Stuck at home with more time on our hands, a lot of us went down weird internet rabbit holes in 2020. The one I’m most grateful for stumbling upon was filled with oddly soothing videos of people literally falling down. They seemed to represent everything we lost this year, and the hope of everything that could come again: Thousands gathering IRL in close quarters for silly, innocent, massively collaborative, and globally competitive fun.
I speak of a relatively new entrant in the global pantheon of sports: human mattress dominoes.
The idea is so simple, it’s a wonder that it took humanity until the 21st century to invent it. Take a bunch of people, attach them to mattresses, stick them in a line like dominoes, and push the first one.
The only limitation is the scale, and this is where we spent a decade pushing back the boundaries of human endeavor, from a few dozen to a few thousand participants. If in our post-pandemic world you can gather 2,020 or more people to topple each other successfully — as someone surely would have done this year, but for COVID-19 — then you, my friends, will be the world champions.
And if that’s not a vision of a bright future just around the corner that can inspire you to get through our hard and lonely coronavirus third wave winter, I don’t know what is.
The first to fall
There have been anecdotal tales of human mattress dominoes on U.S. college campuses. Yet the clearest origin of human mattress dominoes as a competitive global sport was — you may have guessed it — a promotional stunt for a mattress supplier.
On July 29, 2009, Bensons For Beds in Gloucestershire, UK lined up a mere 41 workers in its warehouse and filmed the result. They were the first to discover one of the chief delights of this sport: perfectly-timed intervals between screams.
The Bensons video went viral around the world that summer, and we do mean around the world. The first human mattress domino record sanctioned by Guinness World Records followed in Australia that August, on Channel 9 in Sydney. In 32 seconds, 81 humans were toppled.
Here were more firsts for the fledgling sport: first live audience; first awkward presenter participation; first producer who thought it would be neat to play Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumper” over the action replay.
New Zealand couldn’t let that lie. The world record reportedly fell to 121 Kiwis on national TV the following month, live from a furniture store car park in Auckland. But back in the UK, a children’s show called Blue Peter blithely ignored that, claiming its own Guinness World record with a mere 100 tumblers.
There was more confusion as the Americans entered the picture that October. A store in Bowling Green, Kentucky felled 150 (perhaps this was the source of the “Bowling Green massacre” Kellyanne Conway invented in 2017), but that number already appears to have been achieved in New South Wales the previous week, if the YouTube archive is to be believed. Regardless, a Pennsylvania college team seems to have grabbed the lead at the end of the month.
In November, an Alaska furniture store recorded 193 down, including the first use of double domino rows…
…but in a sign of the sport’s growing international strength, that record was toppled the very next day by 244 players in a stadium in Algarve, Portugal. You can see the slower, more distanced, and dare I say more graceful form, of European mattress dominoes, already clashing with the brash American style.
The dominoes took a break that winter and came back with a vengeance in March 2010, where the record was smashed in Dubai (344) and smashed again in Australia (374). Despite the entry of the first Chinese team in May (269), the year’s apparent winner was a 769-strong team in Germany.
That record held until 2012, another banner year for human mattress dominoes. A New Orleans team got 850 in February. A Shanghai team was the first to cross the 1,000 line in July. But a German team fired back the following month, claiming the gold medal again with 1,150.
There the record remained for four years; some may have imagined it was impossible to topple more humans. But Aaron’s, an Atlanta-based electronics store, put the U.S. back on the map with 1,200 human dominoes in March 2016.
This was, incidentally, the record attempt where my rabbit hole research began. Long story short: My wife called me upstairs to see our cat once again sleeping on her face. I posted an Instagram of the incident, added the hashtag #humanmattress, then curiously clicked on it. The Aaron’s attempt was the first non-pet related video to show up.
Little did I know how dark the research hole was about to get.
The Wuhan connection
I’d just relaxed into the hypnotic, happy music, high-speed video of the next world-record winner, in August 2016, where some 2,016 mattresses tumbled in 14 minutes, 41 seconds. Then the Guinness World Records casually revealed the location: Wuhan, China.
Talk about a metaphor turning on a dime. What had just before felt like an example of the sort of joyous nonsense we used to enjoy pre-pandemic had specifically taken place in the city where the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected. Now the video seemed to represent the way this infection spread around the world this year, apparently as unstoppable as dominoes.
It felt a little like that moment you discover the origin of the nursery rhyme line we all fall down: You can never hear it, or see kids acting it out, the same way again. That’s 2020 all over, the year when even innocent internet rabbit holes were not the escapes from reality you thought they were.
The Wuhan record was not the last word in human mattress dominoes. For now, that official accolade goes to the August 6, 2019 exhibition of 2,019 human mattress dominoes at an indoor arena in Rio De Janeiro, above.
The Rio dominoes tumbled in incredible time — 11 minutes, 13 seconds — thanks to a spiral design that just makes the video even more hypnotic. That’s just the kind of three-dimensional innovation this sport is going to need when it resumes its second decade of operation, post-pandemic.
One suggestion: If we could skip straight to a world record attempt to 2,021 people, that would be an appropriate way to mark a year when millions of us chose to tumble down on our mattresses alone for the good of all our health.