Although it may have been superceeded in recent years by more flashy forms of sporting entertainment such as football, basketball and international paint drying, the sport which I hold closest to my heart is one which has never truly been forgotten.
And although it may have faded somewhat since the glorious heyday of it’s most famous competitors, International Championship Sleeping is still a surprisingly popular event in many countries.
Invented in 1736 by the Earl of Snooze and quickly adopted throughout the fledgling British Empire, competitive sleeping was soon picked up as a popular hobby by many simply because of it’s universal nature. Indeed, throughout the 19th century, unlicensed sleeping matches took place throughout the slums of London’s East End, resulting in many arrests and a great deal more snoring fines.
It is a sport, also, that is not without it’s legends. In 1901, Charles “Snoozy” Truscott took the first officially recognised sleeping title off of Timothy Bleary. This was, of course, in the days of bare-knuckle sleeping before today’s modern safety measures had been put into practise.
In thirties America, black snoozemen like “Sleepy” Joe Gainesville and “Walking” Jack Somnus became pioneers and minor celebrities in the then-segregated Negro sleeping leagues.
(Many years later, of course, it would be revealed that “Walking” Jack Somnus’ legendary somnambulism was all and act and that he’d actually just been going about his day to day tasks with his eyes mostly closed. He was stripped of his titles by the W. S. F and died in shame in 1986. )
Sleeping is also not without it’s celebrity fans. Sure, Jack Nicholson may be a basketball fanatic and Kevin Costner has his baseball, but did you know that Gerald Ford was asleep for his entire term in office, from 1974-1977, only to finally awake triumphantly in the mid nineties?
Attempts to coerce George W. Bush into repeating this feat have, sadly, fallen short.
Of course, as with many modern sports, professional training, big name sponsorship and the hyper-competitive way of the modern world have, unavoidably, altered the modern game. Whereas in the golden era of sleeping, Babe “In the wood” Rutherford wowed fans by pointing sagely to his bed and promptly falling asleep in it for 72 years and nine months, modern super-sleepers have raised the bar to almost superhuman feats. The current world sleeping record holder, Tommy “The Doormat” King, has been asleep since four months before he was born, and turns a hundred and two next year.
Illness has also begun to dog the “World’s Favourite Sport”, as many recent scholars call into question the achievements of some of the more legendary sleepers, pointing out that, in all likelihood, it was not competitive and there was something deeply wrong with them. Many have argued, for example, that “Stumbles” McGee, the light-napping champion from 1916-1922, was in fact just an unfortunate narcoleptic, given to shouting “where am I?!” and “Who are you?!” at waiting reporters who often gathered to watch his lightning-quick changes from sleep to wakefulness and then back to the land of nod. It was, at the time, assumed that McGee was simply showboating for the crowd, but his tragic suicide whilst suffering from what were diagnosed as paranoid delusions of persecution left many unanswered questions which science is only now shedding light on.
Inevitably, drugs, too, have blighted modern sleeping, as they have so many sports. Who can forget then 1992 Barcelona Olympics when female sleeping hopeful Tong Bak Yong was caught at customs with 400 bottles of NightNurse and a syringe full of Red Bull for later? Truly a dark day for sport.
Still, International Sleeping is still with us, and many see a bright future, and a look at the current league table only goes to show why, with George Morning, Pete Noonan, and John Nyttol all poised for a blistering 2006, fighting for the World #2 spot, left open by his Holiness, the late John Paul II. I'll keep you posted.