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Inside the strange world of marble racing, which has taken off now that we have no sports

With many pro sports canceling seasons due to coronavirus, online marble racers are growing in popularity. (Video: Jelle's Marble Runs)

Around and around they go. Jockeying for position. Hugging the curves of the Savage Speedway. Heading toward the finish.

Coming into the race, Clementin, racing for team O’rangers, stood tall as first seed. Now, he’s nowhere to be found, and Snowy of team Snowballs and Speedy of the Savage Speeders have rolled ahead to take the lead.

But in the end, Starry from Team Galactic proves victorious.

Starry proudly stands atop the gold medal platform.

Starry is a marble.

This is Marbula One, in which spherical glass balls line up behind starting blocks before they drop away and, whoosh!, gravity pulls them out of the gate and through several laps around a twisty track before a conveyor belt brings them back to the top again to keep the race going. Announcer Greg Woods soundtracks the Feb. 16 event with sharp commentary. Professional camerawork and top-notch editing gives the whole thing a prime-time, ESPN-esque sheen — even though it all takes place on YouTube.

This particular race, which has racked up more than a million views, represents just one of the many offerings of Jelle’s Marble Runs, the online organization that created marble racing — which, in the absence of sports because of the coronavirus outbreak, has come to give fans an outlet to sate their thirst for competition.

The sport — and, please, don’t disrespect it by calling it anything but — recently got a boost thanks to a single tweet by a user named Christmas, showing a clip from a sand race from a few years ago.

Attention from celebrities such as Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz and English soccer legend Gary Lineker helped boost the Twitter video well beyond viral status. It’s been viewed more than 35 million times. The Jelle’s Marble Runs YouTube channel added more than 150,000 of its 759,000 subscribers in March. Marble races were even aired on ESPN 2.

“It’s kind of tough to wrap your mind around the growth that has come in the last couple of weeks,” Woods said. “This vacuum where sports existed has really affected people. It’s the perfect storm to get people into this, because you can’t watch in person. You have to watch it online, at home.”

Jelle’s Marble Runs has three primary categories: The Marble Rally, which is the most basic — marbles rolling down a hill; first to the bottom wins. Then there’s the Marble League, an “Olympic-style” extravaganza with more than 15 team and individual events, including sprints, rafting and balance beam. Finally, there’s Marbula One — short-track, multi-lap race mirroring the real-world Grand Prix.

“What really draws you in and keeps you there, even though it’s just marbles rolling with gravity: It still has the central tenets of sports,” Woods said. “Underdog stories. Come-from-behind victories. Upsets. The home team prevailing or not prevailing."

Though marble racing only recently vroom vroomed into the public consciousness, it’s been around for decades. Jelle Bakker, co-founder of Jelle’s Marble Runs, began constructing tracks as a young child in the Netherlands, digging them out of the dirt in his grandfather’s garden. Originally, they were simply for his own amusement. Then came the Internet — a place to upload such oddities and, in time, find a rabid fan base.

Despite his brother and co-founder Dion’s initial skepticism, Jelle created his first YouTube channel in 2006.

“I thought, why would anyone look at your marble runs? It’s ridiculous,” Dion said.

At first, they filled the channel with cool runs. About a decade later, they added a competition element. Originally, Dion said, the enterprise was called the “Marblelympics” but the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t have it. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, though, welcomed “Marbula One” with open arms.

The sport grew steadily, branching into different leagues and receiving support from the official subreddit, where fans analyze stats, offer suggestions for future tracks, share marble racing-themed memes and create elaborate backstories for the various racers.

After a recent win, for example, they gossiped about female fans crowding outside of Snowy’s hotel room. One user commented, “Snowy has had trouble with the ladies in the past. Let’s hope his fortunes turn around!” One instance included a story line of security guards having to calm down some rambunctious Limers fans who were throwing things on the track. That hubbub took a violent turn into a stands-clearing fight that found Team Primary fans banned from the stadium. (In reality, no one watches the races — the fans’ cheers are added in.)

“We like to be interactive with the fan base and let them come up with ideas and names,” Dion said. “Jelle found it important to hear the fans’ opinions.”

Woods became a central part of the appeal, giving voice to the voiceless. He’s even sometimes represented in the videos by a little marble in the announcer’s booth. “Greg Woods’ voice gives me life,” reads one Reddit post.

The Iowa-based auto racing enthusiast discovered marble racing through its subreddit back in 2016, when he stumbled upon a short race down a track carved into a sand hill.

He was amused by the marble names in the starting lineup.

“I thought it would be kind of funny if I called it like it was a motor race, a Formula 1 Grand Prix,” he said.

So he posted a short recording to Reddit. The fans loved it, and soon the brothers called from the Netherlands asking if he would record commentary for all their videos.

Nowadays, Jelle creates a new track — which can take several days, depending on its complexity — and the brothers then film the race and edit it. A composer drafts music, and for special races, an a cappella group records team chants to come from the crowd. Eventually, the whole thing is sent to Woods, who records his commentary in a single take “to preserve the realism,” he said.

Sometimes precision matters more than speed. In the Marble League, competitors must face the balance beam — a long, thin track — where four marbles on the same team attempt to see how far they roll before falling off. And in the Hubelino Maze, marbles do their best not to get stuck in a winding course.

Woods, who has a background in public health, said he hopes the races might be enticing enough to help people stay inside and practice social distancing and isolation.

“I hope that we are, as a result, trying to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation,” he said. “Sports are cathartic. You’re getting emotions out, and this still gives you the outlet to do that.”