The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The unmistakable scent of Spam. Welcome to Bubbalympics, an annual sporting event (of sorts) that truly qualifies as the “Wide World of Sports” – the wider the better. Also, the wilder and the wackier the better.
For the past seven years, Bubbalympics has been one of the most popular public events sponsored by Rock 92 (WKRR) 92.3FM, based in Greensboro. The event is an offshoot of the popular “2 Guys Named Chris” morning drive-time radio show, named for hosts Chris Kelly and Chris Demm. The event itself was conceived in 2000 by the advertising department at WKRR, and although the name “Bubbalympics” already existed, “it was absolutely perfect,” says Demm. “We couldn’t have come up with a better name.” As for the actual Bubbalympic events, which range from Spam sculpting to the toilet-seat toss, “that was us,” Kelly says proudly. “We brainstormed those.” The “competition” is structured in such a way that a contestant could conceivably lose every relay but still possibly win on points for showmanship. Innovation goes a long way in the Bubbalympics, and this year’s event finds many of the contestants vying for those all-important style points, which in years past have sometimes been the deciding factor in determining a winner. Summarizes Demm, the perfect Bubbalympics contestant possesses “girth, guts, tattoos, a certain outlook on life.” The world of Bubbalympic athlete – and the term is applied very loosely – is one in which the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers Band are holy as hymns, in which there is no controversy regarding the display of a Confederate flag, in which napkins and silverware are optional at mealtime and in which teeth are optional, period. This isn’t a beauty pageant. Nor is it survival of the fittest. If anything, it’s just the opposite. It is, in the words of Chris Demm, “an athletic event for the non-athletic.” In the past seven years, the contestants “have elevated it to a new level,” says Kelly. “They’ve brought some great ideas and gimmicks. We’re constantly surprised by the… ummm… innovations that the guys have brought to the event.” Some of the previous Bubbalympics contestants have moved away or moved on. Steve Coulthard, the Bubbalympics champion from 2003-05, graciously bowed out of further competition after his hat trick. One or two “simply vanished,” Kelly says. “Disappeared. We never heard from them again.” Mike Williams, AKA “Big Mike,” was the Bubbalympics champion in 2002 and was twice a first runner-up to Coulthard. He too has hung up his toilet seat and brought his experience and expertise to the last two events as a judge. “Even if I weren’t a judge, I’d have to come out and watch it,” he says. Williams used his celebrity status to indulge in another of his pastimes: Twice he has qualified for the Chili Appreciation Society International’s world championship Chili Cook-Off. (And, no, Spam is not his secret ingredient.) I was honored to be asked to judge again this year – having performed in that capacity in 2004 and 2005. Julie Wilson, of Harley-Davidson Greensboro, is also aboard as a judge. The event is structured for approximately a dozen contestants, and this year there were 11 vying for the championship: T-Bone (last year’s winner and current favorite), the Natural, Freight Train, Big Daddy, Boogie-Woogie, Big Jimmy, Big Sexy, Big Scottie, Markieo, Wookie and Dino. (If the “big” motif seems excessive, one look at these guys changes all that.) Entry requirements are simple, according to Demm. “If they meet the weight requirement [250 pounds], they’re in.” But competition is both fierce and formidable, to say nothing of flabby. Dino has come all the way from Wilmington to compete, while others – like Boogie-Woogie and Big Sexy – are back for another try. Then there’s Freight Train (“‘Cause I’m big!” he boasts), a rookie with talent and determination. In addition to being a state of mind, being a “Bubba” has no boundaries. This year’s contestants were a conglomeration of North Carolina’s biggest and beefiest, hailing from such counties as Forsyth, Guilford, Davie, Randolph, Alamance, Rockingham, Montgomery, Lee and Davidson. The entrants ride in on Harleys and their fans go wild. Wookie’s people have T-shirts proudly proclaiming their hero. Big Jimmy has been accompanied by his bandanna-wearing “posse,” which he identifies as the Blues Creek Militia. Big Jimmy came up short last year, and he’s determined not to go home empty-handed again. Big Scottie proudly enters the arena in a makeshift “John Beer” tractor of his own design – truly an impressive example of showmanship. Some fans hold up signs (misspelled, of course) in support of their heroes, and a few onlookers (groupies?) appear as if they’ve taken a wrong turn into the Twilight Zone. They have.
In seven short years, Emerald Pointe Wet ‘n Wild has become to Bubbalympics what Panathenian Stadium became to the Olympic Games in Athens. “We cannot say enough about the people at Emerald Pointe,” says Demm. “They build the stage, they handle the staging of the event. They do a great job.” “And they’ve forgiven us,” adds Kelly, as he recalls some of the lesser moments of Bubbalympics in years past – such as one aquatic event involving Moon Pies. “It didn’t work out,” Kelly says with a sigh. “We ended up with mashed Moon Pies all over the water. We didn’t take into account the clean-up factor.” “Ugly,” says Demm. “It was ugly.” A hot-dog eating competition also had to be rethought. “Eating as many hot dogs as you can and then going into the water can be problematic,” Demm says. Some of the events have become perennials, such as the Spam sculpting. Another favorite, the ham toss, was tossed aside this year. (“Last year, someone threw the ham into the crowd,” Demm recalls.) Safety first, comedy second. The first event of the day is also one of the most popular: the aforementioned Spam sculpting. Contestants must build a car using three cans of Spam and their imagination. With each year, the contestants become more inventive and the Spam seemingly more aromatic in the hot summer sun. “It’s inspiring to see what guys can do with three cans of Spam and five minutes,” Demm says. Props and accoutrements are encouraged, and although the rules forbid any eating of Spam, some of the athletes can’t resist an extra boost of protein, carbohydrates and saturated fat. These guys have to keep their strength up. When it comes to Spam sculpting, Williams is a stickler for invention – and he speaks from experience. Some contestants will bring a toy truck and simply load it up with Spam. Others will build the truck out of Spam and then add a motor. Some will spray-paint their creation, or decorate it with mementos of Rock-92. A few of the trucks actually run. A first this year: Boogie-Woogie’s remote control not only works his Spam truck, but also that of T-Bone’s. Truly a first, but hardly a worst. Leaving the Spam behind (and not a moment too soon), it’s off to Shipwreck Cove for the aquatic portion of Bubbalympics – a huge favorite with the spectators, who this year number well into the hundreds. A few more years like this, and Vegas will start laying odds on the outcome. The Cannonball event speaks for itself. The bigger the splash, the more points you get. And some of these guys certainly know how to make a splash. Showmanship is just as big part of the water events as anything (and everything) else. T-Bone is dressed in a resplendent purple pimp’s outfit and Markieo is dressed like Humpty Dumpty, while Dino sticks with his Fred Flintstone motif (“the Fredneck,” he calls himself). As for those contestants wearing skimpy Speedos… well, perhaps that too qualifies as showmanship. It may not always be in good taste, but Bubbalympics has already prided itself on being a family-friendly event… provided the families on hand don’t mind seeing the occasional – or not so-occasional – ass crack. The aquatic events are often the most suspenseful and exciting of the Bubbalympics. In years past, some of the athletes have proudly displayed their bulk and their bombast – but not so proudly their inability to swim. Cue the Emerald Pointe lifeguard staff, which has occasionally had to rescue a contestant from going adrift. (Hasselhoff, eat your heart out!) This year, however, the athletes all seem to have a modicum of swimming ability. Musical Rafts is exactly the same as musical chairs. There are 11 athletes and 10 life preservers. When the music stops, each one must get into a raft. Whoever doesn’t is out. With each round, there is one less contestant and one less raft. And so on. This year, it’s clear that the big losers are the rafts, a number of which don’t survive the event. “We at Rock-92 are not responsible for the rafts,” Kelly jokes to the crowd as the lifeguard retrieves yet another forlorn, deflated raft from the pool. This cutthroat competition is followed by yet another Bubbalympics favorite – the Water Ballet. Some of the athletes wear beautiful tutus, others bring props or assistants to join in their carefully choreographed routines. Boogie-Woogie is joined by “my old ladies” for his, while Big Sexy is joined by a little girl for a lovely dance routine. He’s playing the cute card, and the chorus of “Awwww” from the crowd is fairly indicative that it worked. “We assume that he’s related to her,” Kelly says. He is. If the water ballet sounds easy, try hamming it up in three-and-a-half feet of water for 30 seconds. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and the crowd grows restless if the routine seems slow or repetitive. The water ballet is what separates the men from the boys… or something like that. (It separates something from something, we’re just not sure what.)
There are no losers in Bubbalympics, but it’s hard to say there’s a winner when it comes to bobbing for pickled pig’s feet, perhaps the most grueling event of the entire competition. A contestant can rack up as many as 15 points (one for each pig’s foot), but it’s no easy trick. Just ask Boogie-Woogie, the only contestant to score a perfect 0. “I ain’t got no teeth!” he laments. Nevertheless, Boogie-Woogie earns some points for showmanship by enjoying a quick snack of liver pudding washed down with chocolate syrup before bobbing for fig’s feet. (This inspires the judges to step away from the stage, just in case he heaves. Thankfully, he doesn’t.) On the other hand, the Natural scores a perfect 15. It isn’t pretty, but it’s perfect. Over the years, some contestants have eaten dog food – “an impressive sight,” quips Kelly – and this year is no exception. To “honor” those who have blazed that trail at Bubbalympics past, last year’s champ T-Bone takes a nice, hearty bite of Alpo before the toilet-seat toss – all the better, he says, to wash the pigs’ feet from his palette. (A few of the other athletes ask for a bite for the same reason!) You could cut the tension with a knife as the final event approaches. The aroma – nay, the stench – of the pickled pig’s feet adds an entirely new dimension to Bubbalympics, one that surpasses even the Spam sculpting. With only the toilet-seat toss left, it quickly becomes apparent that this Bubbalympics is going down to the wire. As I glance over my tallies, there are four contestants within a few points of each other. There has never been a tie in Bubbalympics, and if there is a sudden death toilet-seat toss-off determines the winner. Replicating the basic rules of horseshoes, the toilet-seat toss is truly the capper to the event. Much to his (and the crowd’s) disappointment, T-Bone fares poorly at the toilet-seat toss, which all but eliminates his chances to repeat as champion. Others do remarkably well and suddenly find themselves back in the running. For some, however, the lack of points in the early events may come back to haunt them – some of the contestants really need to work on their Spam-sculpting – even for those who go for last-minute showmanship points by swigging Texas Pete hot sauce straight from the bottle. I think you can actually hear the contestants’ arteries clogging, but if it makes one of them a champion, so be it! After the toilet-seat toss, the judges are quick to tally up their scorecards and hand them off to the Bubbalympics officials for the painstaking final count. Is that a drumroll, or the collective sound of the athletes’ stomachs growling? And it is official: There is a new Bubbalympics champion for 2007. T-Bone has been dethroned. Maybe it was his poor showing at the toilet-seat toss, or his rapid elimination from Musical Rafts. It’s hard to fault his showmanship – those pimp threads at the pool remain etched in my memory like a bad acid flashback. Nevertheless, for one year, T-Bone has lived the life of a champion. How many people can say that? By a single point, Big Jimmy wins. He’s not the biggest. He’s not the blondest. He’s not the oldest. He’s not the youngest. But he did come on strong in Musical Rafts, and he scored a lucky 13 slopping up pig’s feet. Could you do better? Could I? The answer is no. The roar of triumph from the Blues Creek Militia is genuine and heartfelt, and Big Jimmy graciously acknowledges their support, as well as the camaraderie of his fellow Bubbas, including Big Scottie, who in second place receives a family pass good for one year at the water park, and third-place winner Wookie, who wins a selection of Moon Pies, pork rinds and RC Cola. But Big Jimmy is King Bubba. He’s the top banana. Sumbitch, he’s the winner. At the end of the day, it was he who dug deepest of all. Deeper than most self-respecting humans would ever dare dig. It is he who will wield the Golden Plunger for a year. It is he who will win the $1,000 cash prize – which he probably won’t spend on pickled pig’s feet. And it is he who will, if he’s available, defend his title at next year’s Bubbalympics. You can almost smell the Spam in the breeze already…. In fact, you can. And it smells like… victory.
Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92.