Unusual Sports: Greasy pole climbing

Yes, you heard that right! This sport involves climbing a greasy pole! Depending upon the local tradition, the pole is either vertical or horizontal. If it is placed vertically, whoever reaches the top first and grabs the red flag is the winner. However, there is another slight variation to this sport — the pole is sometimes laid horizontally over the sea, and these participants must walk across it, whoever gets the farthest is the winner! This sport is not recommended for people who are afraid of heights, as falling is extremely common.

This sport is very popular in the United Kingdom. There have been a variety of greasy pole contests held at many different fairs, including the Crab Fair in Egremont, Cumbria, alongside the annual Gurning World Championships. The prize for climbing the 30-foot-long (9 m) pole was originally a hat, but from 1852 became a side of mutton, which if there are no winners is cut up and distributed to the poor. In 2004, the greasy pole was discontinued as an event at Egremont Crab Fair, due to high insurance cover costs should a participant fall from the pole.

Like I mentioned earlier, depending upon the local tradition, the pole’s position varies slightly. At the annual Seaview Regatta in the Isle of Wight, the greasy pole is laid horizontally over the sea. The competitors then walk along it, balancing as best as they can, trying to walk as far as they can before losing their balance and falling into the sea below. The person who walks the farthest without falling is claimed the winner. 

Even though this sport is very dangerous and messy, it is very entertaining to watch! It is a crowd favorite in many different places of the world including Indonesia, Brazil, the UK and the Caribbean. This sport was so popular that it even made an appearance in the 1904 Olympics! They probably discontinued it due to liability issues, but it’s still around today for anyone crazy enough to try it! The biggest stage now for the Greasy Pole Competition, takes place every year during St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In that competition, usually there’s between 40 and 50 male participants, between the ages of 18 and 60. While competing they test out the slipperiness of the pole all while attempting to be the first to reach the end of the pole and grab the red flag. But, what is used to grease this pole and how long / far do they have to go? The grease pole is usually about 45 feet long, and if it is placed horizontally, it can be anywhere between 10 to 25 feet from the sea at Gloucester Harbor. The pole is heavily greased with biodegradable axle grease. However, to make it even more slippery, they may also coat it with a different variety of “toppings”, ranging from Tabasco sauce, to banana peels — just don’t rub your eyes! 

The good news is anyone can participate in this sport! The event is currently held on Friday, June 29, Saturday, June 30 and Sunday, July 1 – always at 4:45pm. The first round is a courtesy round where each participant gets to test and experience the slipperiness of the pole, that round doesn’t count. One by one contestants take their turn trying to capture the red flag before slipping and falling into the water. How do people compete in this sport, and what are some tactics these competitors use? Some contestants sprint out like you see in horse racing, hoping that the momentum will carry them to the end of the pole. Others take a very slow approach, one step at a time, always trying to maintain their balance. It is not uncommon for these daring individuals to come away with scrapes, bruises or even broken ribs from the fall after they slip! However, the best way to climb the pole, vertically at least, is that the most successful climbers have been seen to form a human ladder. It kind of looks like a cheerleader formation. They then send a small climber to the top, along with towels to wipe the pole clean. Climbers can also wear socks on their hands and feet to wipe away the grease. This sport is both an individual and team sport, again depending on the specific competition. There also doesn’t seem to be any rules, just objectives you need to do in order to win, once again showing how dangerous this sport can be. Is it worth it for a hat or some mulch, though? If not, why is this sport still around today? Again, it is a big entertainment factor, but what do the participants really get out of it? Maybe they are adrenaline junkies and the fear of heights heightens their experience of it even more, but for me, I am perfectly happy with my feet remaining on the ground.