Humans’ primal desire to compete can be traced to basic principles of evolution: To survive, all organisms on the planet must constantly outdo each other for resources. But where fellow terrestrials use play to simulate competitive skills like hunting or fighting, human beings have taken their zest for competition many steps further. The world is riddled with odd competitions, from the Air Guitar World Championships held in Finland since 1996 and cow pie bingo to any number of eating competitions, polar dips, and, of course, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, held each year at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, Calif.
Events like lumberjack or woodsmen competitions have been mainstays in American culture, while other events come briefly into the public eye only to fade quickly (and, sometimes, thankfully) back into obscurity. Decades ago, women were subjected to figure contests (in which contestants wore papier-mache masks to hide their faces), “perfect back” contests, cleaning championships, and other archaic competitions that trudged forward through humans’ primordial soup into splendid, utter irrelevancy.
Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest (he came in 20th place), and we’ve since seen the same from Adele. Then there are the now-defunct Summer Redneck Games, women’s armpit hair competition, and even the Extreme Ironing World Championships (which is just what it sounds like). Still (surprisingly) in operation, however, are contests for lawnmower racing, baby crying, rock-paper-scissors, black pudding throwing, Punkin Chunkin, tree climbing, shovel racing, and even the Cold Water Swimming Olympics.
Mining various news reports, organization and town websites, and championships data yielded 25 of the most unusual competitions from around the world. It seems there’s a contest for every imaginable skill, from belly-flopping to swimming in grits.
Keep reading to find out where you can compete to be the best Santa Claus or find your way to self-transcendence in a 3,100-mile race.
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The Snorrenclub Antwerpen each year hosts the prestigious World Beard and Moustache Championships to celebrate the “sport of international bearding.” The contest is held in a different location each time, with the 2019 installment held May 17–19 in Belgium. Judging is based on 17 distinct categories broken down into three distinct groups: mustaches, partial beards, and full beards.
Stateside, the National Beard and Moustache Championships are presented by Remington Beard Boss and hosted by Beard Team USA Nov. 8 and 9, 2019, at Chicago Southland.
Norway’s Det Internasjonale Dødseforbundet, or International lDøds Federation, is a competition that involves folks flinging themselves off a high dive, pulling off a stunt (or several), and holding a pose until just before smacking the surface—at which point divers attempt to curl their bodies up before striking the water. Dødsing was created in 1972, with the world competition (Verdensmesterskapet i Døds, or World Championship of Death Diving) established in 2008.
The contest—essentially a belly-flop competition on steroids—represents the zenith of Døds Challenge events, which in 2019 spanned June through August with the world championships held Aug. 17. There are two categories: classic (divers hold a cross shape with their bodies until just before impact) and freestyle (the stunt method mentioned above). Each Dødsing winner from the challenge events qualifies for a Golden Ticket to the finals, where someone gets crowned the greatest death diver in the world.
Wife-carrying contests can be found all over the world, from Kazakhstan to Finland, where it was founded with a questionable history. Stateside contests largely follow Finland’s official rules for the competition, from the length of the track (278 yards) to the number of obstacles (two dry obstacles, one wet).
At the Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine, the 20th installment of the North American Wife Carrying Championships is slated for Oct. 12, 2019, when people (not necessarily couples—”wife” isn’t an actual requirement, though male-female partners are) will compete to win the “wife’s weight in beer and five times her weight in cash.” Registration is $25 but is already full. For those who want to spectate, the competition is held against the backdrop of the resort’s Fall Festival Weekend so there are plenty of other activities to take part in, as well.
Several unusual competitions are held in the U.K., including the Tar Barrels of Ottery St. Mary, a race only suited for strong, brave souls willing to throw giant barrels on their backs—that have been dipped in tar and lit on fire—and race said flaming barrels through village streets.
The Tar Barrel competition goes back hundreds of years to (presumably) the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when a group unsuccessfully attempted to blow up British monarch James I in order to put a stop to the persecution of Roman Catholics. Other towns besides Ottery St. Mary have similar traditions, but those involve simply rolling the barrels along. At some point, someone in Ottery St. Mary judged that method too mundane; the fiery vessels have been carried since.
2019’s Tar Barrel event kicks off Nov. 5 and is only open to local competitors. Bystanders are wise to review extensive safety guidelines listed on the event website, including a stern warning not to try touching any lit barrels as they pass.
Move over, shot puts and javelins, there’s a new throwing game in town. Finland—home of the air guitar and wife-carrying championship—is also home to a new national sport: cell phone throwing. And, as with any sport, there is a reigning champ, determined in Savonlinna, Finland, every year since 2000. 2019’s Mobile Phone Throwing Championships took place Aug. 20, with contestants vying for longest distance and best technique with phones that were provided or donated (and none of which functioned and all of which are responsibly recycled afterwards).
The prize for the winner? A new mobile phone, of course.
The premier Nailympia competition was derived from the Nail Olympics, a contest started in 2001 in Las Vegas. The event is famous for being 100% non-product-run. Judges—all industry experts from around the world—don’t know anything about the nails they’re looking at, and the contestants like it that way. Today, the competition in London has 14 categories (there were four Nailympias held in 2019, in London, Estonia, Orlando, and Canada). Anyone can enter, and each location’s winners earn points toward the Nailympia Global Cup, the champion of which receives a trophy, cash prize, and feature in Scratch magazine.
If you’ve ever dreamt of running through a 2.4-mile course with 629 other people broken into teams pushing intricately decorated beds toward a finish line, England’s Great Knaresborough Bed Race is for you. The contest sees 90 teams of six runners (and one passenger, naturally) pushing homemade beds of their own creation through an obstacle course flanked by fellow paraders, marching bands, and cheering squads that eventually all cheer on the winning team in a champions’ parade following the race.
The course takes participants slogging up grassy hillsides, past a waterfront, through a gorge, along cobblestone streets, over a bridge, and back through another park before swimming 20 yards across the River Nidd. Fierce competitors average 14 minutes for the course, with the charity event raising up to $124,000 or more for various organizations and outreach efforts. For those just hearing about it, 2019’s Great Knaresborough Bed Race is passed (it happened in June)—but entry forms for 2020 will be available Jan. 1.
“Gurn” is an English term referring to a facial expression featuring a lower-jaw protrusion. Gurning contests are a tradition in England highlighted by the annual Gurning World Championships held at the Egremont Crab Fair (established 1267). The fair also features other competitions, including climbing a greasy pole, pipe smoking, and wheelbarrow racing. The competition in 2019 (the 751st of its kind) was held Sept. 20 and 21.
Gurning contestants at the fair compete for prizes by putting their face through a horse collar and making their most terrible faces, which inevitably get immortalized forever in a variety of galleries and social media shares.
When Thierry Sabine was rescued from being lost in the Libyan desert on his motorbike during the Abidjan-Nice Rally, one would have expected him to never so much as look at a picture of a desert ever again. But one wouldn’t know Sabine. Instead, he gained a conviction to show the world that rugged, deadly, brilliant landscape and charted a course from Europe to Dakar via Algiers and Agadez. The Paris-Dakar was born.
The Mad Max-style road race (now iterated into different courses at various locations depending on the year) invites riders of every ilk to use bikes, quads, side-by-sides, trucks, cars, and “Original by Motul” (bikes and quads driving unassisted).
The “biggest rally-raid in the world” for the last 40 years has brought together some of the toughest, most fearless drivers around the globe in a one-state-a-day race that goes on- and off-road, as well as through trackless terrain for thousands of miles over the course of 10 to 15 days.
The World Bog Snorkeling Championship features swimmers donning flamingo, shark, and bunch-of-grapes costumes (among others) as they compete for the best time swimming (flippers only) along a 197-foot stretch of bog while wearing a snorkel. Other parts of the worldwide event feature a bog triathlon (the bog plus 5-mile run and 12-mile mountain bike ride) and an abbreviated version that’s a 3-mile run and 6-mile bike ride.
The 33rd annual World Bog Snorkeling Championships were held Aug. 25, 2019, in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, and featured a special category for best-dressed. If all this isn’t enough, that’s not even the half of it: Apparently, Llanwrtyd Wells—Britain’s smallest town—is chock-full of odd competitions in and around it, including real-ale bike rides, a man vs. horse marathon, and bike chariot races.
The Hemp Olympix are hosted each year by Mardi Grass in Australia, with the 2019 events held May 3 to 5. It costs just $2 to enter any of Hemp Olympix’s events—from the bong throw and blindfolded joint-rolling to the “beard and dread stash” and Plantem Look-a-Like Competition. Don’t forget the Cannabis Law Reform Rally and costume-making while you’re there (and don’t worry about driving afterward—there are plenty of campsites available).
July 11, 2020, will mark the 50th year of Witcham, England’s World Peashooting Championship, which regularly sees hundreds of people coming out to show their support for the event’s beneficiary, Witcham’s Village Hall (the competition regularly brings in more than $3,000 for the cause).
The history of the contest goes back to 1971 when a schoolmaster named Mr. Tyson made a pea-shooting bust on schoolchildren firing the legumes on classmates. He took the weaponry away, but the concept for a World Peashooting Championship had been born. The schoolmaster died in 2003, but the competition continues in his honor.
Breath-powered pipes fire pea rockets of a sort in a competition based on hitting a provided target. Some contestants use homemade devices, and the contest is open to the public. Pea-shooting enthusiasts can contact Village Fair event organizers through the village’s website to sign up.
Competitive cross-country skiers in Finland have for decades taken to the swamps for endurance training, which gave some folks an idea: Why not combine swamp athletics with football (or, in Americanized terms, soccer)? Swamp Soccer World Championships commenced in 1998. The event today draws a couple of thousand participants from around the world broken down into 200 teams vying for the title.
Most players find lodging at the Ukkohalla ski and sport resort, which also hosts a “Swamp Rock” event during the games. If mud isn’t your thing, booking at the Ukkohalla in the winter has its own rewards: The resort is also home to the Snow Soccer Championship.
You’ve heard of talented tongues tying cherry stems in knots. But the International Cherry Pit-Spitting Championship takes things further by challenging contestants to fire fruit pits as far as they can spit them. The 47th edition is slated for the Fourth of July in 2020, but the competition is steep: Kevin “Boomerang” Bartz got his second win in 2019 with a 58-foot, 3 1/4-inch spit at the 2019 competition, held at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm near Eau Claire, Mich.
“Crossing the Line Since 1986” is the official motto of the 17th Street High Heel Race in Washington D.C., during which hundreds of drag queens in costume compete to see who can make it first down historic 17th Street NW.
The event began in 1986 as what the DCist described as a “drunken sprint between a bar and a steakhouse” and morphed into a highlight of Halloween night, moved eventually to an earlier night to control the crowd size. 2019’s competition is set for Oct. 29. It doesn’t start until 9 p.m., but rumor has it onlookers line up on the street as early as 6 to get a good spot for the parade that precedes the race.
In an unconscionable mashup of physical and mental toughness, chessboxing features 11 three-minute rounds of chess and boxing that task participants to think and fight their way to the finish with two completely different parts of their brains.
The third annual Amateur World Championship of chessboxers is scheduled for Dec. 11–15 in Turkey. If the idea of chessboxing doesn’t instantly fill you with dread, pre-registration is now open on the official global chessboxing website.
The first of two orange-based battles in this gallery comes at the famed Totnes Orange Races in Devon, England, whereby challengers kick or throw the fruit along a 1,500-foot course leading out from Market Square. The contest is based on a story about Sir Francis Drake, who (according to legend) in the 1580s was perusing the market in Totnes and accidentally knocked over an orange cart being pushed by a delivery person. Oranges were sent in every direction, most iconically down the street, leading to a yearly event in August. To qualify, oranges must be mostly intact at the finish line—good luck guessing whose is whose.
The Cotswold Olimpick Games celebrated their 407th year in 2019, still held in the Dover’s Hill arena in England. The events haven’t changed much in four centuries, either, still featuring the Shin Kicking World Championships, King of the Hill, Championship of the Hill, Running Races, and Tug O’ War. It’s not so bad: Shin-kicking competitors are welcome to protect their shins with straw that’s provided.
Underwater hockey was actually invented by the British Navy as a way to keep divers in ship shape. Today, that fitness routine has turned to sport in 20 countries, with tournaments held throughout the year.
The game is played in a 25-by-15 meter pool between 6 and 13 feet deep. Six players on each team are outfitted with diving masks, snorkels, a small stick, and one glove each for protection. Players must flick the puck—a piece of plastic-coated lead—into the other team’s goal tray.
The 5th Underwater World Hockey Championships by Age Groups was held in Sheffield, England, from Aug. 14–24, 2019.
ClauWau—known colloquially as the World Santa Championships—is a festival of Santa-themed activities and contests that in the past have included apres-skiing, climbing various structures, sled-racing, and a number of other snowy activities most Santa Clauses just don’t do. The extreme events coincide with opening weekend at the Swiss winter resort Samnaun, where the festivities are located. Attendees additionally get a pedestrian ticket for the nearby mountain railway, which, in addition to all the deluxe shopping and dining in the area, makes this trip warrant more than a day of competition.
The next ClauWau is coming up Nov. 30, 2019, hosted again by the Engadin Scuol Samnaun. Registration is open, and (as of press time) there are still some spots left.
Put simply, self-transcendence is the utilization of deep spiritual contemplation in order to shed one’s sense of self and desires and become, in essence, one with the universe. There are many ways one might achieve this, most commonly through meditation. But if sitting around isn't your thing, there’s the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race. That effort—a 6 a.m.–midnight competition that lasts 52 days—is the longest certified road race on the planet and can be found on an unassuming .5488-mile loop in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City that encompasses an athletics field, playground, and high school.
To reach 3,100 miles in the allotted time, runners must clear an astonishing 59.6 miles every day of the race. Competitors are hand-selected and usually number between 10 and 15 brave candidates seeking transcendence into a spiritual dimension.
There are so many amazing facts about toes, it’s hard to know where to begin. Big toes can be used to replace thumbs, play piano, climb trees, can be webbed, and even used to wrestle. That last point wasn’t lost on the folks who conceived the World Toe-Wrestling Championships in 1976, an English tradition holding strong in 2019.
The International Olympic Committee still refuses to accept toe-wrestling as an official Olympic sport as of press time, but that hasn’t deterred toe-wrestling enthusiasts one bit. Wrestlers square off bare-footed on the floor, opponents big toes locked, then work to push one another’s foot to the sideboard. There is a catch: Hands have to stay flat on the ground while non-wrestling feet are held up in the air.
In what is the undisputed largest food fight in Italy, Battle of the Oranges (part of the Carnevale di Ivrea) sees nine “tribes” spend three days leading up to Fat Tuesday pelting each other with more than 500,000 pounds of fruit. The carnival has been held in the northwestern Italian town of Ivrea each year since 1808. Simulating a revolt with citrus has its roots in some local history and a bit of legend. The carnival is an homage of sorts to a local tale of an evil marquis named Raineri di Biandrate who was decapitated by a woman he was trying to rape and whose palace was then stormed by Ivrea’s townspeople in revolt.
The event draws a crowd of thousands and is scheduled for Feb. 22–25, 2020. Trains and buses have stops in Ivrea, making it a cinch to get to—but remember to reach out to tribes at least a month before the battle if you want to participate in the action (see the full list of tribes here).
The International Beauty Industry (IBI) Awards is the most inclusive and accessible beauty artistry competition in the world. The competition was created to recognize beauty artisans and their craft without attention on products, sponsors, or social media followers.
People can enter from anywhere as many times as they want by submitting images and applications online. 2019 winners are slated to be announced Oct. 1, with hundreds of submissions from 20 countries from Kuwait and New Zealand to Switzerland. IBI’s official website has sign-ups for those interested in being notified when 2020 applications are available.
There’s no overstating the importance of grits in Southern culture and cuisine. So it’s no surprise there is a World Grits Festival, held each year in St. George, S.C.—incidentally the self-described biggest grit-eaters per capita in the world. Less expected might be one of the events tucked into that weekend-long exaltation of boiled cornmeal: the Rolling in the Grits Contest.
For this matchup, players are weighed before hopping into a kiddie pool filled with 27 cases of grits. Contestants have 10 seconds to get as much of the breakfast dish on their bodies as humanly possible, with competitors filling their clothes (sometimes wearing baggy outfits or taping their pants and shirt sleeves shut to hold more). A second weighing reveals how much was collected. If that’s not worth a road trip, we don’t know what is; registration will be available for 2020 through the festival website.
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