Sports have long been a part of human history. The need to compete and the drive to outperform opponents has been around since the beginning of modern society. In all games, fatigue — whether it be mental or physical — plays a role, and stamina is often key.
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On most occasions, matches end after a few hours, depending on the sport. Every now and then, however, one game will slip through the cracks of this typical time limit and go on for far longer than expected. Here are some of the longest sporting events in human history, as well as how fatigue impacted the players.
1. Baseball: Eight and a Half Hours
Believe it or not, the longest game in baseball history didn’t even take place between two major league baseball teams. Rather, it’s two minor league teams — the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox — that hold the throne.
Beginning on the evening of April 18, 1981, the Red Wings and Red Sox battled back and forth until just past 4 a.m., when league executive Harold Cooper ordered the game to stop.
By 4 a.m., some hitters had been suffering through an eight-hour slump. Once the game was called, there were a combined 60 strikeouts accrued by both teams, likely due to extreme fatigue. While baseball isn’t considered as physical of a sport as others, the length of the game tired the players out entirely.
“By the 30th inning, I was really starting to be concerned about the players being so groggy somebody might get hurt,'' said Pawtucket owner Ben Mondor in an interview with The New York Times after the suspension.
The game wasn’t resumed until June 23. On that date, the game continued for only half an hour before Pawtucket brought in the game-winning run in the bottom of the 33rd inning. The game lasted just over eight and a half hours from start to finish in on-field playtime, but technically lasted just over two months.
2. Cricket: 43 hours over 12 days
In March of 1939, the England national cricket team arrived in South Africa for a Test cricket match against the South African national team. The match, scheduled to begin on March 3, began as planned. After 12 days and over 43 hours of play, there was still no winner. The game eventually was called off because the English team needed to catch a boat back home.
Many of the players wrote about the game as it was ongoing. One of them, South African batsman Dudley Nourse, said on day nine, “We had become thoroughly tired of the game and the usual witticisms were replaced by ironic laughter. Most of the joy seemed to have gone out of the game and we played merely because we were compelled to complete a contract we had started.”
While cricket isn’t as physically taxing on the body as other sports, mental fatigue can certainly impact play. According to a 2018 study published Progress in Brain Research, mental fatigue directly impacts endurance, motor skills and decision-making performance.
Put another way, the longer a game goes on, the worse players will play, even if the sport they’re playing isn’t as physically taxing as a sport like football or hockey. These cricket players weren’t running marathons out in the field, but the mental fatigue that inevitably set in from playing a 12-day, 43-hour long game likely impacted their physical performance greatly.
3. Tennis: 11 Hours and Five Minutes
Just recently, Andy Murray defeated Thanasi Kokkinakis in a tennis match that lasted just under six hours and ran until 4 a.m. local time. However, the match is nothing compared to the marathon that John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played in 2010.
The match just lasted 11 hours and five minutes and was played over the span of three days. Isner eventually claimed victory, setting a record for the longest tennis match ever played. It’s a record that will likely never be broken, as official rules now implement a tie break if a match reaches a certain point.
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Tennis is often called one of the world’s most physically taxing sports, and for good reason. A 2020 report from Fitbit reported that, according to user data, an hour of single’s tennis generates almost 11,000 steps on average. That’s about four to five miles run per hour, depending on one’s stride length.
Given this data, it’s fair to assume that Isner and Mahut both ran about 50 miles during their match over two days. While it may seem like this extensive running would have a negative impact on their joints, some evidence suggests otherwise.
In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, researchers explored whether long-distance running caused osteoarthritis. Researchers acknowledged that while there wasn’t enough data available to give recommendations to long-distance runners, their results did show that long-distance running did not increase the risk of osteoarthritis in the knees and hips of those with no prior injuries.
That’s good news for Isner and Mahut. While they were probably exhausted by the end of their three-day affair, their knees and hips should hopefully still be in good shape, albeit a bit sore.
4. Boxing: Seven Hours
Much like tennis, boxing is known as a very physical sport. As such, modern professional matches often go for a maximum of 10 rounds, with some ending earlier due to knockouts or withdrawals.
That wasn’t the case for Andy Bowen and Jack Burke who, in 1893, fought in the longest boxing match ever recorded. The seven-hour, 110-round bout only ended when referee John Duffy declared the fight a no contest, claiming that both men had earned the prize money and it should be split.
Bowen, meanwhile, was suffering from extreme fatigue. Burke wobbled him in round 25, but he also managed to knock Burke to the ground in round 48. The boxing match against Burke took a toll on Bowen, but he would fight again just two months later, this time going for 85 rounds.
Sadly, Bowen’s life would end in the boxing ring a year later, after he suffered a fractured skull in the 18th round of a fight against George Lavigne.
Boxing can be an extremely dangerous sport, one that can take a toll on the human body. Nowadays, limits are in place to ensure that a 110-round fight never happens again, and restrictions are placed on how often a boxer can enter the ring.