Kukini was an ancient Hawaiian foot racing sport that revolved heavily around gambling. The rules of the sport were simple; two specially trained athletes would take off from a starting point and race to a predetermined goal. Whereas the sport itself may not be incredibly unique, the obsessive gambling practices surrounding it (and other traditional Hawaiian sports, such as surfing and boxing) are noteworthy.
The word kukini translates literally as “swift runner/messenger.” In ancient Hawaii, the term originally referred to kings’ couriers, who underwent heavy training to build up as much speed and endurance as they could. These couriers, primed for such competitions, were sometimes summoned specifically to run races on which spectators could wager their property. At some point in Hawaiian history, the term kukini came to refer to the competition itself as well as the athletes, and was no longer strictly associated with royal couriers.
Traditional kukini training involved a strict diet and exercise routine. The soon-to-be couriers were made to walk with their heels off the ground, stepping only with the front part of the foot. Other details of this drill, such as its duration, are unknown. Shortly after this preparatory period, they were made to run with increasing frequency and intensity, eventually building up to a level of speed and endurance unmatched by any other class. These athletes were not allowed to eat any foods considered “heavy,” and were restricted primarily to fruits, vegetables, and lightly cooked fowl.
As Hawaii had no written language prior to European contact in the 18th century, all records of kukini before this period lie in oral tradition. As such, it isn’t feasible to determine at what point in Hawaiian history these races began to develop. Because the Hawaiian Islands were likely settled in the 4th century AD, the sport could theoretically date to a similar period, though this is speculation. Its practice likely stretches across a few centuries at least, as even in the 18th century the sport was referred to as “ancient.”
As noted in History of the Sandwich Islands: With an Account of the American Mission Established There in 1820, kukini (referred to simply as “racing”) was already fading out of practice by the 1830s. Hawaiian historian Davida Malo makes it clear in his 1903 Hawaiian Antiquities that kukini was no longer practiced by that time, so it is safe to say that the sport went extinct in the mid- to late-1800s. Unlike other traditional sports such as surfing and ulu maika (a bowling-like game), kukini did not make a comeback. This was likely due to the decline and eventual end of the kukini class (that is, the specially trained couriers).
How to Play
On the occasion that Hawaiian natives wanted to start up a kukini match, they would gather several of the athletes (the kings’ couriers in ancient times) and select who they believed to be the two fastest among them. After the spectators made their bets, so-called experts would examine the athletes themselves and place their own. (The betting was likely done in this order so as not to sway the spectators’ decisions.)
The length of the course was variable, indicating that the athletes could either be sprinting or engaging in more of an endurance competition. The athletes had to agree on the distance beforehand, and a flag was then placed at the end of the determined course. The athletes would then choose a starting spot and, when prepared, would take off in unison. Whoever reached the flag first took the victory, and the collected bets were doled out accordingly. If the two men made it to the pole at the same time, a draw was called.
Interestingly, the athletes were known to have occasionally thrown races to the opponent, having some third party bet their own property to ensure a return. The selection of two athletes from a group likely helped discourage this practice, as it would have been more difficult for a dishonest kukiri to arrange a secret wager when his chances of competing were unknown.
Malo, D. (1903). Hawaiian antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii). Palala Press.
Eveleth, E. (1831). History of the Sandwich Islands: with an account of the American mission established there in 1820. American Sunday-School Union.
Kent, H. W. (1986). Treasury of Hawaiian words in one hundred and one categories. Masonic Public Library of Hawaii.