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‘There is no tradition more powerful than cheese’, begins the narrator, as he introduces us to the ‘ancient ceremony’ that is cheese-racing. Cut to men colliding and tumbling down a steep, muddy slope, chasing madly after a rolling cheese. A woman tells a crowd behind a fence that they are standing there at their own risk: ‘What I’m saying to all adults with children: If the cheese does come over here, protect those kids’. A police officer says that as a vegan, he wouldn’t put his life at risk to chase a cheese. A panting contestant fiercely tells the camera that ‘You can cancel it officially but it will always go on like this’. This is when I turn to my dad and ask: “This is a mockumentary, right?”.
It is not. We Are The Champions follows an array of unusual, but very real sports, from frog jumping to chilli-eating. Whatever the sport, the people who compete are the best of the best. There is something delightful about genuine talent, and unchecked enthusiasm. A contestant looks the camera in the eye and declares, without irony, that frog gold runs through his veins. And you believe him.
It has been found that on average, a bull-frog can jump three feet. ‘Frog jockeys’ aim for six or seven. The techniques honed by contestants are such that they seem to defy nature. Like the cheese-chasing, the display of these skills is over in the blink of an eye, once a year. One family – frog jumping is kept in the family – show their rigorous methods of breeding and testing the most athletic frogs. Generations of experience are distilled into those seconds.
As spectators, we’re all newbies here, and what we are watching needs explanation. The narrator, Rainn Wilson, Dwight from The Office, brings each episode together with moments of endearing humour. He laughs with, not at, what is often a motley crew of contestants with big personalities and intense game-talk. The sincere use of lingo like frog jockeys and jumpees is funny in itself, never mind the obligatory narrator puns about the ‘top frogs’.
But a lot of the action speaks for itself. I don’t think I breathed the whole time that the cheese-racers hurtled after a wheel of Double Gloucester. Episodes ooze drama that, while never imposed or sensationalised, has just the right level of self-awareness. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue sees a coach of Russian dog dancers drive toward the world champion stage, and they walk out to compete to Spaghetti Western music. The whimsical music, impeccable shooting, and an aesthetic reminiscent of a quirky rom-com elevate this mini-series above your average documentary.
In a way, it is a rom-com: the love story of people and their unusual passions. This is a series about honour, community, family, and purpose. A professional chilli-eater reveals that it was thanks to the peppers that she got sober. A painfully shy teenager comes alive when she picks up her yo-yo. These world champion athletes have day jobs. Except for the frogs, who get put back into the pond.Why do we like watching competitions that don’t affect us, that we don’t understand half the time, and that we certainly wouldn’t do ourselves? Because we like people who are good at things. And we like it when they win. We Are The Champions encapsulates this in all of its weird and wonderful ways.
Image: Dave Farrance via Wikimedia Commons