The lure of eccentric sports
- 2 May 2011
- From the section Magazine
Every year during bank holidays, the UK hosts an array of outlandish sporting events such as bog-snorkelling, shin-kicking and cheese-rolling. Why are these odd activities so enduring?
There are two sporting Britains. In the first, hundreds of thousands troop to stadia each week to watch football, rugby or other popular, mainstream games.
In the second, participants enjoy such activities as pea-shooting, wife-carrying and black-pudding throwing.
Eccentric they might be. Entirely serious they are not.
But eating nettles, pulling silly faces, wrestling with one's toes and collecting worms all form part of a less-discussed side of the nation's competitive culture.
What's more, these bizarre traditions are not as marginal as the layman might think, drawing diverse crowds to remote parts of the country.
The UK hosts at least 20 outlandish sporting events which draw enthusiasts and amateurs from all over the world.
Bog-snorkelling entices participants from as far afield as Australia, others give shin-kicking a go and the practice of chasing Double Gloucester cheese wheels down hills is long-established.
Some of these extraordinary sports can be traced back as far as the 13th Century.
Chipping Campden is one such host of unusual historical games. The Cotswold Olimpicks are held during spring bank each year where attendances have been over 5,000.
Eccentrics and novices flock to Dover's Hill, keen to have some fun. And occasionally get hurt.
Competitors can participate in shin-kicking, which is centuries old. It sounds painful but a bit of straw padding can offer protection.
Rules state one must hold onto the opponent and kick their shins until they fall to the floor, under the watchful eye of the stickler, or referee.
Clive Thompson, vice-chairman of the Games, believes the unique traditional 17th Century roots are the attraction.
Thankfully, nowadays the dress code no longer includes iron-tipped boots. Broken legs used to be the norm.
Getting injured in the name of fun is all too familiar for those who each year take to Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire to chase a wheel of cheese.
Every spring bank holiday, up to its cancellation in 2010 and this year, about 200 people would climb the notoriously steep hill, almost vertical in places, to take part in this two-centuries-old tradition.
After a head start for the cheese, competitors would run down the hill trying to catch it, inevitably tumbling to the bottom.
In 1997, 33 cheese-rollers were treated for everything from splinters to broken bones. In 2005, some races were delayed due to the lack of ambulances - because they were all already at A&E with other competitors.
Sarrah Macey of the Gloucester Folk Museum has been a spectator. "Half of me was really scared, shielding my eyes from the injuries, the other half was excitedly egging-on the leader to catch the cheese," she recalls.
Some keep their bones intact and, instead, get down and dirty.
This August bank holiday, many people donning goggles, a snorkel and flippers, will immerse themselves in sludgy, peaty water. Out of choice.
More than 200 competitors will travel to the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, which date back to 1985, to swim the 60-yard peat bog in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales.
Conventional swimming strokes are not allowed.
Serial bog-snorkellers Kez Mercel and Tigger Webb fly from Australia every year to join in the fun. "The water comprises of ancient rotted vegetation swilling in black acidic water," say the pair, enticingly.
But the bog must have something endearing about it.
"We have the world's best beaches on the Gold Coast; however, we go half-way around the world to swim in a bog. That's how good it is," they add.
Despite dreadful weather, last year's event drew over 1,000 attendees.
Those steering clear of mud could head to the home of extraordinary sports, the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria.
Events include gurning, speed pipe smoking and greasy pole climbing.
Gurning, the act of grotesquely contorting one's face, attracts up to 100 competitors a year and features in the Guinness World Records thanks to Tommy Mattinson who has won the championship title 11 times.
Another long-standing event even reportedly helped to inspire the world's most famous sporting competition.
Much Wenlock in Shropshire has Olympic history running through its veins. Ask the majority of people when and where the modern Olympics began, and they would say Athens, 1896. But to some sport historians, it really began there in 1850.
The Much Wenlock Olympics now run every summer and this year should attract not quite the 10,000 competitors joining the London 2012 line-up, but more like 1,200. It includes typical Olympic-style events.
In the early Wenlock Olympian Games, one event had old women race in order to win a pound of tea. That's mild compared with the other bizarre sports of today.
These are a mere handful from a plethora of similar events staged in Britain each year, and they are somehow surviving.
Macey believes it's down to tradition, and that these sports are a key part of the British identity.
"Many visitors to Gloucestershire solely come to experience the cheese-rolling, shin-kicking or the bog-snorkelling because that's what they think of as quintessentially British."
Benedict le Vay, author of Eccentric Britain, agrees.
"It's part of British eccentricity. We get wonderful humour, off-the-wall explorers, wacky inventors and bonkers aristocrats out of the same tin, and we have a heck of a lot of fun," he says.
He believes in Britain, often if you try something twice and enjoy it, it becomes a tradition. "People are wedded to tradition and will always find a way. World War II didn't even stop Gloucester townsfolk from cheese-rolling, who [with] rationing, used a wooden model cheese instead.
"It doesn't matter what we're doing or why, people get carried away in the enjoyment, and return again and again, daft or not," he adds.
Despite being banned, in 2010 100 people were still cheese-rolling down Cooper's Hill in an unauthorised event.
Macey believes there is a future for these quirky games thanks to loyal cult followers and promotion through travel guides.
Le Vay agrees. New sports are invented all the time. Many are the result of a conversation in the pub, as was the case with the World Stinging Nettle Eating Championships.
"The best thing about these sports is there's a bit of risk, and they don't require skill," Macey says. "It's often about luck and every competitor feels the thrill of the possibility of holding that prize cheese at the bottom of the hill. It's a chance for people to show courage and be a winner".