In November 2006, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident named Bryan Bennett drove 700 miles from his home in New Jersey to Toronto. He wasn’t there to see the CN Tower. Bennett was a contestant in the Rock Paper Scissors World Championships—and he came away with the silver medal, a cool $1,400, and a small amount of fame.
“People know who I am and they want to play me,” he says. He accepts these challenges because he “needs to keep sharp.” Bennett is planning on competing again this year, with the hope of taking home first prize ... and more than $9,000.
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.