prancing Percy and Horrible Horace by a very long neck.
In Ecuador the equator is literally a fowl line. Cockfights are held in Atuntaqui every Saturday night at the Coliseo de Gallos. Shove 300 sucres (10 cents) through a small hole in the wall to gain admittance to a bantam-sized concrete arena with a dusty dirt ring illuminated by naked lightbulbs that dangle at the end of long electrical cords. The most prized poultry pugs are the Cutumba, a fierce breed whose cocks sport resplendent orange hackles, crimson saddle feathers and long, arching sickles. This is one sport in which it would be perfectly permissible to bite off an opponent's ear—if it had one.