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Alternative March Madnesses: 9 Tourneys TV Isn't Covering

After the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, only sixteen teams still have a shot at the title. Your bracket is probably in disarray. March Madness has brought you nothing but anguish and pain. What's a fan to do? Cheer up, March isn't just about hoops. Here are some great March championships you may have missed, and some you can still catch if you hurry. Here are some of our favorites you might have missed:

1. The World Coal Carrying Championships

That's not a misleading title. It's an actual championship where people carry coal, and you just missed its most recent running on Monday. The contest started in 1963 in Gawthorpe, a small village in British coal country. Two friends, Reggie Sedgewick and Amos Clapham were enjoying a brew when a third man, Lewis Hartley teased Sedgewick that he looked a bit worn out. A vigorous debate over the two fellows' relative fitness ensued, and it was decided that they would run a race on Easter Monday while carrying large sacks of local coal.
Since then the event has gained fame, but the same basic idea persists: competitors are given a 50-kilogram bag of coal and told to run from The Royal Oak to the village's Maypole, a distance of 1108.25 yards. The world record is held by David Jones of Meltham, who made the spring in just over four minutes in both 1991 and 1995.

>>8 more after the jump.

2. West Virginia Pinewood Derby Championship

a.pinewood.jpgThe NASCAR and Formula One seasons may be heating up, but some racing purists still prefer to see cars that are carved out of a block of balsa wood and run only on that cleanest-burning of all fuels: gravity. If you're one of those fans who can't wait to see how a little graphite lubricant will affect a pair of tiny plastic wheels, get to Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport, West Virginia on March 28th and 29th for a two day blowout featuring as many as 600 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts racing their creations. If you can't stand to be a spectator, there's also a Mom's and Dad's Division; just tell the organizers that your kid is "that one over there in the Cub Scout uniform."

3. FIPS-Mouche World Fly Fishing Championships

a.fly2.jpgShould you find yourself on New Zealand's North Island between now and Sunday, you might want to consider checking out the 28th World Fly Fishing Championships. The event, which began on March 22, is challenging some of the world's top anglers to pull in brown and rainbow trout from Lake Otamangakau and Lake Rotoaira. Working in five-man teams, the anglers fish in five three-hour sessions, then have their catches scored by judges. The team with the highest overall score is the winner. The real winners, though, are the fish. Wait. No. They're the losers.

4. Pan Jiu-Jistu Championship 2008

a.jiu.jpgBrazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on ground fighting and grappling. One of its tenets is that a smaller, weaker person can defend himself against a stronger attacker by gaining a dominant position through leverage, then applying a series of joint locks or chokeholds. Sounds pretty entertaining to watch, right? Get to California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, California by Friday to see some top-flight grappling.

5. World Championship Cheese Contest

a.cheese.jpgSadly, we already missed the 2008 edition of this classic, but there's no harm in getting excited for the next running of the biennial event, is there? The host of the event, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association describes the event like so: "This contest is an objective assessment of cheeses and butters and awards gold, silver and bronze medals to the finest products in 79 classes." So if you're tired of overly subjective judging of dairy products, this could be the championship for you to watch. Kudos to Michael Spycher of Kaserei Fritzenhaus in Switzerland; his "Le Gruyere Switzerland" took home the honors as the world champion cheese.

6. Cowboy Action Championship

Another one that's already passed, but man, do we ever wish we'd seen it. Each year the Single Action Shooters Society holds Winter Range, a national championship to discover who is in fact the fastest, most accurate gun in the West. Using only single-action firearms, the older "cowboy" style of gun that must be manually cocked between each shot, competitors ride horses through obstacle courses while shooting balloons and stalk through fabricated old-time towns to shoot at model silhouettes of varmints. Next year's competition if March 4th-8th near Phoenix. Buy a six-gun and book a room now. This video from this year's competition should tell you all you need to know:
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7. National Shag Dancing Championships

a.shag.jpg"Shag nationals," as they're known, have been held in Myrtle Beach since 1984 as a celebration of the swing-dancing variant. The championships allow both professional and amateur shaggers to be judged on the basis of smoothness, degree of difficult, togetherness, execution, and repertoire. Each couple's dance must display a number of compulsory steps, including a duck walk, a boogie walk, and a belly roll with a male lead. If you know what any of those phrases mean, you should certainly find your way to Myrtle Beach for next March's annual showdown.

8. Microsoft Server Championship Competition

a.server.jpgMarch Madness meets American Idol meets IT guys in this fourth annual championship, which takes place on Saturday at Microsoft's Hong Kong office. Three-person teams of programmers meet with a "customer" who gives them a business problem. The team must then use Microsoft's Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 to craft an answer to the problem. The winning squad gets HK $10,000 apiece, free HP laptops, and the most coveted server-guru plum of them all: a job interview with Microsoft.

9. American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

a.tyler.jpgCrossword enthusiasts' annual answer to the World Series was featured in the great documentary Wordplay, and this year's contest came to a close on March 2nd with a familiar result: Tyler Hinman, just 23 years old, won the tournament for a fourth time. The annual competition, which is organized by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, sees top puzzlers attempt to accurately complete eight original puzzles as fast as they can. The grand prize winner takes home $5,000 and the adoration of puzzle enthusiasts everywhere.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
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Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

Getty Images

As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

Getty Images

You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

Getty Images

It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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