Loco In The Headwinds

Nigel Holmes changed the way Time magazine readers in 1977 consumed visual data. By extension, he influenced an entire generation of data viz designers, perhaps even the entire data viz business long before the internet made information graphics an essential part of the visual language. He has put his talents to the test with his new tome, “Crazy Competitions: 100 Weird and Wonderful Rituals from Around the World” (Taschen). There were many more that were not odd enough, but every nation, people and tribe has some recipe for releasing their lunacy and Holmes has found the most well-known and equally obscure. I asked him about how insane the research process must have been.

This book, “Crazy Competitions”, is incredible. I know what its like to come up with 100 of anything. What inspired this theme?
One of the spreads in an earlier book (“Instant Expert” for Lonely Planet, 2014) was about cheese rolling in England. I included a comment in an empty space on the page: “… if this isn’t silly enough for you, try rat throwing…they do it in Spain.” At a lunch with Julius Wiedemann of Taschen in 2015, I casually asked if he’d be interested a book about such crazy events. He suggested I work up 10 events (words and pictures) and he would show them to his boss, Benedikt Taschen.

The boss said yes, but wanted 100 events, and a larger format than I had envisioned. Julius hooked me up with Chris Mizsak, a researcher in England.The three of us put together a list of possibles. It was surprisingly easy to find 100, by the way—I could probably do a second volume.

I have some idea about a few of these, the famous ones, like Nathan’s Hot Dog eating, but what for you is the most bizarre and surprising of all the competitions?

The Nathan’s Hot Dog event was one of those first 10. I’ve long been fascinated by it, ever since Takeru Kobayshi won it again and again in the early 2000s. The current champion is Joey Chestnut, who stuffed 74 dogs and buns (roughly 18 pounds!) into his mouth in 10 minutes. It’s disgusting. But my vote for the most bizarre (and horrifying) event is the Ritual Baby Drop in small villages in India. It was officially banned in 2011, but continues today by popular demand. 2-month old babies are dropped from a 30-foot tower into a blanket held by religious devotees. The babies scream—of course—but parents believe that the drop will bring health and good luck to their kids.

The book is much more than a list or guide to 100 competitive “sports”, its a blow by blow description. This is up your alley, but where did the information come from?
Many, but not all of the events have official websites; and there’s a ton of eye witness and local news reports about every one of the 100. Chris and others at Taschen checked everything I did and came back to me with questions. Originally, I had intended the book to be rather simple, with one bold graphic per spread. But the more I did, the more I realized how much detail I could include for each one. At some point in 2016, I suggested that one of the final list should be completely made up. I told no one which it was until a copy researcher came back to me thinking I’d made a mistake in the location of what was in fact the fake one. But he didn’t question the event itself! (My son Rowland had created a very convincing website for it.) There was talk of Taschen running a sort of spot-the-fake contest, but I haven’t heard about that lately. Maybe it’s a casualty of the current “fake news” horror show.

Irish Road Bowling? Monkey Banquet? What is the purpose of these competitions? Entertainment? Spectacle?
I think you have the right word for most of them: entertainment. Quite a few of the British examples are the result of bored, and probably drunken, pub-goers coming up with silly ideas. It goes well, so the next year they do it again, and a “tradition” is born. (Lawn mower racing, for instance.) A number of them have religious backgrounds: the Monkey Banquet is a feast for long-tailed macaques held in the grounds of a temple in Lopburi, Thailand. It’s a sort of thank-you to the animals for bringing fortune and good luck to the local population. Other events are quite old. Irish Road Bowling has been going on since the 1600s. That one could almost qualify as a sport.

You categorize them by country. Are there one or two competitions that are universal?
Geography seemed the most natural way to show them. But we did think about listing the events by type (eg: throwing things; religious festivals; just plain silly; etc), or by the time of year. Some events are celebrated in more than one place—the Day of the Dead, for instance—but the only really universal theme is throwing stuff, usually at each other. People throw turnips, flour and eggs, tomatoes, mobile phones, fireants, oranges, Wellington boots, tunafish, paint, wine, skipping stones and…dead rats.

I’ve got to ask since this is such a data heavy book. How long did it take to do?
I started in summer 2015, and delivered 100 spreads—words and graphics composed together as one file per spread—in September 2016. After checking, the files were translated into French and German, for separate foreign language editions of the book. That process took much longer than Taschen had expected; publication was delayed. Meanwhile, I worked on covers. In all, I did 34 different versions. I wanted to call the book “They Throw Dead Rats in Spain,” but the marketing department shot that down early in the process. Other titles considered were: “Odd,” and “Wow!” Eventually, in March this year, the publisher settled on “Crazy Competitions.” I was a bit worried that the word “crazy” might offend some participants in the events or festivals that had religious beginnings; also that not all the events were competitions. But really that was the only point of contention I had with Taschen; they really let me run with the pictures and the text.

And, more to the point, did you partake in any of the 100?
The only one I went to was the hotdog eating contest. (But not as a participant!)What would you say is the most dangerous of them all?
The Onbashira Festival. Once every 6 years, teams of very brave men from Suwa, Japan, cut down and drag 12-ton tree trunks 12 miles, then straddle them as the trunks careen down a steep slope before being installed at four shrines at the bottom of the hill. It’s difficult to stay on the tree trunks. If team members fall off, others, keen to prove their bravery, try to jump onto the speeding wooden missiles. There have been crushed limbs and fatal accidents.

I must admit the Kuno Gassen Fighting Spiders gives me the creeps. What of all the competitions troubles, if that’s the right word, you the most?
I wouldn’t take part in Kudu Dung Spitting.

What do you want the reader to take away?
I hope people have fun reading the book, and looking at the different styles of drawing I’ve used to show very different types of event.  Perhaps readers will be inspired to attend Pig-n-Ford races in the US; to watch Bog Snorkelling or Dwile Flonking in England; or to keep clear of the bees at the Bee Bearding Championship in China. But even if they just read about them here, I hope they will marvel at some of the wild stuff we people do when we don’t take things too seriously.