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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Unusual, weird, and interesting sports

On a safari in Nepal, Phil Noble discovered the sport of elephant polo.

“Incredible, absolutely incredible,” said Noble, who visited Nepal in 1999 to take photographs for a travel feature for the Press Association, the British wire service.

“There were seven elephant polo teams there from all over the world, and an umpire riding a massive bull elephant who rode around ensuring fair play,” said Noble, 32, who joined Reuters in 2006. “There were two other guys running around the field removing any elephant dung dropped on either goal line which could have prevented a goal from being scored.”

Through his camera lens, Noble has seen some of the wackiest sports on the planet.

In August 2006, he was in Wales to shoot the bog-snorkeling world championship, which featured 100 contestants — some wearing pajamas — with snorkels and flippers in a muddy trench about 150 feet long and 4 feet deep. Rules governing the sport forbid using conventional strokes.

“People of all ages, of all sizes, jumped into this smelly trench and tried to get from one end to the other as fast as they could,” Noble said. “Spectators were cheering wildly when a woman who weighed about 400 pounds jumped into the mud, and they cheered one man who jumped in wearing a fairy-godmother costume, and another who wore a Superman cape.”

One of Noble’s photographs of bog snorkeling is included in a recently published book, “Reuters Sports in the 21st Century” (Thames & Hudson).

“Like Phil, many of our photographers have a passion to cover the quirkier side of sports,” said Jassim Ahmad, a photo editor at Reuters who managed production of the book. “When we were putting this book together, it was unbelievable to learn of all the weird, wonderful sports going on in the world.”

Noble, who lives with his wife, Paula, and their two children in Manchester, England, has zoomed in on his share of oddball sports in his home country. He once covered a cheese-rolling championship in Summerbee, where participants clench large wheels of cheese between their legs before releasing them down a hill and giving chase.

“The cheese wheel is about the size of a soccer ball, and the first guy who catches his cheese wins,” Noble said. “But the hill is so steep, it’s actually quite dangerous. In fact, an ambulance crew waits at the bottom of the hill, just in case.”

Noble has also covered sheep racing in Wales and toe wrestling in England.

“Obviously, you cannot ride sheep,” Noble said. “So people knit jockeys out of wool and fasten the knitted jockeys to the sheep and race them on a course made out of bales of hay. It’s sort of like a rodeo, but on a smaller scale.”

Noble has his sights set on covering a number of other little-known championship events in England and beyond, including cricket matches on ice, lawn mower racing and desert golf.

“When I golf, I have a habit of finding bunkers,” Noble said, laughing. “As much time as I spend hitting out of sand traps, I would give Tiger Woods a run for his money in desert golf.”

Although he has photographed “everyone in England from Prince Charles to David Beckham,” Noble says he gets great satisfaction in “covering people you can actually relate to.”

“When it comes to covering mainstream politics or sports, you can’t get anywhere near most celebrities for a little conversation or to get to know them a bit, because they are always off limits,” he said. “One of the best parts of my job is that I do get to meet regular people, like the men and women who compete in these lesser-known sports.

“Take the winners of the bog-snorkeling and cheese-rolling events. Except for the fact that one of them dived into a smelly, muddy swamp and the other chased a cheese wheel down a steep hill in order to become world champions, they are really no different than you and me.”

Adrift in the Weird World of Sports
Published: December 30, 2007