The Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker Contest

A unique competition you have to win by a nose.

Joshuaboothe Rottensneakerwinner
Joshua Boothe, winner of the 2009 Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker contest.

“You will definitely be offended from an olfactory perspective,” warns judge Rachel Herz, referring to anyone willing to chance attending the 35th annual Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker Contest, held March 23, 2010, at the Capitol Pavilion in Montpelier, Vermont. But those who do voluntarily subject themselves to the assemblage of foul-smelling sneakers are advised to stay for the duration of the contest, as opposed to stepping out for a breath of fresh air and then re-entering the room. “After 10 or 15 minutes in the auditorium you stop smelling the ambient aroma—a process called adaptation,” begins Herz. “Last year my husband went out to get a cup of coffee, and when he came back in he almost choked,” she reports.

For those of you who haven’t yet caught a whiff of this offbeat competition, each March—on or around the first day of spring—a select group of boys and girls ranging in age from 6-16 descend on Montpelier, hoping to have their sneakers deemed the smelliest in the country. Not just anyone can join this elite group; each of the contenders had to win a regional qualifier, thereby earning $200 cash and an all-expense-paid trip to Vermont to compete in the finals.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Rotten Sneaker Contest was conceived as a marketing gimmick, dreamed up by a Montpelier sporting goods store owner looking for a way to promote a new line of athletic shoes. In 1988, Combe Incorporated (the maker of Odor-Eaters products), stepped in and became title sponsor, raising the contest’s profile and lending it an air of legitimacy. Naturally, Combe saw it as a unique vehicle for promoting Odor-Eaters insoles, powders, sprays and socks, all of which are designed to combat the embarrassing problem of foot odor.

Here’s how the contest works: On the morning of the competition, each entrant will wear his or her sneakers to the event, a requirement designed to minimize the chance that any sneakers will be doctored just prior to the judging. Then, one at a time, each of the contestants will be prompted to remove their sneakers and invited to explain to the judges why they smell so bad.

“You get a fair bit of information,” notes Herz, who will be on hand as a judge for the third consecutive year, having come to the attention of organizers through her 2007 book “The Scent of Desire” (HarperCollins), which addresses “how scent affects our emotions, preferences, memories, health, sexuality, relationships, and food cravings.”

Most of the entrants report having worn their sneakers—without socks—virtually everywhere, even to bed. Among this year’s finalists, Michael Caswell, 16, of Bottineau, North Dakota, claims to have worn his for a year, including a summer job working on a garbage truck. And Benjamin Rinckey, 9, of Eagle River, Alaska, says he wore his riding his bike, going fishing, and standing in fish offal—salmon and halibut, to be specific.

Four of this year’s half-dozen judges—locals from Montpelier—will focus on appearance, evaluating each sneaker based on the condition of the sole, tongue, heel, toe, laces and eyelets, as well as overall condition. Each sneaker is handled using giant tongs, which obviates the need to actually touch any footwear. At the end of the row sit a pair of “celebrity” judges—Herz and “Master Sniffer”/lead judge George Aldrich of NASA (who is responsible for smelling everything that goes into a space shuttle)—both of whom have to move in close and give each sneaker a good honest whiff before assigning grades on a numeric scale, not unlike the scoring system for figure skating.

“The predominant odor is usually a muddy, swampy smell—a combination of mud, dirt and sweaty bare feet,” reports Herz, who says her professional experience as a consultant to the world’s largest aromachemical companies—not to mention her research and teaching at Brown University—gives her an advantage in terms of coping with the smell.

“Having awareness of psychological science helps, because I understand how my nose is tricking me,” she begins. She also considers herself lucky that “while my attention to and awareness of smell is high, I’m not exceptional in terms of sensitivity to noxious odors. My first year I expected it to be worse than it was,” she concludes, before offering that she is currently writing a book about her first time judging the contest.

But the competition is fierce and the stakes high—at least in the minds of the attendees. This year’s grand prize winner will take home $2,500, the Golden Sneaker trophy, a three-day/two-night all-expense-paid trip to New York City and tickets to the Broadway show The Lion King, not to mention a year’s supply of Odor-Eaters products. Last but not least, the winner also has his or her sneakers enshrined in the Odor-Eaters “Hall of Fumes,” and most likely gets the opportunity to appear once or twice on national television.

This explains why the also-rans typically wear a look of dejection after the winner is announced. Ironically, though, it’s the parents who usually take losing the hardest. One might think any parent would be relieved when their child falls short of having the smelliest sneakers in America. But on occasion a parent berates the judges for not choosing their son or daughter; never mind that the Golden Sneaker award is a somewhat dubious honor—a résumé non-starter, if you will.

As for Herz, she’s more than happy to make the trip from Rhode Island and endure the assault on her olfactory senses, because “the kids really enjoy the contest,” she says. Besides, it’s not like the sneaker smell attaches itself and stays with a person (a la “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld). Herz contends that the odors involved aren’t particularly “sticky”—like cigarette or cigar smoke—so one can usually walk away without betraying where you’ve been. Nor is one likely to encounter a similar smell in the natural world—the kind of odor that might prompt nightmares or vivid flashbacks. “The smells are all ambiguous,” she asserts. “It’s a combination that you’re not likely to come across again.”

Follow-up article:
Girl wins Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker Contest