Darwin. In the spirit of the London Olympics, Australia has hosted it’s own “Outback Games” with events including ‘camel’ equestrian, ‘waterhole’ swimming and a flip-flop marathon.
While serious athletes train long and hard to make it to the Olympics, contenders in the Northern Territory joked that they did Bikram yoga to acclimatize to the extreme temperature and ate garlic to ward off crocodiles.
The event showcased unique homegrown sports including sandbar soccer — football played on an uneven patch of beach — and ‘camel’ equestrian involving hobby horses.
“The swimming one requires us swimming with the crocodiles in the waterhole,” joked competitor Alison Coulthurst, referring to the fake, inflatable reptiles racers wrangled in the swimming pool.
Australia’s tropical Northern Territory, known as the “Top End,” is a tourist destination known for its spectacular national parks in its north as much as for the vast red rock Uluru in its south.
It is the birthplace of the Australian stereotype — there’s sun and sand, saltwater crocodiles and deadly jellyfish — and the idea that life is too short to be taken too seriously.
But with its remote location in what’s known as the “Outback” — thousands of kilometres from Australia’s major hubs of Sydney and Melbourne — visitor numbers have dropped off sharply in the wake of the global financial crisis.
International tourist numbers slipped 9.1 percent in the year to March 2012 from the previous year, with those from Britain, Germany and Japan falling most steeply.
The Outback Games at the start of the month was an exercise in putting the Northern Territory back on the tourist trail by celebrating the fun and quirky elements of the sparsely populated region.
Organizers said the ‘camel’ equestrian — in which athletes tried to ride a hobby horse ‘camel’ over an obstacle course — was a celebration of the Afghan cameleers who once travelled to the territory from central Australia.
The ‘waterhole’ swimming played up the region’s natural pools, sandbar soccer made the most of the harbour beach, while the thong marathon was a homage to the Aussie flip-flop.
“This is just a great way of indicating to the world, that this place is different, it really is a different part of Australia,” explained John Fitzgerald, chief executive of Tourism NT.
“We’re different here in the territory. We like to do things differently.”
At the event, the crowd was small but vocal, and not always keeping their eye on the game. But the athletes, who won the right to compete for their state in a contest, were alert during the competition, particularly during the thong marathon which required the most stamina.
Competitors struggled to keep their thongs — open footwear, not an item of intimate apparel as in other countries — on their feet for the race of several laps around a field.
But even the losers didn’t take it to heart.
“We’re adopting the Northern Territory approach that, if you lose or you’re feeling bad, you just sit back,” said competitor Ben Crank.
“Relax and have a beer and it all kind of washes away. It’s a great mentality to have as an athlete. If you don’t win, don’t worry, relax, have a beer. It’s all good.”