Leaders of the stack

Forget Game Boys or mobiles, the only toy your child will want this year is a plastic cup, says Rhodri Marsden
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The Independent Culture
It's the woozy, internet video-clip which launched a craze and, in turn, a sport. "You have to see it to believe it," says the intro, before fading into blurred footage of Emily Fox, 14, setting the world record at arranging upturned plastic cups into pyramids, or, as it's now called, Sport Stacking. After watching the jaw-dropping spectacle of cups almost flowing from her hands, you might cynically dismiss Emily's feat as the pointless achievement of a girl with a little too much spare time. But with encouragement from teachers in thousands of American schools, children are becoming obsessed with stacking these brightly coloured beakers, and, while their PlayStations gather dust, the word is starting to spread over here.

At Frith Manor Primary School in North London, teacher Alison Reese has set up a Sport Stacking club for 30 children, and there's 40 more waiting impatiently for the chance to join. Ron Parker, from Speed Stacks, the company who promotes the sport and sells cup-stacking paraphernalia, has come to the school to help demonstrate the sport in morning assembly, and to present the club with a digital display which will help measure stacking speeds to within 1/100 of a second.

The club members bound into the hall, each of them clutching a string bag containing 12 plastic cups. The demonstration begins: sets of cups are stacked and destacked in relays, with the wide-eyed members of each tag-team rushing forward and employing the approved stacking method (grip lightly and let gravity do the work) to assemble pyramids of three, six or 10. Emmeline Kos, the club's fastest stacker, records a time of 14.77 seconds for a full cycle of cup stacking; Reese has high hopes for her, and would dearly love to take her to the World Championships in April. "She was the one who had the idea for the club," she says. "She claims she's done a cycle in 10 seconds, but I've not been able to officially verify this."

While children continue stacking cups, Ron Parker - who is wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the words "Stack Fast" - looks on, approvingly. His introduction to Sport Stacking was in 2001 when he saw Emily in action on television. After buying a set of cups from the US, he struck up a correspondence with Bob Fox, who is the founder of Speed Stacks and - perhaps unsurprisingly - Emily's father. Parker's daughter, Kate, quickly became proficient, laid claim to the title of UK record holder, and secured a family visit to the World Championships in Colorado. During the event, Ron was offered the chance of promoting the sport in the UK, at which point he quit his job of 21 years as a British Telecom engineer and has been evangelising ever since. "I love converting sceptics," he explains.

Charmian Boyes, the inclusion co-ordinator at Frith Manor, didn't require much persuasion. "I saw a stacking demonstration and thought it was fun, inclusive, wonderful for children with concentration problems, and tremendous for PE lessons." She introduced the sport to the school at an Inset training day for 50 teachers, who all sat on the floor of the gym, stacking furiously. Reese says: "Everyone else went to lunch, but I was still there, desperately trying to complete a full cycle. I was hooked immediately."

Reese is far from unique. The Speed Stacks website contains numerous testimonials from teachers, detailing the ways the sport benefits hand- eye co-ordination, concentration, ambidexterity and team skills, which, in turn, assist with proficiency in other sports at a time when interest in PE is at a particularly low ebb. Emily is a good example: having started playing basketball at the same time she started stacking, she recently won a basketball scholarship to Wisconsin University and, now at the age of 17, is seen as one of the USA's great hopes for the future.

And Speed Stacks is naturally reaping financial rewards. There are no barriers to other companies producing stacking equipment, but by getting in there first, and indeed founding the World Sport Stacking Association (WSSA) as a regulatory body, Bob Fox has come up with a business idea which approaches a monopoly.

With normal plastic cups prone to sticking together and severely hampering one's stacking potential, Speed Stacks provides the answer by selling the authorised cups in a variety of hues, along with rubber stacking mats (the noise can be deafening without them), timing devices, deluxe chrome- finished sets and sweatshirts bearing the legend "United We Stack". Parker acknowledges it's a business, but stresses the care with which they operate. "All our marketing is done through schools - not toy stores - and all the cups are warranted, with free replacements," he says. "We also give away a lot of equipment, and run free workshops in schools and hospitals."

As well as stressing the educational value of stacking, Speed Stacks and the WSSA continue to pursue recognition of stacking as a bona fide sport. Anticipating any critics who might think that cups are inferior pieces of sporting equipment compared to tennis balls and hockey sticks, the WSSA website contains a mission statement, a rule book and an emphasis on their commitment to "the standardisation and advancement of cup stacking".

With fads like Hula-Hoops and Hacky Sacks having arrived and disappeared, it's a slightly absurd, but perhaps unsurprising, attempt to boost the sport's credibility. Children require their hobbies to have a different kind of cred, and Speed Stacks have thought of that, too: a promotional DVD with spinning graphics and a clattering hip-hop soundtrack shows attractive teens stacking cups on tables in front of a display of skateboarding.

But the children at Frith Manor are too fanatical about their competitions to worry about any notions of cool. At the end of morning break, they reluctantly pack up their cups and go back into lessons - but even in a nearby classroom, they are still stacking away like children possessed. They're besotted with these bits of plastic. When I get home, I finger my souvenir stack-pack nervously. "Would YOU like to be bilaterally proficient?" asks the Speed Stacks blurb. I would. But I'm almost too scared to get the cups out.