Cheese Rolling

By Nathaniel R.

Compete at your own risk. This is the motto for the annual cheese rolling competition, located at Cooper’s Hill in England. With an average of 33 injuries per 100 contestants, many would say that this is a very accurate slogan. This Spring Bank Holiday, a celebration of the new year in England, thousands of people will stumble up Cooper’s Hill, located in the center of Brockworth, Gloucester. This mob is waiting eagerly for the unique countdown, “One to be ready, two to be steady, three to prepare, and four to be off!” This countdown kicks off the race of many people’s lifetimes, one of unique history, special rules, and a profusion of injury.

Cheese rolling is one of the most obscure sports in the world, being a mostly local sport. Unfortunately, due to this fact not many people know about this sport. However, it is a very unique sport, with a rather interesting way to play the game. So, the basics of the game are basically a group of 10 to 40 people launch themselves off a hill after a seven to nine-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. Yes, this does sound boring, but once you learn the fact that the cheese travels 70 miles per hour down a 200-yard, very steep hill, with people chasing and sliding after it, your opinion may change. The rules of the game are as follows: A group of 10 to 40 people line up at the top of Cooper’s Hill (the hill at which this event is held). The Keeper of Games begins the unique countdown described above. At three, the cheese is thrown down the hill. At four, all of the competitors run after the cheese, trying their best to be the first one down the hill. In order to win, you will have to catch the cheese. If no one catches the cheese, then it is the first person to the bottom of the hill. While catching the cheese may seem easy, it is actually a very difficult feat. In fact, someone catches the cheese once every 8 years, which just proves how difficult this sport really is. The reason no one ever really catches the cheese is because it gets a one second head start, making it practically impossible to catch the cheese. The reason for this one second head start is so that no one just dives and catches the cheese right as it is let go. This adds a bit of difficulty to the competition, and in essence, makes it more fun to play and watch. In fact, some people take this competition so seriously that they come out to Cooper’s Hill and practice running down the hill, and risk injuring themselves before the event, just to win. However, there is no actual prize for this competition except the cheese and bragging rights. 22-time champion, and the world record holder for most cheeses won, Chris Anderson, says, “The reason I find this sport so appealing is due to the fact that running down Cooper’s Hill is the best 15 seconds of your life you are ever going to experience. And the feeling of winning this competition is just the greatest thing you’ll ever experience in your life, and this goes to prove you don’t need a prize to enjoy something.”

While cheese rolling seems like a mostly basic sport, it actually has a lot of history. From traditions to rituals, cheese rolling makes history fun, and also mysterious. The thing is, this history is interesting, yet very obscure. In fact, no one actually knows when cheese rolling started, but it is said to have originated in the late 50s BCE by the Pagans. They rolled wheat stalks down Cooper’s Hill as a way to celebrate the new year, and in celebration people raced down the hill themselves, as spectators threw bread onto the field as a way to celebrate the god(s) and a fruitful harvest for the year. This went on until the 15th century, where the tradition of racing down Cooper’s Hill transformed from a Pagan ritual into more of an economic competition. The race was used as a way to keep and gain farming rights and farming land. For example, the top three winners would not have to pay taxes for a month, two months, or three months, depending on their where they each finished. Also, the winner would be granted farmland. In 1862 the first written evidence of cheese rolling was created, although the facts presented above were evident in this writing. However, Jean Jeffries, a woman who personally lived on Cooper’s Hill for 25 years, says that, “We have family recollections recorded which take us back to the mid-1700’s, and there are slight mentions of pre-dated rituals, but nothing specific.” This goes to prove that the real origin of cheese rolling is rather mysterious, and educated guesses have to be made to uncover cheese rolling history. In 1958, the rules were changed from a maximum of 40 competitors to 15 competitors. This is because the local hospital could not supply enough paramedics to help all of the injured. In 2004, the rules were changed again, allowing more competitors to compete again, as the local town had grown exponentially from that point. Even to this day, bread is thrown onto the field in order to signify a fruitful harvest, as the surrounding area is mostly rural.

One of the key features of cheese rolling is the injuries produced by the sport. In fact, so many contestants get injured from this event that attempts have been made to shut down cheese rolling, but none of them have been successful. Some common injuries in this sport are pulled muscles, sprains, broken bones, concussions, and cuts of all severities. As the hill is completely natural, there are rocks that can give people cuts, sharp outcrops that people can fall off of or break their bones, and just general uneven terrain. The fact that the hill is watered before in order to make the contest harder does not help the constant flow of injuries. In America, people refer to football and lacrosse as very dangerous sports. However, if you look at the injury rates for cheese rolling compared to these sports, your mind may waver. In football, the injury rate is 8.1 per 1,000 people. For lacrosse, it is 6.3 per 1,000 people. For volleyball, it is 4.3 per 1,000 people. Now, take a minute to think about how many injuries would be too many per 1,000? 5 injuries per 1,000? 10 injuries per 1,000? Maybe even 100 injuries per 1,000? Cheese rolling has 333 injuries per 1,000 contestants. While this may seem like an absurd number, keep in mind that this is only 5 injuries for 15 contestants. Put this way it doesn’t seem like many, does it? Most of the people that actually get injured during cheese rolling are the ones that dive off the hill, going full speed down a 200-yard tall, steep and muddy hill. Obviously, injuries are expected. However, Katie Hagenuard, the 2015 women’s champion, stated, “While I did break my arm, just the feeling of winning, is just, amazing!” Hagenuard was one of the ⅓ that took off down the hill, full speed ahead. While she did suffer major tearing in her right thigh, a major gash in her head, and a broken arm, she still says she would do it again. It looks like even though injuries are a constant in cheese rolling, people still love the sport and nothing can stop them from doing what they love.

Although conquering the hill is a horrendously difficult task, and the amount of injuries is inconceivable, people still come out for the sport, and love it just as you may love football or baseball. The next competition is on May 27th, and you can expect loving fans to watch and participate, and maybe even catch a glimpse of Chris Anderson, the 22-time champion and world record holder for most cheeses won. Why don’t you come on out and witness history being made as Anderson sets new records every, single, win.

Student Bio

Nathaniel R.

2018 Summer Program
2020 Summer Program

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