Manila tug of war rope is the only type allowed by the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF), which organizes and establishes the rules for world championship games.
If you'd like to visit the federation website, follow the link at the bottom of this page.
The TWIF rules for international competition say tug of war rope should be from 10 to 12.5 centimeters in circumference (about 1 1/2" diameter), at least 33.5 meters (about 110 feet) long (there are eight pullers on each team), and have plain whipped ends. Loops, knots, or other holdings are not allowed – and wrapping the rope around the hands or any other part of the body is considered creating a “loop” (there’s an exception for the anchor, or end puller, but even then the wrap is not tied, spliced, or otherwise locked - so it can be released quickly).
It makes sense to vary from certain parts of these specifications for games at picnics or children's birthday parties. The diameter can be reduced for small hands, and the length can be adjusted based on the size and number of participants and space available. Whether working with children or adults, game organizers should take the time to go over safety concerns with the participants.
Never make a loop by wrapping the rope around the hand to get a better grip
Especially, but not exclusively, when using a tug of war rope with a smooth or slippery surface, there is a temptation to wrap it around ones hand to get a better grip. In addition to being against the rules, which state the rope should be held using a natural grip, with both palms facing upward and the fingers wrapped around the rope, looping the rope around ones hand is extremely dangerous. Imagine being dragged along the ground because you can't release the rope. Even worse -
On October 12, 2007 two high school students had their hands partially amputated during a tug of war game because they had the rope wrapped around their hands. For more information, click here.
Never use any type of rope other than natural manila
While all synthetics fall short of Manila for tug of war ropes, nylon is probably the worst choice: A stretched nylon rope can recoil like a rubber band if released causing serious injury or worse.
Natural manila fiber absorbs sweat, so the surface doesn’t get slippery when it’s in use. Unmanila (tan polypropylene, the least absorbent fiber) doesn’t, so it can become slippery, even though it has a ‘twisted rope’ surface and looks similar to the real thing.
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Here’s the link to the Tug of War International Federation site, which includes the rules referenced above.