Thoughts on rituals through cheese rolls

Last weekend, I was watching the Netflix series, “We are the Champions,” a show dedicated to the winners of “unusual” sports such as yo-yo’ing, dog dancing, or the infamous Cooper Hill Cheese Roll (a long time favorite of mine, even though I’ve only watched Youtube videos of the event). For those unfamiliar, the Cheese Roll is a contest held in Cooper’s Hill near Gloucester, England in which a roll of cheese is set on its way down a 200 yard hill, with human beings “racing” after it. Because the hill is at 45 degree angle and the cheese is going 80 mph (distance conversions here, obviously, for we metric-impaired types), no one is meant to literally catch the cheese.  Instead, the winner is the person who simply makes it down the hill the fastest. 

Sounds easy enough when I simply write it down? 

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But no. In fact, participants are very likely to get injured.

Given the steep angle and the rugged, rain weary terrain, most people trip early on and are sent tumbling head over heel the rest of the way, with concussions and dislocated collar bones a norm. Indeed, people start rolling so quickly that a team of rugby players sets themselves up at the bottom of the hill to help stop some of the bodies. The winner of each race (there are both men’s and women’s divisions) is generally the person best able to land on their feet from time to time and take a few coherent steps prior to tumbling again. 

It’s an insane competition to watch at any time, but with Rainn Wilson narrating the Netflix series, it somehow becomes both majestic and absurd.

A question you find yourself asking when you watch the race (and this has happened to me each time I’ve seen videos of the competition) is, “How the hell did this get started?” “What were people thinking?”

The documentary, of course, doesn’t fail to ask this question. They ask competitors, local citizens, family members, and any number of people how the tradition began. Everyone, it seems, has a different story. The only common thread seems to be that no one actually knows how the tradition began.

And this question of tradition is how I pivot to soccer (and, ultimately, to local soccer). Given my absolute adoration of all things ritual (I think my Catholic upbringing has a lot to do with this but so does my general OCD), it may be surprising to know that I am most enamored of those rituals without a clear origin. When no one can identify how a ritual truly began (although some claim to be quite certain), there’s a bit more magic to them, as if they were handed down by God himself (why God would want us to chase cheese is the type of theological question most of us would prefer to actually going to a religious service). The odder the ritual, the more interesting it is when we don’t know how they started.  If we don’t quite understand the connection between Chelsea fans and throwing celery on the pitch, for example, something seems just a bit more majestic about the whole thing.

In our current era, it’s hard to imagine a ritual with an origin that gets forgotten. All of us document almost every action—on Facebook, on twitter, on Slack, on reddit. We tell our stories over and over again, and we especially document those types of actions about which we are proud. Believe me, if we were the ones who created a new ritual, a new tradition, we would document it. If I invented the cheese roll, believe me you would know it.

Future historians are going to be gifted with rich and deep archives from which to draw forth the origins of our rituals. 

For better or worse, a historian in fifty years will be able to look back and understand the causes of rituals that develop now among our fan base. And for good or bad, they are likely to be able to pin the origin or “cause” of some rituals on particular people. We will know, for example, who started the ritual of “Chalupa tosses,” the “Hey Stephen, take a break” cheer and what have you. For me, while interesting, some of the magic will be gone.

The upside of such archiving, of course, will be to celebrate “invention,” to celebrate those fans who help cultivate meaningful and powerful ritual and traditions that bring us together as family.   

On the other hand (or, perhaps, furthermore), such archiving will allow us to point fingers at the most cringeworthy of fan behavior.

Which leads me, finally, to the entire purpose of this meandering column:

The Crocs thing I’ve been reading online. No, just no. Stop it now. We will know who you are. And we will never forget.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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