It's time for sports fans to start playing a new game—one that's cheaper; less fame-obsessed. That's what Zach Dundas, a Portland-based freelance journalist (and former WW staffer), thinks. A self-professed "frail, artistic" type who grew up in Missoula, Mont., obsessed with the Montana Grizzlies, Dundas spent two years trailing hardcore road bikers, falconry enthusiasts and martini-swilling urban golfers from PDX to Washington, D.C., and Iowa—forming a patchwork picture of what he calls the "DIY alternative to the major sports world" will look like. The resultant book, The Renegade Sportsman, debuts next Tuesday, June 1, but WW's already got a special sneak-peek excerpt for our readers.
An excerpt from The Renegade Sportsman: Drunken Runners, Bike Polo Superstars, Roller Derby Rebels, Killer Birds and Other Uncommon Thrills on the Wild Frontier of Sports
by Zach Dundas
This book began when I developed a theory—which is the sort of thing that can happen to the best of us. I call it the Two Futures of Sports Theory.
This Theory posits that sports—which we, as Americans, have somehow decided to make into a load-bearing pillar of our culture—will evolve on two parallel tracks. One of these Linnaean branches is easy to locate—just turn on the TV, and you'll see the unstoppable process of Big getting Bigger, Glitz getting Glitzier, and Alex Rodriguez already thinking about his next contract, which will stipulate that he receive George Steinbrenner's reanimated brain. Behold sports as we know them.
I was interested in the other future of sports. This alternative evolutionary line already exists; you can find it in just about every city in America. In the annual Idiotarod, teams of humans drag shopping carts through the streets of New York. The Scooter Cannonball Run, a biannual transcontinental rally organized by Vespa lovers, demands that these stylish but underpowered vehicles navigate some of the nation's most remote highways. Such DIY efforts are essentially the sports equivalent of starting a band in your garage, brewing your own beer, or knitting your own scarves.
According to my Theory, these sporadic examples somehow add up to a movement, even if haphazard to the extreme. I needed to test this hypothesis, so I decided to spend most of a year ignoring mainstream sports—which didn't need me, anyway—and exploring the sporting hinterland. I would try to see how an independent, grassroots sports reality might look.
This journey was, in part, a semi-apocalyptic thought experiment that became slightly less far-fetched in retrospect, when global capitalism hit the minor rough patch known as 2008-2009-?: What would happen if mainstream sports disappeared? What might the world look like if people really had to make their own fun?
These questions led to some interesting complications. For example, on a cold but bright fall morning, I found myself in the middle of a deserted street in Portland's antique/industrial Central Eastside, beneath one of the city's many bridges, thwacking a tennis ball with a nine-iron golf club. The ball arced and hooked before plonking off a concrete bridge support and dropping into a construction zone.
"Man," I said, as I handed the club back to Greg, its owner, "that felt pretty awesome."
"Wait until you get a few drinks in you," Greg replied. "Then you'll feel like Conan the Fucking Barbarian."
Greg wore a tweed vest, a green felt cap, and tight wool pants checked with a black and green plaid. He held a plastic cup one-third-full of martini, complete with floating olives, dispensed from a cylindrical cooler disguised as a golf club (the "Kooler Klub") tucked in his wheeled golf bag. It was about ten o'clock. Greg was ready for World Urban Golf Day, and now so was I.
In a few minutes, about 75 people materialized, looking like a Scottish Highland clan gathering held in a fever dream. I have never seen such argyle, such plaid: chocolate brown, cocoa powder, robin's egg blue; hot pink, salmon, maroon; latte foam, commencement-braid gold, sunburn. Together, we would play eighteen "holes" plotted across a few twisting miles of city streets. In a concession to health, safety and windshields, we would use tennis balls. Instead of cups dug into sod, our targets would consist of found objects and municipal infrastructure.
Maybe some would actually track their scores, but our main objectives were the five licensed premises en route, the beer and liquor for sale within, and the amount of collective havoc and puzzlement we could stir up in between. These obviously worthwhile goals aside, the interesting thing about World Urban Golf Day was that it was World Urban Golf Day, held simultaneously in 30 cities around the globe.
In Newcastle, Australia, festivities began with tea at 9:30 am, followed by nine holes, beer and barbecue, nine holes, beer and awards, and beer. The Parisian contingent golfed in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Depending on how you looked at it, this day of applied physics and wayward projectiles could be considered sport, a public menace, or a combination thereof. It was certainly an impressive example of Internet-enabled coordination.
ILLUSTRATION: Kim Scafuro
World Urban Golf Day was, in other words, exactly what I was looking for: a bunch of people armed only with their imaginations, some cast-off golf gear and an objectionable fashion sense, staging what could be seen—if you squinted—as a large-scale global sporting event. In line with my Theory, this impressive creature represented The Other Future of Sports.
As my fellow golfers tee'd off—one guy used a crumpled Pabst can—I pondered the scene in light of what the economic visionary E.F. Schumacher wrote in his classic 1973 book Small Is Beautiful. World Urban Golf Day provided an inspiring counterexample of international trade—a trade in wild ideas and cocktail recipes rather than complex financial derivatives or cheap shoes. Schumacher's book, which talks of "Buddhist economics," would seem like a relic of stoned hot-tub philosophy—except that it foretold just about all our current societal dilemmas. Schumacher believed that small, decentralized institutions serve human aesthetic, social, economic and spiritual needs better than big, centralized ones.
I don't believe he actually had drunken street golf in mind, but as I watched tennis balls carom down the street, I thought old E.F. would approve.
Now I actually had to play golf. I borrowed a shot of Maker's Mark and a baby-blue-headed driver from a fellow player, and proceeded to shank a shot off a parked Jeep. In the next three strokes, I made it about a block and a half, to a tough lie in a depression between a lip of asphalt and an old rail. I managed to dig out a daisy-cutter straight through a gaggle of pre-pubescent skateboarders.
Greg, who stood next to me offering advice and trying to force me to accept a martini, looked unimpressed.
"Failure to hit the kids," he said. "One stroke penalty."
Zach Dundas will read from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, June 1. Free. Book excerpt courtesy of Riverhead Books.