So perky over pinkies

Alan Hubbard meets the foot soldiers of a toe-curling sport with ambitions of world popularity

What else is there to do on a wet weekend in Wetton except sit there twiddling your toes? But something is afoot. There they are, a dozen mean-looking men and eight nervous women, gathered in a marquee, pinkies poised and putting their best feet forward ready to do combat in what surely qualifies as the most bizarre event ever to be held in the name of sport: the World Toe-Wrestling Championships.

What else is there to do on a wet weekend in Wetton except sit there twiddling your toes? But something is afoot. There they are, a dozen mean-looking men and eight nervous women, gathered in a marquee, pinkies poised and putting their best feet forward ready to do combat in what surely qualifies as the most bizarre event ever to be held in the name of sport: the World Toe-Wrestling Championships.

Locking toes has become more than an annual village ritual deep in the Peak District, a decent hike from Ashbourne and on the borders of Dovedale. There they reckon they are worth at least a footnote in sporting history.

It all began in the mid-Seventies, when a group of walkers, putting their feet up at the inn, debated over a few pints how it was about time the British invented a sport at which they could actually win. So, after a few giggles, the World Toe-Wrestling Championships were born - and were promptly won by a Canadian. So they shelved them for a while, until the then publican, George Burgess, decided to resurrect the event seven years ago. Now he has retired to become the president of the World Toe-Wrestling Organisation, whose championships have progressed to become among the whackiest on the summer calendar, traditionally held in the middle of Wimbledon.

To the uninitiated it may seem that here we have the final repository for fruitcakes, but those who do indulge reckon they get a kick out of it - well, at least a bit of a twitch in the toes. Basically toe-wrestling follows the principles of arm-wrestling, the idea being to force the outside edge of your opponent's foot to touch the side of the "toe rack". Best of three legs, first the right foot, then the left and then the right again if a decider is needed.

You can be foot-faulted, even disqualified, for various infringements, including lifting the backside, or the heel off the floor. The non-wrestling foot must be kept off the ground once the big toes are carefully interlocked by the referee, who calls "Toes away". The referee's decision is "toetally final" in bouts which can last up to half an hour.

You will gather that the propensity for puns is endless, and even more excruciating than the toe- holds. Ask president Burgess whether men and women are permitted to grapple toes with each other and his deadpan reply is: "No, we don't want to encourage myxomatosis".

No toe justes are left unturned. Contestants sit opposite each other on the "toedium" and the winning move is termed a "toedown". A submission must be accompanied by the cry: "Toe much!" and, inevitably, the dish of the day on the pub grub menu is "Toed in the Hole".

Proceedings begin with the foot inspection, conducted by the president's daughter, Terri, a trained nurse who is also one of the referees. She has been known to turn away would-be hopefuls with corns, calluses, bunions, verrucas and, of course, athlete's foot. Flat feet, however, are permissible. Nail varnish is considered a performance-enhancing drug. But the foot inspector also has to be on her toes. "You'd be surprised what some of them try to get away with," says Terri. "I keep a special watch-out for specially-sharpened toenails."

The reigning men's champion, Gareth Allcott, did not defend his title this year. George Burgess reckoned it was because he had heard that the event was being sponsored by the American ice-cream company Ben and Jerry's, and got cold feet. Actually, he was away teaching in the Far East.

So, first on the toedium and quickly eliminated was local man Brian "Toelock" Holmes. Some five hours later, a veritable feat of endurance you might say, the winners were collecting their prizes - £50 and a year's supply of the sponsor's product. The Big Toe of 2000 is 41-year-old Alan "Nasty" Nash, a JCB technician from Stoke who con-fessed he had been wrestling with a foot he fractured at work a few days before. Three times a world champion, he defeated his rival Ian "Destroyer" Davies, 31, a Sheffield drayman, in a toenail-biting finish.

Shaven-headed Nash is the The Undertaker of toe-wrestling. After one of his earlier championship victories he was invited to show the Americans how it is done on the Jay Leno talk show. After his triumph he talked us through the technique, explaining that the strength comes from the shoulders through the buttocks and adductor muscle to the ankles and ultimately the big toe.

He insists it's more than just a bit of fun: "You really feel it the next day when the feet ache and start to swell." There's always the risk of injury, too. Sometimes the non-wrestling toes get mangled, dislocated, even broken, as the foot slams into the side of the toe rack. Nash has damaged three toes, one of which had to be remoulded by surgery.

If Nash is Dr Death, then Davies fancies himself as Sergeant Slaughter. A former Sheffield Eagles rugby player, he wrestles complete with ear stud and builder's safety helmet. The champion in 1998, he had been hoping to complete a family double. His wife, Karen "Kamikaze" Davies won the women's title from a field which included a beautician, an ex-ballet dancer and the landlady of a local B&B. No chiropodists, though. Karen does have a bit of an advantage. She's not only 6ft tall but has size 10 feet. So do she and hubby Ian practise playing footsie at home? "Only as a party-piece," she laughs.

You may think they are all as mad as hatters, but it seems harmless. And the substantial proceeds go to a local children's charity. Tongue in cheek (or was it foot in mouth?), they even applied for toe-wrestling to be included in the Olympics. But it can't get a foothold, although they did receive a polite communication from the International Olympic Committee asking whether it was a winter or a summer sport.

Overseas interest has been kindled. "We've just had a request for the rules and regulations from the Japanese, who want to stage their own version of the World Championships," said Burgess. He sniffs: "Presumably they'll want to put it on in Toe-kyo."

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