“Savage Speeders, though–they’ve got some work to do! Little under a quarter of this course remaining, and I don’t think our championship leaders are gonna advance at this point! It would take a massive lunge for them to get up there. The finish line is nearly in sight….”

Anyone idly chopping vegetables in the kitchen behind me while I sit on the teal faux-leather couch in my living room, listening to Greg Woods’ voice soothingly oscillate between hushed surprise and controlled excitement would assume that he was providing expert commentary for a Wimbledon final or Olympic rowing regatta. They might casually wonder if the Thunderbolts is the nickname of some notorious Norwegian bobsled team or when LeBron got traded to Team Galactic or why team names really started going downhill in the past couple decades with new national soccer league entries like the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers.

However, that idle listener may be surprised to find that the Savage Speeders and their competitors are neither Olympians nor professional athletes at all. In fact, they are not even human!

They are marbles.

 

Every once in a while, YouTube knows me better than I know myself. (And by every once in a while I, of course, mean always.) This was undoubtedly the case last week when I made my hourly pilgrimage to YouTube to be presented an image of descending orange funnels blurred with the circling of marbles and overlaid with the text “MARBLELYMPICS 2017 – PART 1.” My heart was aflutter. There’s a marble Olympics? It comes in parts?! PLURAL?!! Imagine, then, when I learned that the Marblelympics comes not only in parts, but in annual installments, beginning in 2016 and stretching on (hopefully) for millennia!

In the four days that it took me to become a verified Marblelympics historian, I learned that the vision for the Marblelympics is simple and straightforward: it is quite literally the Olympics for marbles. The annual competition comprises 16 teams of four marbles each that clash in classic competitions such as the long jump, the five-meter dash, bobsled, hockey, and archery. Every time I have assumed that an event is beyond the non-existent reach of the armless marbles, I am swiftly shown that yes, marbles can, in fact, participate in synchronized diving! The Marblelympics even include opening and closing ceremonies, the lighting and extinguishing of the Marblelympic flame (a plastic, switch-on candle), and, with the addition of new teams over the past couple years, a qualification round to determine which teams have earned the privilege to compete in the presitigous Marblelympic Games.

In the past week alone, I have watched not only the 2016, 2017, and 2018 Marblelympics, but I have also watched the marbles’ occasional friendly events to help them maintain their competitive edge throughout the off-season, perused the online shop for Marblelympics merch, and memorized the names of all 28 current Marblelympics teams. I might be embarrassed by these admissions if it weren’t for the fact that the Marblelympics have refreshed in me so many important life lessons.

The first lesson I have been reminded of is that humans have an instinctive craving for competition and a primal desire to be part of a team. As a child learning to say the sports in Spanish class, I used to assume that there were finite and specific arenas for competition: fútbol, golf, tenis, básquetbol, etc. These were the societally sanctioned outlets for adversarial athleticism.

Since then, I’ve learned that humans can find competition in literally anything. Humans gather every May in hats that flop like Dalí clocks to cheer horses around a dirt track and flock to carnivals to marvel at people eating their weight in pie or hot dogs and fashion elaborate awards shows to pit highly subjective works of art against one another. In fact, a couple days ago I saw a video of the annual Iowa State Fair husband-calling competition, in which middle-aged Midwestern women take turns at a mic loudly nagging and summoning their husbands while a panel of white-bobbed women stoicly judge the shrillness of their delivery. (I suppose it beats watching corn grow!) Humans love the fresh suspense of competition and the decorum that builds up around it.

Humans also love to categorize themselves into teams. We drape our cubicles in Seahawks gear and repost GIFs of our favorite RuPaul’s Drag Race queens and proudly brandish our country’s flag–color-coding ourselves, assembling a sense of belonging with a series of fors and againsts, triumphing vicariously through our team’s victories and dying with their defeats. And so it is that after only a week, I have become so invested in the success of the O’rangers (the team of bold, unflinchingly orange marbles) that I will literally drop whatever I’m doing to watch them compete and find myself muttering encouragements under my breath in the exact way that I do for Venus, Serena, and the American women’s gymnastics team.

Unlike with the Williams and the Final Five, though, the Marblelympics have reminded me of the beauty of small stakes. In a think-piece I recently read on The Great British Baking Show, the writer, Genevieve Valentine (whose job and name I desperately want), extolled the show’s withdrawal from the traditional trappings of reality TV competitions: hefty cash prizes, contrived controversies, and petty feuds, and lauded the program’s conscious choice to invest instead in a measured charm and camaraderie. Genevieve writes, “There’s a sense of acceptance in these nearly impossible challenges. Something will go wrong. Nothing will ever be perfect. That’s all right; everyone’s fine, and the bake goes on.”

We live in a world that seems to hinge on the outcome of every titanic clash we witness. Sports games sell out colossal stadiums, each race has the potential to define an Olympian’s legacy, professional athletes play with the weight of entire industries on their shoulders, presidential elections promise two opposite futures for hundreds of millions of people. There is always so much at stake. There is so much to win and so, so much to lose. So, sometimes it’s nice to know that victories and defeats are contained to a tiny tent in Yorkshire or a Dutchman’s basement and that the worst that can happen is a British grandma packing up her spatulas or a handful of marbles rolling home disappointed…until next year. The Marblelympics is a rare world of blessedly low stakes.

Finally, the Marblelympics have reminded me that we need to continue crafting our own worlds at all costs. When I watch the Marbelympics, I am immediately reminded of my childhood spent assembling elaborate marble courses in my friend’s basement, racing boats built from twigs and leaves along the creek in my backyard, or rollerblading down the long hill by my house, neck and neck with the Korean, Russian, and Italian teams, doling myself occasional defeats only to lend drama to future victories. There were whole worlds in my head that have long since stopped spinning. When I watch the Marblelympics, I feel these worlds give a little churn again.

According to his YouTube profile, the creator of the Marblelymics is Jelle Bakker, a dedicated Dutchman who discloses only that he has some form of autism and a prolific passion for marbles. Anyone who watches a single Marblelympics video will immediately recognize that Jelle’s marble world is deep and detailed.

Every Marblelympics team has four unique members, a team logo, and a cheering section of similarly-colored marbles that holds up signs like TIDE PRIDE!, #LIMETIME, and OOOoooOOOooo’RANGERS!. Close-ups of the glassy fans are often paired with commentary like “Look at the crowd! They are thrilled as can be!”

Occasionally during an event, a rowdy fan will sneak down from the stands and interrupt competition or two heated teams will need to be physically separated by the officials or an injury will prevent a marble from continuing in the Games, spurring a substitution. One competitor from Team Momo was even fashioned a small toothpick crutch once when a piece of him chipped off during the bombastic fidget spinner event.

Furthermore, Jelle carves incredibly intricate courses through snow and sand and builds impressive arenas with blocks and LEGOs. He documents Marblelympic records and maintains an intricate scoring system that is presented in crisp graphics. He sets up multiple cameras to capture that action from a variety of angles. There is slo-mo involved.

Jelle has even developed a website including tabs for Marblelympics merch, MSPN (the Marble Sports Network), and the IMC (International Marblelympic Committee), which has its own logo. You can apply to be a member! Jelle has even created a page describing the venue of the 2018 Winter Marblelympic Games, complete with information on the architect, holding capacity, and tenants and accompanied by a photo-shopped image of a sleek white arena perched on the side of a snow-capped mountain. Jelle recently announced the host team of the 2019 Marblelympics: the Oceanics.

What I admire most about the Marblelympics, though, is that Jelle and his team (a production of this caliber cannot be undertaken alone) have such an enormous budget of energy and imagination to spend on this endeavor and invest absolutely none of it into looking cool. The team names are painfully cheesy–Mellow Yellow, Limers, Hazers, etc.–and the domino display at the end of each Closing Ceremony feels like the work of a fifth-grader. But I love that no energy is wasted on irony or looking over a shoulder to one’s friends as if to ask, “Do we still think this is cool?” The Marblelympics world does not apologize for itself. It does not need to. Instead, the Marblelympics acts as an exemplar of what we should all find more time to do in our lives: create honest little worlds and invite others into them.

So, please tune in to the Marblelympics because it is the low stakes competition you need in your life, because it is a dazzling little world, and because I really need people I can talk about this with, you guys!

And most importantly, GO OOOoooOOOoooOOOooo’RANGERS!

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