An eyebrow or two may have been raised in Ennis, County Clare on 3 January when Kieren “Beefy” Blake and his sidekick Rob Bryers, a Welshman and a New Zealander, pitched up to try their hand at the Irish Christmas Tree Throwing Championships. Bryers proceeded to hurl his conifer 4.5m, officially making him New Zealand No1 in the sport, and it was just the latest story to unfold in a remarkable undertaking that sounds like the kind of scheme a group of friends would dream up in the pub before letting it drift into the night.
“That’s exactly how it was,” says Blake of the 365 days of sport project, in which he and Bryers are travelling the globe and watching a different sport for every day of the calendar year. “The twist is that I actually had that night out about 16 years ago, and only told about 10 people because I didn’t want anyone else to do it. Three years ago I decided to really put the time into it, and I basically spent it as a second job, researching every sport I could get my hands on and putting schedules together.”
Blake says he has discovered around 860 different sports so far, but a year’s worth will do for now and the pair’s odyssey began with a speedway grand prix in Melbourne on 24 October. Twelve other countries have been visited since then and they clocked their 100th sport on Thursday, when they watched a rallying meeting in the Swedish town of Karlstad.
“We’ve kept the schedule as broad as possible,” Blake says. “In November we went to the Melbourne Cup on a Tuesday, with 110,000 people there, and the next day we drove to a small, rural town in the middle of Victoria to watch a sheepdog trial. Only 10 people were watching that one. You go from one extreme to another but the passion is still the same, from the farmers, to the people who work with the sheepdogs, to the jockeys that ride the horses for millions of dollars. That’s the broad spectrum we want to sum up.”
What constitutes a sport is an obvious point of contention, but Blake and Bryers’ primary stipulation is that every event they attend must be an official, organised contest. Pilota valenciana, a relative of handball that is played solely in the Valencia region, was a particular favourite and others have bucked their preconceptions.
“The one that really surprised us was indoor cycling in Malaysia,” Blake says. “It was split up into artistic cycling and cycle ball [a version of football played on bicycles], and the skill and passion involved are phenomenal. The athletes – and we’ve found this in many places – are just glad to chat afterwards and share their achievements with you. They aren’t making big money but many of them are world champions.”
So are the tuna throwers Blake and Bryers watched strut their stuff in Port Lincoln and the carriage racers who kicked up a sandstorm in London’s Olympia centre shortly before Christmas.
The Olympic Games are on their schedule for August, with the World Crazy Golf Championships in Hastings pencilled in to complete the journey. There have been bumps on the road, though, with cancelled flights in the United States taking out three days of their schedule – including the keenly-awaited Royal Shrovetide football competition – last week but motivation to find a way to the finish remains high.
“We’re pretty positive, between us, but there have been a few tough moments,” Blake says. “We were at the Super Bowl last Sunday but the tickets we’d been promised fell through and we just couldn’t justify the prices people were asking outside. Then we had the travel problems after that and perhaps this is the first week where you start to question the mentality of the whole thing, what’s gone right and what hasn’t. But all of a sudden we’re on the road to the rallying in Sweden, then the Youth Olympic Games, and it’s a brand new day. You meet so many different people and that keeps you going.”
Blake, who is based in Australia but played cricket for Wales, and Bryers accompany each sporting experience with an online television show and extensive interaction on social media. They hope that their journey, coupled with the laudable production values of their output, will prove attractive to a sponsor who can ease the strain that self-funding has applied. There has already been interest and the ambition is that, as Blake says, “someone will ask us to do it all over again”.
The point of the trip, Blake stresses, is not remotely self-serving. The less well known sports are all dwelt upon lovingly and there is a genuine appetite to raise their profile. “One of the reasons we do the show is to showcase these sports – to help people participate,” he says.
“If something catches their eye and they think ‘I’d like to have a go at that’, then we’ve started them off. If I can get one more person to start playing a sport they’ve never done before then it would almost be job done for me – it would give me so much pride. I’d encourage everyone to look at sport in a different way, as this journey is doing for us, that’s for sure.”
That could mean another punter coming through the turnstile at next year’s Melbourne Cup – or, perhaps more appropriately, a new flock of potential Christmas tree hurlers bearing down on Clare 11 months from now.