Wacky races: 10 weird and wonderful contests through history

Humans have always been a competitive bunch, but some need to win no matter the contest. From athletes that ran naked in ancient Greece to the Great Tea Race of 1866, BBC History Revealed shares 10 wacky historical races…

Charlton Hetson races a chariot in Ben-Hur
1

Suicide mission

Riders in The World-Famous Suicide Race of Omak, in the US state of Washington, have 15 metres to get their horses up to speed before charging down a ridiculously steep hill – with a 62° slope – into a river, which they traverse, and then sprint for around 460 metres. It is hair-raising, lightning-quick and not without controversy. Animal rights groups deem the event not as suicide, but murder, and while it has a tangential connection to Native American endurance tests, the race was devised by white people in 1935 to promote a rodeo.

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2

Wheely long road trip

The fledgling automobile got the ultimate test in 1908 when a couple of newspapers put on a race from New York to Paris. Six cars started, heading west before shipping over the Pacific and trundling through Russia and Europe. Just a few problems: it was winter, so snowdrifts made it less a race and more a crawl at times; and roads were not fit for purpose or were nonexistent. Half of the competitors dropped out, but the Thomas Flyer from the US, held together by mechanic George Schuster, reached the finish after six months and 22,000 miles.

The beginning of the transglobal race in New York.
The drivers line up at the start on Broadway, New York. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
3

Hop like a hoplite

Running naked was the norm for all races in the ancient Olympics in Greece, except the hoplitodromos. This ‘race in armour’, which first appeared at the games in 520 BC, required competing men to wear the helmet and greaves (armour for the lower legs) and carry the large wooden shield of the hoplite soldier. They then lugged this gear over at least two lengths of the stadium – around 350-400 metres. Unsurprisingly, the Greeks used the hoplitodromos as training for the military.

4

I camembert it

While Olympians chase gold, participants in this bizarre contest race for something less valuable, but much tastier. A round of Double Gloucester cheese is released down Cooper’s Hill in Brockworth, Gloucestershire (these days it’s a foam cheese; prior to 2013 it was a real one) and a second later the racers hurl themselves down the slope in pursuit. Broken bones are part and parcel of the event, which may date to the 15th century.

5

Going for gold

There is a tale of two 19th-century prospectors finding gold at the same time in the same place, so they had to rush with their equipmentladen burros, or donkeys, back to town to claim the spot. Whether that happened or not, pack burro racing is now a favourite in Colorado, US. On the cross-country races, the donkeys cannot be ridden and must have at least 15kg on their saddles – but the organisers ensure they are not mistreated.

6

French revolutions

The inaugural Tour de France in 1903 was such a success that there was no question of it not returning the following year. The 1904 tour, however, almost saw cycling’s most prestigious race cancelled for good as it was plagued by cheating and scandals. Cyclists were stopped and even beaten by the supporters of rivals, glass and nails were scattered on the roads, and riders used cars and trains to get around. In all, 12 of the 27 finishers were disqualified, including the top four, which elevated 19-year-old Henri Cornet to the yellow jersey.

7

Crepe expectations

Shrove Tuesday is a time to eat pancakes for most people, but for some it’s about running with them. In 1445, as the story goes, a woman in Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy preparing pancakes that she was late for church and had to run down the street in her apron and clutching her pan – and with that, the pancake race was born. The original Olney Pancake Race is still contested: only local women can compete in the 380-metre dash to the church, and they must toss their pancakes at the start and finish.

8

I carry thee to be my wife

To any wives: would you trust your husband to carry you as he races along a 253.5-metre obstacle course, clambering over wooden poles and diving into pools of water? If not, Eukonkanto (wife carrying) is not for you. Men are carrying wives (it doesn’t necessarily have to be their own) all over the world, but the home of the race is Sonkajärvi, Finland, where the world championships are held every year.

Competitors in a wife-carrying race.
One theory for the race’s roots is the ancient practice of stealing women to marry. (Photo by Timo Hartikainen /AFP/ GettyImages)
9

An Oolong way for a cuppa

Demand for tea in mid-19th-century Britain was so high that, every season, the clippers carrying the finest leaves from China would race to be first to London and win a premium price of ten shillings per ton. It never got more dramatic than the Great Tea Race of 1866. Five ships set sail at the same time and remained so close the whole way that after 97 days at sea, the two leaders – Ariel and Taeping – were still in sight of each other on the English Channel. In fact, Ariel beat Taeping by ten minutes, yet took longer to dock so it was agreed for the ships to split the prize.

10

Ben-Hurt

The Romans loved chariot races for the speed, bravery and horsemanship, but what would public entertainment in Rome be without the chance of blood and gore? As seen in Ben-Hur, charioteers risked their lives in the Circus Maximus, as crashes and trampling were frequent. That makes it all the more impressive that Gaius Appuleius Diocles survived a 24-year career and won 1,462 races, which earned him more than 35 million sesterces.

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This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed