The fall Pull tug-of-war at Hope College has been canceled due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the first time in more than 60 years that the event won’t take place.

The long-running freshman-sophomore (and even-year/odd-year) contest, which is generally believed to have been first held in 1898, typically happens in late September or early October.  The possibility of holding the Pull in the spring hasn’t been ruled out, but the event’s staff adviser acknowledged that circumstances make it unlikely.

“We’re disappointed for our students that the pandemic has made it necessary for us to cancel the Pull for the semester and probably for the year,” said Dr. Richard Frost, who is vice president for student development and dean of students, who made the decision in conjunction with the event’s student leaders.  “The Pull is an iconic and beloved tradition with a history that spans three centuries, and we don’t make the decision lightly.  We’ll consider whether or not to hold the Pull in the spring after the start of the next semester, but due to the ever-changing COVID-19 situation, the likely duration of wintry weather and the structure of the academic calendar, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to hold it this year.”

In the absence of the Pull itself, the event’s student leaders are planning activities to keep the Pull and its spirit alive until the contest can be held sometime in 2021.  Possibilities include a rally and gathering new and returning participants.  They’re also encouraging alumni of the event to share their reflections on “Down by the River: The Pull in Alumni Memory” on Facebook, which was started a few years ago to chronicle the Pull.

This year is only the fifth known cancelation in the event’s history.  The informal nature of the competition in its early years means that details from the Pull’s early history (pre-1909) are sketchy, but it is known that there were at least four years that the Pull was not held.  The last time that the Pull was cancelled was 1957, due to a flu epidemic on campus, according to the student newspaper at the time.  The other three cancellations were in 1918, 1943 and 1944, during World War I and World War II.

The Pull has also been postponed twice during the past 50 years.  The last time was in 1986, when rain prompted the college to hold the event a day later than originally scheduled.  In 1974, the rope broke during the contest, which at the time took place on Friday afternoons, which was then postponed to the following Monday.  Period accounts prior to 1970 haven’t been consulted to see if there were postponements in earlier years.

This is the second year in a row that circumstances have had a major impact on the Pull.  Due to high water levels at the event’s traditional home on the Black River because of Lake Michigan’s near-record highs, the 2019 contest was held instead on campus, along the south side of 11th Street between Lincoln and Fairbanks avenues.  The event had last been relocated, also due to wet conditions, in 1952.

The freshman Class of 2023 won last year’s Pull, which was held on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.  Through the years, the sophomores and even-year classes have held the edge in the win-loss column. Since 1909, the sophomores have taken 70 contests to the freshman class’s 33; the even-year/odd-year split for the same period is 56 to 47.  There is no record of the outcome of contests held prior to 1909.

The Pull is one of two traditional autumn freshman-sophomore competitions being affected by the pandemic.  The other, the Nykerk Cup competition, is typically held in late October or early November in the college’s DeVos Fieldhouse and features members of the two classes competing in song, plays and oration.  This year’s Nykerk will be held on Saturday, Oct. 24, but will be presented virtually instead of before an in-person audience.  Additional information regarding Nykerk will be announced as available nearer the event’s date.