Inside Armageddon's Ice-Cream Eating Competition
This week we delve deep into the world of competitive cosplay, but today we dip our toes into the world of competitive ice-cream eating.
It’s Saturday and I’m late for the ice-cream competition, despite the fact I arrived at the ASB Showgrounds twenty minutes early for them. It’s the crowds. Heaving and spindly, they disorient you, distract you, shift your intended path even when you’re standing still. It's my first Armageddon and I’m reeling. There are long lines of people who've all paid to meet the fringe celebrity of their dreams. There are loud gaming booths blasting dance music. Magic tournaments, interactive zombie chases, quartz crystal headbands and stacks of unimaginably unhealthy snacks: it’s all packed into those sheds, and all those sheds look the same.
The place is everything I expected and not: I was prepared for the costumes, but not the people wearing them. It’s not the slick parade of characters-come-to-life I imagined, but a sweaty daytime Halloween that’s impressive, overwhelming and - on a handful of occasions - genuinely frightening. I strike up a conversation with a 14-year-old girl dressed as Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Her make-up’s fantastic. She’s even painted her face and arms blue. Above the noise of the intercom announcing yet another lost child, I ask if she’s entering the cosplay competition that weekend. She looks at me like I’m crazy. “No,” she says. “This is for fun.”
I’ll ask many other people that same question through the day, and they’ll all have the same response: a bemused shake of the head and the kind of placating, patient smile you offer a child. It’s not till the end of the day, when I’m wandering through the cafeteria, that I finally hear a yes. “This is six months of planning,” gestures Mel, a 29-year-old make-up artist, “and 25kg of make-up and costuming.” Her friend Freya tells me they've travelled all the way from Tasmania for the weekend. Both women are dressed as the Wraith from Stargate Atlantis and are competing in the SPFX make-up competition. Freya demonstrates her pose, hissing and twirling her long fingers menacingly at the camera. Even though I’ve been talking to them, and I know they're friendly, there's a part of me that's inexplicably terrified and wants to run.
By the time I find my way to the ice-cream eating competition, there’s only fifteen minutes left. Hundreds of people are packed into the two-storeyed theatre, but I spot a spare seat in the third row from the front, right on the aisle. I’m just in time for the Under-18 Doubles heat, and I’m disappointed to discover that the competition doesn’t involve massive scoops of ice-cream and hands tied behind backs as I’d initially envisaged. Instead, pairs are sat opposite each other. One person holds a Paddle Pop in their mouth at the stick end while the other eats it. Sounds difficult, or uncomfortably sexual, but it’s neither. It turns out to be the slowest competition in the history of all ice-cream eating competitions. One team is struck by brainfreeze and spends minutes waiting for it to subside. Another are on a first date. A bouquet of supermarket flowers lie at the girl’s feet. She’s refusing to do anything but nibble daintily on her ice-cream (“Look, there’s a race on,” the host jokingly reminds them at one point).
As I’m watching this, a middle-aged man who’s been standing near the front saunters over. “That’s my seat,” he mutters firmly. He evades my gaze the way children avoid looking a bully in the eye, and without waiting for me to properly get up, he sits down. He misses my lap by seconds. He doesn’t acknowledge I’m there, and I’m so caught off guard by his pointed inattention that I don't know what to say. There aren’t any other seats around me, so I stand awkwardly in the aisle until the host calls for the next heat: Over-18 Doubles. He jumps up at that point and runs to the front, hand waving in the air as his friend – who’s already waiting – hurries him on. When the host nods at them, they whoop and run onstage.
After the previous heat – where it took a normal person’s amount of time to get through the four Paddle Pops – I wasn’t expecting much, but I'm watching the man who nearly sat on me. He’s staring at his partner intensely, eyes darting madly in silent communication, and when the race starts, he tears off the first wrapper. He's got the technique down. It's a clean tear, a sharp tug, and a firm bite down on the stick. There's no fear. The two of them deep-throat all four ice-creams, clean off the stick, in rapid succession. It's over before we know it, and when they’re pronounced the winners, they hug each other in aggressive, delirious elation.
It’s this kind of unchecked enthusiasm and energy that strikes you most about Armageddon. The place feels like society in high-saturation: the most extreme parts of people’s personalities – the dark, the light, the ugly, the kind – made manifest. It’s summer camp, if camp were designed by the students and the students were all kind of nerdy – and there’s something incredibly heartening about it all.
At the end, it’s just the winners left onstage, squashed together on a too-small black leather ottoman. There’s a young boy with red hair, sitting confidently at the end. Next to him is a boy in his teens, maybe his twenties, dressed head-to-toe in military gear. There’s a teenage couple, and finally the guy who sat on me and his partner. They’re all smiling at each other and at the audience, like the cast of an unlikely sitcom, all bonded by their love for ice-cream, all bonded by their hungry eyes.