BEARD & WONDERFUL

Published in Sunday Times Lifestyle. 24 November 2013.

Picture: Greg Anderson

Phil Olsen, captain of Beard Team USA

WE've got some serious facial hair representing america

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 ‘SHAVING is for men who want to look more like women,” says Phil Olsen, captain of Beard Team USA.

Okay, but “bearding”? A sport? Yes — and a noble one at that. “It’s a sport because we have judges,” says Olsen. “We have controversy, we sing the national anthem at the start of the competition, and we compete against each other to see who is the best. That to me is what a sport is. It is a major commitment.”

Give men a competition and we bloom like a field of daisies. Beating chests and fluffing plumage, wielding wooden bats and maiming with studs is what we do. The sports industry has tapped into this instinct, using its heroes for lucrative endorsement — whacking balls to flog Breitlings and tight underwear.

 

Very few modern sports are untouched. There are pockets of amateur purity, where competition is fierce, but the only sponsors of your magnificent prowess are tall tales and cold beers - bearding is one of them.

Olsen is the promoter-in-chief of bearding in the US, where it is increasingly popular. His team has just returned from the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in the German town of Leinfelden-Echterdingen, with a clutch of 15 out of the 54 trophies.

On the phone from the US, Olsen tells me that pure coincidence and curiosity led him to his first competition in 1999 in Sweden. “I noticed two things there. Although it was called the world championships, it was limited to a small number of countries, almost exclusively in northern Europe, with Germany clearly the dominant country. The other thing was that America was completely under-represented.”

He returned home with a mission to cultivate bearding in the US. Since then, the Americans have held four national championships and are a constant threat to German domination at the international meet. South Africa has never been represented. Now heading to the competition, Olsen was confident of his team’s chances. “It is going to be tough to beat the Germans on their own turf but we’ve got a really strong squad. We’ve got some serious facial hair representing America.”

According to worldbeardchampionships.com, there is an Italian claim to the sport of bearding. But the world championships in its current form has its roots in Germany, when the First Höfener Beard Club hosted the event in 1990. Olsen believes this heritage is the reason for their dominance; Germans have long refined preening, twisting and growing into an art. He also blames Teutonic organisational prowess for the country’s beard-superpower status.

In the competition, there are 18 judging categories. The “English”-styled moustache is slender and ends in slightly raised tips — but Lord Kitchener’s facial thatch, were he to enter the competition, would be classified as the fuller Hungarian type, adopted from the 16th-century Hussars. This year, for the first time, the medal in this category went to a Hungarian.

Beards are divided into three categories: full, partial and trend, which are further subdivided. Olsen, whose beard is wide and rounded at the bottom, competes in the Garibaldi section. One of the most outlandish categories is freestyle, in which participants can spend up to three hours styling their beards.

Olsen concedes that the training regimen is less than punishing. “This is the ultimate sport for the couch potato. After you’ve done nothing for a few months, you’ll have a pretty good beard.”

As in all sports, the beard world championships is not without strife. Controversy usually centres on the judging process and the clarity of requirements — and, according to Olsen, reflects the difference between the German and US philosophies.

“The Germans view the competition as being about getting their beards or moustaches to conform to a defined standard, whereas Americans think of facial hair as a means of self-expression and individuality.”

Other US grievances include the struggle to get the Germans to fully recognize sideburns, and the use of rubber bands as styling aids. Olsen says: “Someone inevitably shows up with Budweiser cans in his beard. Germans are against this.”

But in spite of these differences in approach, Olsen emphasises that the competition is all about camaraderie and friendship. How can it not be, when the dietary common denominator among most contestants can be sourced from the local pub? “If there is a performance-enhancing substance in this sport, it is beer.”

Facial hair, particularly full beard growth, is on point when it comes to fashion. Local trend analyst Dion Chang says: “The trend now is a return to the late 19th century. We should expect more beards in advertising, especially for fashion brands.” Olsen has seen the signs, and is worried. “It’s making us wonder whether we want to continue to have our beards, because a lot of us wanted to have them so as not to be mainstream. It’s a dilemma for most.” Flaky pastries and ice-cream cones — not soup — are a continuous hazard, but Olsen says he will keep his, despite the risk of becoming unwillingly trendy.

 

Olsen, who tells me the correct term for a beard grower is “beardsman”, thinks actor Jake Gyllenhaal would wear a beard well. He believes a face full of foliage has a fortifying effect, and cites as evidence one of the biggest rivalries in US sport. “The New York Yankees prohibit their players from growing beards; the Boston Red Sox have all grown beards and they have some spectacular ones. “This year, the Red Sox have had a great season, while the Yankees have had a terrible one.”

Since our interview, the Red Sox went on to win the baseball World Series.

For anyone looking to participate, Olsen offers sage advice after the obvious first step of growing a beard: “The second thing you must do is buy a plane ticket to Portland, Oregon, for next year’s world championships. And the third would be to get your friends together to come too.”

For most South Africans, the lure of fierce competition, camaraderie and, most importantly, flowing beer, is tantalising. Perhaps one day Olsen and Team USA will come to rue having planted the idea of a Springbok team. / KT

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Picture: Greg Anderson

"IF THERE IS A PERFORMANCE ENHANCING SUBSTANCE IN THIS SPORT, IT IS BEER"

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Picture: Greg Anderson