Not Sports

A circus act turned extraordinary sport is making its case for the Olympics

“Things are about to get real.”

Juggler Jason Garfield has his eyes set on the Olympics.

In the short term, he means the Juggling Olympics — a gathering of the world's best jugglers Garfield is hoping to host in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2021. In the long term, he has his eyes set on the actual Olympic Games.

Garfield is an especially determined, albeit controversial, salesperson for the sport of juggling. If anyone could make it happen, it's him.

Garfield is the shockingly ripped president of the World Juggling Federation, a governing body for the sport of juggling formed in 2003. Juggling as a discipline, rather than a sport, has another representative group: the International Jugglers Association. It's existed since 1947 and hosts what's considered the gold standard of stage juggling competitions.

Garfield’s governing body, though, has a different flavor. He's interested in juggling as a competition you might see on ESPN rather than a skill you might see at Cirque du Soleil.

“I became more and more kind of disgruntled that all the work I put into these competitions — and we’re talking thousands of hours of practice, five, six hours a day — and the rewards of that was limited to an underground cult juggling community,” he tells Inverse.

Zak McAllister at the 2019 International Juggler's Association Individuals Championships.Zak McAllister

Garfield has already managed to pave the way toward a more regimented style of juggling competition where competitors identify as athletes first and performers second. Garfield managed to get his sport ESPN airtime by cold-sending a demo tape of himself to ESPN’s programming office in 2004. The first five juggling competitions were aired in 2005.

The mere fact that this was possible has him convinced that, with the right level of organization and skill, he might also woo the International Olympic Committee to consider adding competitive juggling to the program. As he wrote in a 2021 blog post: “Things are about to get real.”

“The question of why isn't juggling in the Olympics keeps coming up within the juggling community, and I think the reason for that is simply the same reason why sport juggling competitions were never on ESPN,” he says. “No one tried.”

What makes juggling a sport — There are a lot of different ways to juggle, from the props used (balls, rings, or clubs) to the number of objects tossed, to the number of people who do the tossing (alone or in teams). Ultimately, expert juggling requires:

  • Technical expertise
  • Fitness
  • Core strength

Juggling is a showcase of athleticism, even if it’s not apparent right away. A juggler’s heart rate can hover around 150 or 160 beats per minute during an especially intense training session, some of which can last three to five hours, says Garfield. That’s the case whether you’re juggling to entertain or to win.

The taxing nature of the discipline alone might be enough to make juggling a sport, even if no one had created organized competitions. But there are still many different variations of juggling competition to choose from.

The World Juggling Federation's 5 club short program.Jason Garfield

The International Jugglers Association premiere event is the stage championship: a formal competition where jugglers are awarded medals and prize money for juggling performance done before an audience. These performances look like something between dance and sport, matching technical juggling with impeccable timing, often set to music.

Garfield’s competitions are equally rigorous but have a different focus. Though performers will sometimes juggle to music, the technical juggling skill is the star — and Garfield has worked out a mathematically rigorous scoring system. The World Juggling Federation crowns an overall champion by evaluating an athlete’s skill in a range of disciplines, in some years that includes as few as nine and in others as many as 25. In 2021, athletes can compete in 18 different events.

Garfield’s approach to juggling is perhaps best exemplified in the discipline called the short program. The short program has a scoring system modeled after that of gymnastics.

Short program jugglers submit their routine to a panel of judges ahead of time, complete with all of the moves they’ll attempt in the routine. Then they’re judged on how well they connect the moves together, whether they achieve them in the first place, and how well they execute the fundamentals. They can also have points deducted if they drop a ball or wander around the stage.

“We're focused more on that Olympic style,” says Garfield. “You know, strictly judged.”

The Michael Jordan of Competitive Juggling — The Michael Jordans Garfield names excel in the world of technical juggling. Performance isn’t a part of his calculation, though many jugglers excel in both fields.

A clear standout is Anthony Gatto, an American juggler who broke nine verified world records between 1989 and 2011 and performed as part of Cirque du Soleil. He was often referred to as the most skilled juggler in the world before retiring to run a concrete business.

On par with Gatto, but with less of a flair for performance, might be Vova and Olga Galchenko, siblings who excelled in the seemingly effortless passing of clubs to one another. (They’ve been dubbed “juggling geniuses.”) The New York Times described Volga Galchenko as the “anti-showman,” placing Galchenko more firmly in the competitive juggling arena rather than the performative one.

Competitive juggler Delaney Bayles.Delaney Bayles

There are also three up-and-coming jugglers who Garfield hopes might one day make up team USA.

  • Delaney Bayles, who has been described as the “most technically talented female toss juggler of all time” and holds six world records.
  • Jack Denger, who holds 10 world records.
  • Spencer Androli, who holds nine world records.

There are a lot of talented jugglers out there. More and more are turning up, especially on YouTube.

“In fact, one of them Facebook messaged me a video of his act the other day,” Garfield says. The act was a five-minute video routine from a juggler in Ukraine who, it turns out, has juggled 11 rings and narrowed in on the world record for ring juggling set by Anthony Gatto.

“I'd never heard of him before,” Garfield says.

Lysenko Danil beats the World Record by juggling 11 rings at once.Lysenko Danil

The spirit of juggling — Garfield has treated juggling like a competitive sport perhaps longer than anyone else in the business. He began juggling when he was 11 years old and was soon putting in hours of practice each day.

Garfield entered several stage juggling competitions, but he wasn’t completely satisfied. He wanted to be treated like an athlete, and he wanted a bigger stage to show off the best juggling has to offer.

When he sent in his demo tape to ESPN, he was betting that other jugglers wanted something different too. When representatives from ESPN asked him where he might find other jugglers to compete, Garfield responded they were already there — they were simply "waiting to have something to do.”

Since 2004, Garfield has occasionally made the argument for juggling as a sport by ruffling some feathers. In 2006, stand-up comedian and juggler Chris Bliss went viral for a routine featuring three balls mesmerizingly thrown to the beat of music. Garfield put up his own video juggling seven, and then 11 balls compared to Bliss’s three. He called his video “The Chris Bliss Diss.”

Dateline called the beef between the two “a juggler’s war in cyberspace." But it also seems like a classic act of athletic one-upmanship — the kind you might find in a dunk competition or push-up contest.

“The sport helps the art, because it fosters better jugglers.”Jason Garfield

Garfield is clearly a competitor, and juggling is how he exercises the desire to compete. He’s been on a mission since 2004 to be sure that the rest of the world sees juggling that way, too.

Achieving Olympic status would be the final proving ground for Garfield’s ideology: that competitive juggling is a sport, not just entertainment.

This is a view that’s not always shared by other jugglers, and it has opened a chasm within the discipline itself, which Garfield calls the “sport versus art debate.”

“If anything, the sport helps the art.”

And, in the spirit of sports, the rules of a juggling competition sponsored by the World Juggling Federation in 2004 drew clear boundaries: no clown costumes or “acting in a manner that could be considered clown type.” These days, athletes at World Juggling Federation competitions must compete in approved uniforms. Balls, rings, beanbags, or clubs are limited to one color — white (though the shells of clubs can have some decoration).

These rules do distance Garfield’s type of juggling from what's most well known. This is why it’s relatively unexpected that Garfield is also a performer who does comedy routines intermixed with juggling. Although there has been tension over whether juggling is an art or a sport, it’s clear that most jugglers — including Garfield himself — do both.

“It's not mutually exclusive,” says Garfield. “If anything, the sport helps the art, because it fosters better jugglers. Our community is composed of people who participate in the sport and the art of it.”

NOT SPORTS is an occasional series from Inverse celebrating the weird and wild organized competitions that fall just short of being a sport.

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