MADRID – Some clutched pillows or stuffed animals, others fought back giggles as they sought to take a siesta in public — all in the name of plugging a quintessential Spanish custom endangered by the demands of modern life.
Amid the bustle of a shopping mall, with babies wailing and pop music piped in overhead, clutches of people tried to snooze Thursday in what was billed as Spain's first siesta competition.
The goal — to promote Spain's cherished post-luncheon nap — is no joke, although the costumes of some who participated may be.
As the nine-day snooze Olympiad got under way, some competitors snuggled with giant stuffed animals or clutched pillows like babies with comforters. Others wore airplane eye masks to block the light. A young stern-faced judge with a T-shirt bearing the letters "ZZZ" monitored the proceedings perched high on a lifeguard's chair.
Contestants in groups of five were given 20 minutes to lie down on garish blue coaches and timed by a doctor with a pulse-measuring device to determine how long they spent snoozing. They could win extra points for snoring, adopting goofy sleep positions or wearing outlandish night wear in plain view of gawking shoppers.
Their sofas were lined up in parallel numbered lanes like those of a track and field meet, and eight rounds were being held per day.
The winner of the inaugural round was a portly and loquacious construction worker, 47-year-old Fermin Lominchar, who raised his arms in triumph as he mounted the podium. He was timed as having slept 18 minutes, much of it with his generous gut sticking out from an untucked plaid shirt.
"I just conked out. No problem whatsoever," he said, winning a euro30 ($42.30) gift certificate.
No snoring was detected among the first five contestants. Organizers have a machine to measure the decibels emitted if anyone does.
But Lominchar did give out a hardy snort to imitate what he thinks he sounds like when he actually snores.
The prize for best attire went to Carmen Lopez Valdeon, a 49-year-old housewife, who donned thick pink winter pajamas with violet daisies and fuzzy green socks. She finished second, with a sleeping time of 10 minutes, and was among those using the pillow-hugging technique.
"I was a little nervous at first," she said. "You know, it's like sleeping in a hotel. It takes some getting used to."
The contest was being run by the newly formed National Association of Friends of the Siesta and was sponsored by the Islazul shopping mall in Madrid's Carabanchel district. Each sleeper gets only one shot, and the top prize of euro1,000 ($1,400) goes to the person with the most points when the contest ends Oct. 23.
Angel Rodriguez, a 57-year-old onlooker, said when he was young the siesta was so ingrained in Spanish culture that parents would force their children to take them.
"Now, people do not know how to savor the siesta any more," he said, blaming jam-packed work schedules and trashy television shows.
"They put all the gossipy shows on right after lunch and people get hooked. They would rather watch than rest," he said.
Dr. Lili Chuecas, who was hired to measure the contestants' sleep times, said these days fewer and fewer Spaniards have long lunch breaks — a crucial ingredient for a decent siesta — and have more hectic lifestyles in general.
"People do not appreciate the value of rest," said Chuecas.
In Round No. 2, played as Sinead O'Connor boomed out "Nothing Compares to You" over the public sound system, 16-year-old Sandra Escribano giggled repeatedly as she tried but ultimately failed to fall asleep.
"I kept peeking out from under the eye mask. I couldn't sleep because I felt like I was being watched," said Escribano.
Waiting for his turn in Round No. 3 was 79-year-old retiree Pedro Martinez de las Mulas, who was not nervous at all about how he would fare.
"I might sleep the whole time, but I cannot guarantee it," he said. "Maybe I can win some extra points by faking that I am snoring."