Each year, I take a week out of daily life with two of my best friends, and together we head off somewhere exotic to engage in a bit of manly, physical, outdoor activity. Normally this involves biking, hiking or kayaking, for days on end. We rough it along the way, abstain from shaving, and endure horrible chaffing (plus other assorted injuries of the sort bound to happen when you release confirmed desk jockeys into the wild – see for example my previous post A Hospital in Hawaii).
This annual tradition has come to be known as Man Mission (it’s a cool name and anyway we like it, so stop groaning and rolling your eyes, ok?). So far these adventures have included cycle trips across Japan, Korea and Vietnam, sea-kayaking expeditions in Fiji and the Whitsunday Islands, and various hikes in New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii.
Last week we completed our thirteenth Man Mission, which involved cycling the length of the Otago Rail Trail, in New Zealand’s South Island (more on this soon). We then spent three days in Queenstown, a small town on the edge of a magnificent inland lake in NZ’s “Southern Alps”.
Queenstown has traditionally been a winter ski resort, but more recently has reinvented itself as a year-round adventure sports destination. It all started when the world’s first commercial bungy jump opened in Queenstown in 1986. Since then tourists in their hundreds of thousands have flocked here to hurl themselves off bridges, cliff-tops and mountainsides, and in the process Queenstown has become the bungy capital of the world. Today it hosts multiple bungy jumps, including the world’s biggest: a 134 metres drop straight down into a ravine, for those insane enough to try it.
Over time other equally lunatic endeavours have been added to the Queenstown line-up. So if bungy isn’t quite your thing, you can now also try swinging (no, put away your naughty thoughts – this swinging is like bungy, but instead of bouncing up and down you get tossed side-to-side as well), canyoning, abseiling, mountain climbing, glacier climbing, hang-gliding, paragliding, parachuting, sky-diving, jet boating, dune buggy racing, heli-skiing, glacier-skiing, zip-lining, and zorbing (running down a steep hillside inside a giant inflatable plastic ball), to name a few.
Bottom line is that if you are after an adrenaline rush, Queenstown is the place to get it. And with a few days to spare at the end of our Man Mission cycle trip, we thought we would push our limits and try two extreme sports for the first time: downhill cycling, and white-water sledding. Neither of which, I can now report, I have a natural affinity for.
In the case of downhill cycling (an utterly ridiculous pursuit that involves plunging yourself and a bicycle head first down a mountain), the only thing that stood between me and constantly falling off the bike was, well…, nothing really. So I constantly fell off the bike, before giving up in despair.
And as far as white-water sledding is concerned, things were equally grim. This particular form of masochism involves putting on a wet-suit, helmet and fins, jumping into a freezing cold river, holding onto a bit of plastic shaped like a sled, and then allowing the fast-flowing waters to wash you six kilometres downstream. Along the way, you get swept into raging Category-3 rapids, smashed onto rocks, and tossed around in whirlpools like a piece of human flotsam. All I can say is that at the end I felt like a laundry rag, fresh from forty-five minutes inside of a very angry washing machine. It was near miraculous that I did not drown.
In short, if downhill cycling or white-water sledding were ever to become Olympic sports, it is safe to say that I would not be making the Australian team any time soon. Or any other team, for that matter. My ability in these extreme sports proved to be so limited I doubt even the Lesotho white-water sledding team would have me.
Of course, the same could be said for just about every other sport I have ever tried as well, given that I am not exactly known for my sporting prowess. All of which led me to thinking: surely there must be a sport – any sport, no matter how marginal or weird – that I could claim as my own? That with enough time and practice I could master, and maybe even aspire to a moment of Olympic glory.
So I did some research.
Former Olympic Sports?
Back in Ancient Greece, men used to wrestle naked at the Olympics. Thankfully this sport has long since disappeared. But even in the modern era there are a few sports that were once Olympic events, but which are now no longer included. Perhaps they might make a comeback one day? On the other hand, perhaps not….
Tug-Of-War – an Olympic fixture from 1900 to 1920. You know, the childhood game where two opposing teams pull a rope in opposite directions, until the midpoint of the rope passes a line in the ground, into the winning team’s territory. However I am not sure that Tug-of-War is going to catch on again anytime soon, so little point in me becoming expert, even assuming I was cut out for it.
Live Pigeon Shooting – in the 1900 Paris Olympics, murdering 300 birds in a coordinated fashion was, believe it or not, a sport, for which Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were awarded. Apparently once the event ended the playing field looked like a bird cemetery, littered with carcasses of dead and dying birds. Again, it seems unlikely that this sport will ever feature at the Olympics again, and even if it did, I’m a non-starter. Not on moral grounds, mind you, but on practical ones: if you put a loaded pistol in my hand I’d miss a stationary target from four metres away.
Solo synchronised swimming – as if actual synchronised swimming weren’t ridiculous enough, three recent Olympics (1984, 1988, and 1992) featured the totally idiotic sport of solo synchronised swimming. A single person would jump into the pool, and then with all the pomp and ceremony and glued-on fake smile you’d expect, performed a choreographed routine in the water, only just with themselves. Incredibly it took twelve years before someone figured out that the phrase “solo synchronised swimming” is an oxymoron, and the event got canned. Even so I might have considered it for me, but (i) I am not that great in the water (refer above re: white-water sledding); and (ii) even if I was, this is a female-only sport. Meaning if I wanted to compete in solo synchronised swimming one day, I’d have to address far bigger issues than being comfortable in water.
During the past year I have come across several mighty odd sports, whether through friends, TV or chance. None, however, are immediately obvious as being my Olympic ticket.
Tough Mudder – the latest extreme sport craze, Tough Mudder involves a 20km half-marathon run, interrupted every few kilometres with hard-core military-style obstacles. Like having to crawl through a mud-pool, or scale a high wall, or dive into a container filled with freezing cold water and ice. Or my personal favourite: running through a field of live electrical wires, where the objective is to keep moving while your body convulses from the shocks. Several of my friends tried this lunacy during 2013, and have suggested that I give it a go next year. Yeah, right.
Parkour – also known as free running, this sport originated in the urban ghettos of France. The objective is to run from Point A to Point B, and ignore whatever stands in between – the idea is to use strength, agility and stupidity to move over, under or through whatever is in your way. Experts in this sport, called traceurs, thus see nothing odd in jumping a twenty foot high staircase, swinging from one balcony to the next as a means of descending a twelve story high building, or doing back-flip somersaults off a rooftop. The internet is jam-packed with videos of traceurs doing the most extraordinary things imaginable, yet making it look completely effortless. My kids showed me a clip in which one of these guys took two big steps before vaulting over a park bench, like a cat. I thought “hey, I can do that”. Long story short, it is actually much harder than it looks, unless your objective anyway was to walk like a crab for a week…..
Highland Games – In Scotland earlier this year I had the pleasure of stumbling across a Highland Games (see my previous post Chasing Nessie). Here big burly fellows engaged in an assortment of he-man activities, like hammer throwing, shot-putting, tossing the caber, and competitive bag-pipe playing. But if you’ve ever heard the sound of thirty bag-pipes sounding at once, you’ll understand why I can say with confidence that the Highland Games will never, ever make it to the Olympic arena.
Chess-Boxing – the ultimate sport, so they say, in that mastery requires a unique combo of brains and brawn. A typical match involves hopping into a ring, slugging it out for a round, then sitting down and playing Chess for four minutes. This continues, with alternating rounds of boxing and Chess, until there is either a knock-out or a checkmate (or too much blood on the Chess board). The World Chess Boxing Organization regulates this sport, with the motto: “Fighting is done in the ring; wars are waged on the board”. Frankly, I can’t see what’s not to love about this brilliant concept. Which doesn’t, however, mean I’d be nuts enough to try it myself – I figure that whilst it would probably take me more than four minutes to check-mate even the most Neanderthal of boxers, the converse is not necessarily true, in that it would likely take said Neanderthal less than twenty seconds to despatch me.
Other Incredibly Weird Sports That Will Never Get to the Olympics for Blindingly Obvious Reasons….
It turns out that there is no shortage of strange sports out there that require no talent, training, physical fitness, or natural ability. Perhaps explaining why none of these are presently represented at the Olympic Games, although one can always hope.
Cardboard Duelling – the name says it all really. Bits of cardboard are rolled up into swords and weapons, and participants then engage in a spot of old fashioned duelling. Rules and matches are officiated by the Cardboard Tube Fighting League. I am not kidding – this is a real sport engaged in by real people. Which just confirms what we all know: there are some mighty weird folk out there in the big wide world.
Beard & Moustache Growing – every two years, hairy folk from around the world gather for the World Beard and Moustache Championships. Men have a natural advantage in this sport, and dark, swarthy Middle-Eastern types (ahem, ahem) stand out from the pack. The object is to grow and groom the longest, most elaborate facial fuzz, in one of four official categories – Moustache, Sideburn, Partial Beard and the granddaddy of them all, the Full Beard.
Ferret Legging – take a live (and hungry) ferret, drop it down your pants (which you have previously sealed at the ankle), and then sit there. That’s it. The winner is the madman who can endure having their legs and genitals scratched, gnawed and bitten for the longest time. Current world record: five hours and thirty minutes. This was set in 1981, and I guess there is a reason why this unrivalled feat of human endurance-cum-stupidity has stood for more than thirty years now.
Rock, Paper, Scissors – or RPS to those in the know, is not just the game you remember from childhood, but a sport taken very, very seriously by seriously fucked-up grown-ups. The annual RPS World Championships attracts about 500 competitors from around the world, and for which winners even get cash prizes (meaning, quite unbelievably, that someone actually sponsors the event). Matches are played in two forms: “International Style”, where you have to throw your rock, paper or scissor on the fourth count (“1 … 2 … 3 … THROW”) or “American Style”, where the throw is on the third count (“1 … 2 … THROW”). With complexities like this, little wonder RPS players are considered the elite of the world of weird sports.
Extreme Ironing – a sport with deceptively simple rules: take your ironing board, find the most outrageous place that you can, and iron there. Photograph yourself doing it. And voila, you’re an extreme ironist (as practitioners of this odd activity are known). Ironists will basically press a shirt anywhere, including on mountain tops, standing on a moving vehicle, or underwater. Anywhere, that is, apart from at home in the laundry room….
Bog Snorkelling – in August each year the World Bog Snorkelling Championship is held in Powys, Wales. Contestants put on snorkels and wet suits, jump into a peat bog, and swim near blind through the muddy sludge over a 110 metre course. The world record, set only a few years ago, is 84 seconds (not bad, especially considering the world record for a normal 100 metre swim is 47 seconds). Recently new events have been added to the Championship to broaden the appeal. Like Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling in which people ride mountain bikes through the bog as fast as they can, an activity so utterly pointless it warrants no further comment.
Cheese Rolling – another British speciality, where “athletes” gather in May each year in Gloucester, at the top of Cooper’s Hill, to push 3kg wheels of cheese down the hill. First cheese to the bottom wins – simple as that. Contestants are allowed to follow their cheese down the hill, any which way they like. This might involve pushing it, prodding it, shouting at it, or diving head first down the hill after it. Cheeses have been clocked to move at over 50 kilometres an hour, and injuries are common. Making for an interesting conversation at the water cooler the next day (“so, there I was rolling my cheese down the hill, when I got blind-sided and taken out by this incredibly fast-moving cheddar…”)
Worm Charming – also from Britain, this sport (alternatively known as worm grunting and worm fiddling) involves finding a patch of ground, and coaxing as many worms as possible to the surface in a defined time. You can sing, pee on the ground, tickle the worms on their little tummies – just about anything is allowed. (Although recently pouring dishwashing detergent onto the turf was banned – it was considered to be the worm charming equivalent of doping). There are both individual and team worm charming events and lest you think I am kidding, not only is there an annual World Worm Charming Championships (held in Cheshire), but there is an International Festival of Worm Charming that has been running for 30 years in Devon. Not to mention a global cult that follows this fabulously eccentric sport.
Gurning – also from Britain, what is it with that country? In competitive gurning, people get together and pull faces. Ugliest face wins. Especially noteworthy ugly faces even get their own name. So much as a figure skater might try to pull off a “Salchow” or “Lutz” jump, a world-class gurner might, for example, try to make a “bela Lugosi” face, which involves eating your own nose, rolling one eye back into your skull, and flipping your ears forward, all at the same time. Gurning tournaments have been a feature in the UK for almost a century, culminating each year at the World Gurning Championships. Interestingly, gurning tournaments started at about the same time as Britain began to lose its grip on Empire. Not that I am suggesting a causal link, but if the shoe fits…..
And the Winner’s Are….
In any case, having surveyed the international sports field, so to speak, I have finally settled on four sports where I think I have my best shot at Olympic success.
Bossaball – kind of like volleyball with your feet, except on each side of the net players stand on trampolines, and so can launch themselves into the air to execute incredible overhead kicks. Perfect for me. Nah, just kidding – I wouldn’t have a hope with this one. But I thought I might sound pretty cool just for mentioning it.
Hide and Seek – yes, hide and seek, the very same game you played as a kid, is now a pro-sport. Professor Hazaki of Japan’s Nippon Sport Science University – a bloke who should know better – has codified the rules and developed a standard playing pitch (otherwise known as a forest to the rest of us), on which two teams of seven players slug it out in a ten minute match, with each team getting five minutes to hide, and another five to seek. I do seem to recall I was good at hide and seek as a kid, and even more exciting, Professor Hazaki has started a campaign to get hide and seek included as an official Olympic Sport. So if now I can just figure out how to stay alive and match-fit until Hell freezes over, I am in with a shot. Brilliant!
Competitive Eating – regular readers of this blog will know that I like my food. And lots of it. What better sport for me then than competitive eating? The problem, however, is that this is a sport that requires specialisation. According to the Major League Eating website (no, I am not making this up) official eating events cover everything from apple pies to pizzas; from asparagus, catfish, chicken wings, haggis, matzo balls, shrimp and peanut butter to ribs, tacos, watermelon, blueberry pies and whole turkeys.
The biggest event in this field is hot-dogs, where contestants gather from around the world each year on 4th July at Nathan’s, in Coney Island. Current world record: 69 hot dogs, consumed in 10 minutes. That’s basically one dog every 8.6 seconds – a feat of gluttony that leaves me completely awestruck. Even my greatest personal eating triumph – 72 oysters (6 dozen) in one sitting about fifteen years ago at a young lawyers’ event – would barely rate. The official world record holder scoffed down 47 dozen oysters in eight minutes.
Curling – while cycling through central Otago, the main things you are likely to see are rolling green hills and paddocks filled with sheep. The Indoor Curling Arena at the small town of Naseby, therefore, is a little unexpected, to say the least. Although there is a good reason it’s here: the south of the South Island of New Zealand was settled by Scotsmen, who brought their beloved sport of curling with them, and so for the last two hundred years this is the only place south of Canada where anyone gives a toss about this odd sport. In fact, the curling arena is Naseby is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
In any case, when in Rome… So quite surreally we found ourselves taking time out of our New Zealand bike trip to also try curling. Match play is simple: two teams take turns launching twenty kilo granite stones down the ice, in a game that resembles a winter version of bowls. At the end of eight stones, the team whose stone is closest to a red circle at the far end of the ice scores a point. The trick is to plan your stones so as to knock your competitors’ stones out of the way, or block their path. The sport gets its name from the ability to curl the stones, causing them to travel not in a straight line but in an arc, as a means of getting around cleverly placed blocking stones. And then there is the sweeping – team-mates with brooms follow the stones down the ice, sweeping furiously just ahead of the stone – a good sweep job can apparently cause a curling stone to travel up to eighteen feet further.
Anyway, ridiculous as it may all sound, within minutes I was hooked. First, if I may say so myself, I was not all that bad at it. Second, you can excel at curling without ever needing to be fit or athletic – it is more like chess on ice, filled with strategy and skullduggery, and the most physically demanding aspect involves sliding along the ice for a few metres before releasing the stone, barely enough to work up a sweat. Third, maybe as a function of the lack of athleticism required, even old people can curl, and be really good at it. And fourth, who couldn’t love a sport where a big part of the match involves grown men and women furiously sweeping ice.
But most importantly, for reasons that escape me (what’s this sport got that gurning or hot dog eating don’t?), curling is already an Olympic sport. Meaning that all I now need to do is move to Jamaica, become a citizen, and form the Jamaican curling squad, and you can all start booking your tickets for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
I will make sure to wave to you in the stands.