The World's Craziest Contests
Of course, when money and fame are on the line, some humans will do just about anything—like eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes (the new world record, set in July). But eating contests seem a paragon of sanity compared with the world’s most outlandish competitions.
Some of them take real skill, like the International Birdman Championship in southeast England, where entrants build flying machines and leap from a pier in their creation, hoping to stay in the air longer than the competition.
Underlying all these contests is an atavistic desire for victory—even in the most esoteric of circumstances. “Undeniably, there is an instinctive drive in humans to strive to achieve a personal best,” says Danny Girton Jr., who as an adjudicator for Guinness World Records has seen his share of superlatives.
That would explain the unorthodox contests that are all about willpower. Take Finland’s Sauna World Championships, in which contestants try to outlast each other in 230-degree heat. Even the Papa Look-Alike competition in Key West, where the name of the game is to look like Ernest Hemingway, takes effort more than natural ability. Tom Grizzard competed eight times before finally taking the title of “Papa” in 2008.
The secret to his success? Instead of donning his usual “Hemingway in Key West” garb, he modeled his attire after the famous Life cover, in which the writer wore a wool fisherman’s turtleneck. This couldn’t have been pleasant in the Florida weather, but it paid off. (The contest offers no cash prizes—just prestige.)
The event has opened doors to a new brotherhood, of sorts. “I keep in touch with a lot of the previous Papas and Papa Wannabes,” says Grizzard. He’s also taken his shtick across the ocean to Pamplona, Spain, where he won the First Annual International Hemingway Look-alike Contest. Apparently, men everywhere want to emulate the Hemingway style.
Seemingly, if a hobby or interest exists, there’s a contest somewhere. For instance, those who’ve outlasted that '80s fad can compete in the Rubik’s Cube World Championship. So if you’re hiding a special skill, look around for the chance to flaunt it. It might bring in some cash—and some bragging rights.
The Sauna World Championships, Heinola, Finland
The Challenge: Who can sit still the longest? Sounds easy until you learn that the temperature will be 230 degrees. “This is what hell must feel like,” the organizers boast. The contest takes place annually in August.
The Scene: Finland is a land of 5 million people and an estimated 1.7 million saunas, so it’s assumed that Finns are good at taking the heat. The competition involves five rounds for men (over a two-day period) and three rounds for women (to be completed in one day), with a 2.5-hour break between rounds. Challengers must wear bathing suits, maintain good posture, and be able to walk (as opposed to being carried) out of the sauna. A doctor’s note is required for entry.
Papa Look-Alike Contest, Key West, FL
The Challenge: Do you have what it takes to earn the title of “Papa” in the world’s leading Ernest Hemingway doppelgänger contest? The contest is usually held around the late author’s birthday, July 21.
The Scene: The bearded hopefuls parade at Sloppy Joe’s, a legendary Key West watering hole that officially opened the day Prohibition ended (although it was said to serve drinks illegally before that date), and is said to have been named by Papa himself. “A mature, heavy-set man with a full beard” is what the judges say they usually look for, but younger contestants have made it to the final round in past years.
The Hangang High Wire World Championships, Seoul
The Challenge: Speed-walk half a mile and bring home the $10,000 prize. That’s it. Oh, and you’ll be 80 feet in the air on a 1.5-inch-wide wire.
The Scene: These high times take place above Seoul’s Han River (the next competition is in 2010), with medics on hand in case a contestant ends up in the drink. There’s a 20-minute time limit; the world record-holder made it across in less than 11 minutes. Would-be walkers must submit evidence of prior high-wire experience to the organizers for review.
Rock Paper Scissors World Championship, Toronto
The Challenge: If you throw the right symbol you could take home $10,000 in the RPS. This is not a game of luck—strategies and skills are applied, and hours and hours of practice pay off for the winners.
The Scene: The Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto is home to the championships, with the next edition set for November 2009. First-time RPS competitors don’t have to qualify by winning smaller tournaments because, says RPS Society cofounder Graham Walker, “We believe anyone should have the chance to feel what it is like to compete at the highest level that a sport has to offer.” Yes, it’s a sport.
International Birdman Competition, Worthing, England
The Challenge: Do you trust yourself enough to design a flying machine, strap yourself in, get a running start, and jump off a pier toward the horizon? Test your design skills—and your fearlessness—at this event on England’s southeast coast, held annually in August.
The Scene: Contestants take a leap of faith off a 15-foot-long platform, 35 feet above the Worthing Sea, with the hopes of flying more than 325 feet—enough to qualify for the $50,000 prize. The contest has various categories: the da Vinci class is for experts who design their own machines, while the Kingfisher class is for those who prefer to use a hang glider, but add their own touches (think yellow feathers and a chicken suit). Prizes are awarded for longest air time, furthest flight, and best entertainment.
Tug Fest, LeClaire, IA, and Port Byron, IL
The Challenge: It’s a good old-fashioned tug-of-war, only this one uses a 2,400-foot, 680-pound rope—which is pulled over the expanse of the Mississippi River. When one team is all wet, it’s all over.
The Scene: Every August, LeClaire tries to pull harder than Port Byron, and vice versa. The winner takes home an alabaster sculpture of an eagle, kept proudly on display until the next go-around. Each side takes the challenge very seriously and holds regular practices (though never with the game-day rope, which is reeled across the Mighty Mississippi for one day only).
World Rubik’s Cube Championship, Düsseldorf, Germany
The Challenge: If you’ve ever solved a Rubik’s cube (and not by peeling off the stickers and rearranging them), you can show your skills at this geeky confab. But be prepared to solve the squared puzzle blindfolded, with one hand, or with your feet (with or without socks). This is the cream of the Rubik’s crop.
The Scene: The fifth World Championship will take place in Düsseldorf in October 2009; qualification is based on the results of previous competitions, but some first-time competitors are accepted on a first-come basis. Some fleet-fingered cubist will bring home first prize, which tops $7,000.
The One-Foot High Kick, Fairbanks, AK
The Challenge: This gravity-defying contest asks an athlete to kick a suspended object with one foot (sometimes as high as a basketball net), and land on the floor using that same foot, to demonstrate superior balance.
The Scene: The annual Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which the kick is a part of, features events that may seem offbeat to outsiders but implement age-old traditions that derive from surviving in a severe environment. A high kick was used by a hunter or whaler to send a visual message to villagers that an animal had been caught or that wildlife was nearby. (The Eskimo Stick Pull, another event, represents pulling a seal from the ice.) Fairbanks has been home to these Olympics (held in July) since their creation in 1961 for every year but one, when Anchorage was granted hosting rights.
Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals, San Diego
The Challenge: It’s the most exciting few seconds in sports: dachshund racing. Fifty feet is a long distance if your legs are two inches tall, but that’s the distance these feisty canines travel to outrun their competition—and win the chance to ride a float in San Diego’s Holiday Bowl Parade.
The Scene: Qualifying races are held throughout the western U.S., but the final stretch of the race is in Qualcomm Stadium, on the day of the Holiday Bowl. Any dachshund is welcome, and multiple qualifying trials are held to whittle down the numbers (contestants have been known to practice throughout the year on a doggie treadmill).