In this episode Oli Russell-Cowan chats to Sol Neelman, former professional sports journalist and most unusual sports photographer. Besides sports, he loves traveling, photography and crazy stuff. He is working on his third book about weird sports around the globe and shares some of his adventures with Oli.
In their conversation Sol dives deep on his experience photographing weird sports and how he finds them so much more entertaining than pro sports competitions.
The main takeaway of the chat was that these weird sports competitions create a sense of belonging. And there are so many out there that you can’t even find out about them unless you know someone that’s been there.
“I think the inclusivity of weird sports is really what makes it unique and special. We all want to be included in a community and we all want to feel like we can do something.”
Sol: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Sol: I’m in Portland, Oregon.
Oli: How’s the situation over there at the moment?
Sol: You know, it’s beautiful out here. It’s a beautiful city and people are out and about and most people are taking it pretty seriously.
I think my weird sports season is done for the year. So it’s surreal. All the things that I photograph are things of community and people out and about celebrating and doing jackass things. Now the biggest jackass thing you could do is not wear a mask or get too close to someone at the supermarket. So maybe that’s a new weird sport in the future.
Oli: I know people are trying to get creative and sort of come up with things to do in the house.
Sol: Yeah, I’ve seen some videos online.
If we knew that this was more of a short term issue. I think that would be a lot easier.
I think that all the uncertainty takes away some of the joy. Actually the very last thing that I photographed for my third book was on March 11. The same day that the WHO announced the pandemic. It was Beer Jostling, it’s a beer-drinking competition basically where teams slide a glass beer across the table and drink it, chug it and then rotate over. The most completions per time period wins. There are style points and things like that. Even then, I was like, wow, I hope I get this before the world shuts down. Then when I was there, I kind of felt like I was in a recap version of outbreak.
Just seen in slow-mo how people were interacting with themselves or high fiving each other. They weren’t taking viruses seriously. They were sharing from the same mugs. There was no social distancing. It was in Wyoming. There was just a huge disconnect. They didn’t think anything was going to happen to them. They weren’t really taking it seriously. And it was early on and maybe I shouldn’t have been there.
That part was really weird. It was something I’ve wanted to photograph for years. It’s a great event overall. People having fun dressing up in costumes and drinking beers. Laughing. That’s my wheelhouse, that’s my specialty. But the idea of spreading germs. It was kind of sloppy, to be honest.
Oli: I’d love to go back to where the fascination began. You were an athlete before that?
Sol: I love this because you write something on Twitter. Recently someone looked at my Twitter bio and quoted me as a former pro wrestler. That’s just me bullshitting. I played basketball in high school. That’s about it and mostly in junior high schools, to be honest.
I’ve always loved sports, you know. I’ve always loved the camaraderie and community.
I’m an only child, I grew up with a single mom. I didn’t really have sports ingrained in my lifestyle. Unless I started out with my neighbors kids and played some ball or something like that.
It gave me a kind of a conversation, if I could talk about sports with boys, I could be a boy. It filled in for me growing up without a father and and I was just telling you before we went online, I apologize for being a little sleepy. I haven’t set an alarm in two months. So this is a normal hour. It’s 10am here, but it hasn’t been a normal hour for me.
If I could talk about pro teams it was totally cool. One thing that I’ve noticed throughout my life is that the common denominator in almost all communities is some level of sports. Even if somebody doesn’t call it pro sports, they’re probably running, or they’re probably doing their own individual sport. They just don’t like following it on TV because they would rather do it and play it.
Sol: I love people having fun. As far as a weird sports part that was kind of an evolution. Despite what it says on Twitter, I’m not an athlete and so anyone could do strange sports but not everyone can be an Olympian. So there’s a lot of opportunities for people to do sports in the way that they’re capable and interest them and then they, you know, get drunk and dressed in costume and do silly things. So that’s a lot more fun.
“I photographed a couple Olympics and honestly, they’re boring.”
I mean, it’s super interesting being behind the scenes and I appreciate the access that I was given. I was there for Michael Phelps in Beijing and Bolt and I was bored overall. There just wasn’t that level of joy because that’s something that not even one percent can do. It’s like a dozen people in the world could do that at that level. I would rather go to an event where everyone can do that event, and where everyone feels like they can participate instead of just thinking, well, I can’t identify with Usain Bolt because I’m slow. But, there are other events that I can do.
Oli: Everyone can kind of just get involved and actually take part instead of being on the spectator side, right?
“I think the inclusivity of weird sports is really what makes it unique and special. We all want to be included in a community and we all want to feel like we can do something.”
A lot of these events are DIY small community events. Some of them are traditional. One of them I get welled up every time I think about it. It’s here on the Oregon coast. In 1925 there was a pig farmer and the farmers had a pig that got loose. He called up all his neighbors or he knocked on his neighbor’s doors or whatever.
He chased down the pigs in his Model T Ford with all his friends who were in their Model T Fords. And they had such a great time that they decided to create an event at the county fair and it’s been going on since 1925. What you do is Lamont style and you race. They’re all lined up and they race towards a pin of pigs.
Pick a pig who’s crapping all over them. They hand crank the Model T, which is the same Model T that was in their family because all these racers are descendants of the original pig farmers. You cannot just join, you have to be born in.
So you turn the crank, you do a lap, you swap pigs, you do another lap. The winner that I photographed started bawling because his grandfather had done it. And so there’s a lot of pride. It’s fun and silly and amusing and interesting, but also there’s a lot of history in a lot of these events. If you look beyond the surface of why did this start.
That’s one of my favorites.
Sol: Well, I’m from Portland. And so, you know, we like to think Portland’s weird.
I don’t know if my interest in weird shit started from here or it was nurture nature, I guess. I always kind of use this bad analogy. If you look for pink houses in your neighborhood, or you think of them, you probably can’t think of a single one. But if you walk around your neighborhood, you’ll go, oh, there’s a pink house and there’s another pink house. It’s like that with weird sports. A lot of people haven’t heard of these things, but they also haven’t been looking critically.
If you keep an eye out and you go, Oh, that is kind of weird. There is this traditional thing that we’ve done for so long. I mean, no offense to Norwegians, but the biathlon is a weird sport. You know, you’re skiing and you’re shooting. But they’ve been doing it for so long that it’s now mainstream.
Curling, snowboarding. You know, I remember when I’d go skiing as a kid and people were making fun of snowboarders like get off the mountain.
Can you imagine that now? Skateboarders, all the stuff, there’s an evolution that happens with it. Because this project is self-funded, for the most part, I ended up looking for things near me so that I can just hop out, drive, short flight. They’re all over the place. It was kind of the short of it.
The more dangerous things are the little dicier stuff is usually in the south, or in more rural areas where there’s less regulation. Some of the stuff that people have allowed me to do because they’re like, fuck it, why not? It’s kind of remarkable. And it’s usually in the south.
Oli: The first weird sports book came out in 2012 is that right?
Sol: 2011. I think it was published in Europe and then released in the States the year after.
Oli: How long before were you going to these events before you thought to make a book out of it?
Sol: I started in 2005. I went to a photo conference where I met all my best friends and all my future ex-girlfriends, and just really bonded with this awesome community.
I had been doing sports for a newspaper, a major newspaper, the Oregonian, here in Portland. It was kind of done with it. It was kind of boring. There’s a lot of Oregon history. I grew up an Oregonian, that worked at the Oregonian, so there was a lot of there a lot of things that appreciate it, but I was getting kind of bored.
Going to that photo community event was more like what’s important to you what you love. Around that same time I have a distant cousin who’s a photographer for Magnum, and his wife asked me, what do you love to do? I’m like,
“travel, sports, photography and weird shit.”
That kind of clicked. And so after that conference that was in Austin in 2005, I ended up driving up to Seattle from Portland. It’s about a three hour drive. I photographed a roller derby, which in 2005 was brand new again. Nobody had realized that it was going on. I had such a great time. I’m like alright, now what am I doing? And there was a cow shit throwing contest in Oklahoma that I went to go photograph. It didn’t make for good photos but it was definitely an interesting event and then I did underwater hockey and then I did Highland Games because I still think caber toss is a weird sport.
Oli: Was that in the US?
Sol: No, that was over in Scotland.
Then it just kind of kept spiralling out, kind of like my storytelling.
I would find things on a list. You know, there was originally like a top 10 weird sports list, and I would try to tackle some of those and then I’d go what else is happening?
Things like Pig and Ford was about that same time in 2007. I just quit the newspaper and I didn’t know what I was going to do, how or what I was going to focus on. A friend of mine, Matt, was an intern at the Oregonian. He said, Do you know about the Pig and Ford races on the Oregon coast?
I’m like no, I was there the next day and I bullshitted my way through and got a credential. They actually said, Well, we’ve been photographed by National Geographic. A good friend of mine who lives nearby who works for National Geographic is Randy Olson. He’s the one who took the photos there. I don’t think they boast about me taking photos there. But they definitely boast about Randy Olson taking photos there. It just kind of kept going.
So you’re asking did I imagine having a book? I never thought I would get published. Most of my work was never seen. I did have a huge exception. I had one photo run in National Geographic, which I thought like okay, well, maybe that’s the pinnacle of my career.
Oli: What event was that?
Sol: That was at The Redneck Games. It was a photo of a mud pit belly flop. Where people would dive into a big mud pit. And it was pretty glorious.
I just kept taking photos because I had a lot of free time and I love photography and travel and sports and weird shit and just kind of kept doing that.
Then in 2010, there’s a book fair in Frankfurt every year, it’s the world’s largest. One of my best friends is from Frankfurt, so I’m like, Well fuck it at least I’ll go see Peter, and you know have a few pints and be good to go. I went to this book fair and ended up meeting a woman Alexa, who recognized my body of work through a very industry obscure contest and agreed to publish my work.
It changed my life.
I did the first book and then I’m like I’m coming back for more. I’m done with the third one I’m working on my Edit right now. My Kickstarter was going to start in March but that got postponed so I’m not sure what the time is going to be for everything.
I never thought I would get published, that’s the biggest thing.
Oli: In your mind what defines a weird sport?
Sol: At least for me to photograph it needs to be photogenic. A weird sport to me, it’s all interpretive like I’ve had people say it’s not a weird sport. Curlings a weird sport for sure.
Is there some twist on something that we assume is normal.
Just like the first snowboarders. Even skiing is not that old if you think about it. What are the twists where somebody or some community will say like,
“That looks like fun, but I would rather do it this way and I want to do it with beers.”
There’s an event in upstate Montana called barstool ski racing. Barstool ski racing started when a bunch of ski bums went into a bar and we’re harassing an old-timer there. The old-timer is like, I’m not going skiing unless you put skis on my barstool. That’s what they did. They created this annual event and it’s been going on for decades.
They take something that’s skiing and then they put a barstool on it and a pint and go downhill. It’s things like that. If we look at traditional Olympic events and then just spin it a little bit.
Oli: What did you have planned for this year and what were you working on?
Sol: Paris Photos, a big photo festival in Paris. It was going to land on my 50th birthday in November. I was going to publish this fall, celebrate with my publisher who also has my birthday. He was going to have a big party and I was going to wear my Luchador mask around the Grand Pele and speak some bad French to French people.
The only event that I had on my to-do list is called Gelande Quaffing, it’s a beer tossing event that I photographed. There’s the Nomad Games that were going to happen. Usually, they happen in Afghanistan or Azerbaijan. They were going to be in Turkey in September so that was kind of the only thing that was really on my list.
Last summer was really when I went for broke. I convinced ESPN to pay my travel bills and I went and photographed 20 weird sports last summer. I did the cheese rolling you had mentioned.
Oli: I was at cheese rolling last year taking photos, it’s crazy!
Sol: It’s crazy. Do you remember the Japanese participant who was so excited that he broke his ankle or something. He was the center of attention and he was having a great time.
Oli: They did like 4 races and every time the medical stretcher comes out and goes up the hill.
Sol: Every time and we have that cheese wheel is coming right down at you too. I photographed three of the races from the base behind one of the haystacks. I’m like this is kind of what everyone does and I wish I was on the side of the hill. So fuck it I’m gonna go to the side of the hill. As I’m doing it, there’s no pathway and it’s just mud that’s sloping down.
Sol: Tons of people. Nobody wants to help me. They’re like, what’s this fucker doing? Like we’ve been here for an hour, been drinking, and this guy with camera gear is climbing up the hill and I don’t want to help him.
I was really worried about not just hurting myself, but wiping out everyone around me because there were really no guardrails. As much as I love that event, it’s not as dangerous for the spectators, but it’s really dicey up there.
I try to photograph things before they get canceled due to death, which happened in Finland. They had sauna competitions. Then one guy died and they canceled it. They don’t do it anymore. I try to photograph things before they go broke or somebody dies.
Oli: After cheese rolling were you touring around Europe?
I did Radball, the bicycle soccer motorcycle soccer. I did Shin kicking in Gloucestershire in the UK. Then I did Canal Leaping in Holland.
Sol: There was the medieval rugby in Florence, Calcio Storico. I was able to finesse my way into a great vantage point with some Germans there and got some photos of that event. I hate the term bucket list but there were some things that I really wanted to do for this book and cheese rolling and that event in Florence were two of them.
Oli: Calcio Storico looks like what gladiators would be but without the lions.
Sol: Drunk gladiators. They’re basically just taking out arguments with their neighbors. I remember the first time I saw a video of that and they just throw the ball in and one guy looks at his opponent and just beats the shit out of them.
It’s basically a free for all. People have died at that event. So there are some levels of rules like don’t kick somebody who’s down already or something like that.
I then went to the states and I photographed some things in the Midwest, including the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I love talking about photography. I wish I had the photo, but it’s a motorcycle going through a wall of beer.
There was Llama Racing in Colorado. I photographed Mashed Potato Wrestling in South Dakota, and Beer pong in Vegas. Just some random stuff around the Midwest, just kind of drove around. It was a great summer.
I got a lot done this past year. I’m really thankful for that. We will at some point be moving around again, but I don’t know if some of these events will hold through, to be honest.
Oli: Do you think that some Community lead events will survive this and that they’ll be going on next year or if not the following year?
Sol: I don’t know, to be honest. I mean, there’s, you know, rightfully a huge concern about people’s safety.
I’m nervous about professional sports opening up, to be honest right now. It’s hard for me to see until there’s a vaccine, it’s hard for me to envision that these weird sports will continue on unless it’s totally under the radar and people are just kind of doing it regardless of safety standards.
I think some of the historical events that have been going on for a long time like Calcio Storico will happen again. But only after a vaccine. You can’t do it before then or, you know, instant testing or something like that. I did not anticipate a pandemic wrapping up my book project but it’s pretty much dead.
Oli: We did a European tour before we left Australia and we did 25 festivals in the summer. Starting off in May and finishing in September all around Europe. Now looking back at it I’m glad I had an opportunity to do it then and you just take these things for granted sometimes. Going from one festival to another every week. It’s a bit of an eye-opener, the situation we’re in. Hopefully, they all do come back.
Sol: I think overall they will. I think there’ll be new things. It’ll continue to a certain degree.
I’m optimistic for sure. There’s kind of a joy that’s been sucked out of our world right now. That’s what I associate with weird sports is this ability to just have fun regardless of whatever’s happening.
Oli: I guess the good thing is they all start off grassroots so there’ll be new things popping up.
Sol: Yeah, for sure.
I’m curious. I’m glad that I’m not waiting for anything. I’m glad that I have enough images to work on. Selfishly, at least for my project.
Oli: Was there any event that stood out either last year or in previous years? You probably get asked this quite a bit, but what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen?
Sol: My go to answer for everything is there’s live Monster Wrestling in Brooklyn, it’s amazing! People in Godzilla type costumes beating each other up with paper mache buildings. It’s a great event. It’s smart. It’s hilarious.
One of the best days that I had last year was actually with the Mashed Potato Wrestling. It was this tiny small town.
Oli: Is that the Potato Days Festival?
Sol: Yeah, Potato Days in Clark, South Dakota. It’s a tiny town and I called them ahead and said that I was with ESPN. Is it okay if I come out and they had hats waiting for us when we got there. It lasted an hour. It was a long way to go for just an hour but it was one of the best hours I’ve had.
I’m covered in mashed potatoes afterward, and thankfully, they had some showers set up because it was nasty. People had earplugs in to keep the mashed potatoes from going in their ear canal for infections because of course, they’ve had that in the past. That was pretty great.
I went to Northern Holland to photograph Canal Leaping. It’s a traditional event, you know, farmers would leap over canals to attend to their sheep and livestock. Then it became a sport. Now it’s pole vaulting more or less. It’s crazy and it’s really impressive. I went and photographed a high school event. It might have been Middle School. Parents come out just like a traditional event just like they’re going to a basketball game. They have some seats and they’re watching their kids and they’re cheering on their kids. They have snacks and bad coffee and you know, and it just feels like a normal community event.
This is something that’s very local to that region of Holland which of course, it’s a small country in its own right. They’ve been doing it forever. I love it when I stumble on moments like that because the authenticity of weird sports is one of the things that really draws me.
You don’t make money by either participating or taking photos of it. You do it because you love it.
Seeing the pride and joy of a people is pretty, pretty impressive.
Oli: Is there any event that you want to film but you haven’t yet?
Sol: The classic is Tazer Ball. It’s rugby with low-level tazers. You run around with this large ball and zap you and you twitch and you release the ball and then the opponent will grab it and try to score a goal. They were going to do that in the States, but they played it in Thailand first. There’s footage of that and then they can never get a permit in the states and it kind of died off.
I don’t think that’s going to be happening.
That’s kind of the only one. Calcio Storico one is I wanted it so badly that I was nearly crying to these German tourists. Will you please let me photograph in your apartment because I wanted it so bad. They were like we came here for a vacation, but we could tell that you gave a shit so much. And they were great. They even gave me a beer.
Oli: Did it live up to expectation?
Sol: It was pretty great. It’s brutal. It’s amazing that it still goes on frankly, it seems like something that would have been canceled at some point due to injury or just like what the hell you guys doing?
Sometimes tradition offsets that and it makes for good photos. I don’t want people to get hurt, but it is fun to take fun photos and I think I made a couple.
Oli: If anyone wants to get hold of you, what’s the best way of getting in contact?
Sol: My website is bettercallsol.com or just type in weird sports photographer, generally people will find me.
I always love hearing from people as far as ideas of things. I think it’s pretty hilarious that a lot of people in my community, they’ll really get excited when they think they found something that I’ve never heard of. Then I have to say, did you see my book, which you own? I know because I sold it to you. And they’re like, Oh, you’re right. You’ve already photographed the bog snorkelling world championships or dog surfing or whatever.
A lot of the events are really small and in really remote areas, and I wouldn’t know about it unless people are from there. Even with the internet, there’s so much information out there it’s hard to parcel it down.
I’m out there. I’m easy to find. You found me. So I’m glad you did.
Oli: Cool, thanks, man.
Sol: Thanks for having me. Cheers, be safe.
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