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Daily Telegraph

One blink and it's over by Iain Aitch

As a journalist, I spend a large amount of my time gawping out of the window, daydreaming and staring at a blank computer screen. At such moments, it has often felt as if life is passing me by - but it seems I have inadvertently spent all these years in training for an increasingly popular competitive sport.

I've come to the Horse Hospital in London to take part in Staremaster UK, Britain's first organised staring competition, which was dreamed up by two friends in Florida and has grown from a bar-room joke to a touring phenomenon that takes in art galleries and music festivals around the world.

The concept is simple: two competitors meet each other's gaze at close quarters, and the first to blink loses. Elbows must remain on the table. Touching your opponent is not permitted. Neither is laughing, nodding, smiling, coughing or yawning. There can be no time-outs and no sudden movements.

Unlikely as it sounds, despite the fact that absolutely nothing happens for several minutes at a time, Staremaster is a compelling spectator sport - so much so that its founders, Sean Linezo and Jaimes Miller, are fielding offers of sponsorship and television deals.

“We are making a training DVD right now, so you can learn all the secrets,” Linezo says.

Competitors improve their skills by staring at camera flashbulbs and, rumour has it, ingesting large amounts of cannabis.Concerned about the health risks of such a dedicated training regime, I decide that good old-fashioned concentration is all I need.

A dramatic soundtrack, featuring Eye of the Tiger and Can't Take My Eyes Off You, announces that the contest is about to begin.

The first two gladiators lock eyes and two video cameras project huge images of their faces to an enthralled crowd of spectators.After a 30-second warm-up period, during which blinking is permitted, the announcer tells us we are entering the "dry-eye death phase", so-called because the combatants' tear ducts have emptied and their eyes are starting to burn. Once this phase begins, just one blink or three eye flutters by either contestant marks the end of the match.

Soon, it's my turn to sit and stare. My opponent is Partha Lal, who tells me he works in IT and wears the slightly unfocused expression of a man who spends eight hours a day in front of a computer screen. In my book, that clearly gives him the upper hand.We blink and flutter our way through the warm-up, then a hush descends on the crowd (or is it boredom?) as we enter the death stage. A few seconds later, Lal makes a distinct flutter.

“That's a blink,” I think to myself, but I am powerless to turn to appeal to the referee. Lal gets away with it. I stare intently at his nose for what feels like hours, hoping to intimidate him into fluttering some more.

Then, it happens: I double-blink — a schoolboy error, unforgivable at this high level. Lal is victorious. In less than a minute my dreams of becoming a Staremaster are shattered. I feel somewhat pathetic when I discover that the record is 22 minutes, 30 seconds.

Lal, I'm pleased to see, breezes through his next round and soon reaches the final, where he faces Sarah McCrory, a student from the Royal College of Art, whom I had marked down as the favourite as soon as I first saw her dead-eyed gaze.

After five minutes of exciting ennui, it is Lal who cracks first. He is eliminated by a straight blink and McCrory's fist is held aloft. Obviously, no one ever told her it's rude to stare.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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