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When it comes to America’s oddest sports, anyone can join in, as long as you’re ready for fun (and not hoping to get your face on a cereal box).
By Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Photography by Sol Neelman
As Shaun White, America’s most famous flame-haired athlete, attempts to Double McTwist his way to a third gold medal at next month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it grows harder to remember the days when snowboarding was considered weird. Only a few decades ago, snowboarding was seen as a fringe sport, one best left to grungy teens and reckless lunatics. In fact, in the ’80s, few ski resorts even allowed snowboarders on their slopes.
How things change. It raises the question: What will be the next weird sport to morph into a gold medal–worthy sensation? Ice golf? Lightsaber fencing? Extreme pencil fighting?
Okay, probably none of those. But that doesn’t matter to the weekend warriors who participate in the countless odd competitions played out across America each year, from Big Wheel races in the streets of San Francisco and chuck wagon dashes in dusty Clinton, Arkansas, to the mud football championships in North Conway, New Hampshire. Sol Neelman would know. For more than eight years, the Portland, Oregon–based photographer has traveled the country documenting our affinity for offbeat athletics. “Most of these events have a similar sensibility and humor, a lightheartedness,” Neelman says. “People are doing it because they want to have fun, and that’s what I come across almost all the time. The common denominator is usually costumes, cheap beer, and lots of laughter.”
“So many of our organized sports are too organized,” says Lloyd Bradley, author of The Rough Guide to Cult Sport and a former fitness editor at British GQ.
“They’re just not mad enough.” Contrarily, the diverse world of wacky sports, he says, “appeals to our sense of individuality. People don’t want to conform, go along with the rules, or buy all this equipment. They’d rather make something up as they went along.”
Compared to traditionally strenuous sports, these bizarro endeavors tend to be blessedly easy. “These are sports that anyone can do,” says Neelman, who estimates that he has photographed almost 200 of these madcap competitions. “Some are a little more nuanced than others, and some are definitely more athletic, but if you want to try the Santa Speedo Run, anyone can do that.” Plus, the majority of these alternative sports don’t require fancy gear. All you need for Liberal, Kansas’ International Pancake Day race are a few basic pantry supplies, an apron, and a skillet. The frog jumping competition in Northern California’s Calaveras County requires only the frog.
There’s just something about all that weirdness—the frogs, the tiny trikes, the mud—that brings people together. These unconventional sports offer an opportunity for those with quirkier (dare we say, geekier?) interests to emerge from the shadows and embrace their passions. “I think these sports are a chance for people to say, ‘You know what? I love surfing, I love my dog. Now I want to hang out with people who love dog surfing,’” Neelman says. There’s no real glory to be won in, say, a beard-growing contest, no medals or magazine covers to be had. And that’s the point. “These are people doing things because nobody is watching.”
Since 1893, the frog jockeys of Calaveras County, California, have egged on their leggy charges at the Jumping Frog Jubilee.
For photographer Sol Neelman, this snap of San Francisco’s annual Big Wheel race so captures the spirit of these oddball adventures—the costumes, joy, community, and fun—that he used it as the cover of his aptly titled book, Weird Sports.
The dudes who get down at North Conway, New Hampshire’s Mud Bowl do it for a good cause: The annual fall event has raised more than $800,000 since 1976.
Each year on Fat Tuesday (aka Pancake Day), the ladies of Liberal, Kansas, go apron-to-apron with their counterparts in Olney, England, for a shot at griddle cake–flipping immortality.
The Dirty Dash—a filthy fun-run organized across North America—gets so grimy that participants are asked to ditch their shoes (for charity) when it’s done.
Humps aren’t the only thing you’ll find at Virginia City, Nevada’s annual International Camel Races—the post–Labor Day event also features ostriches and zebras, oh my!
Arborists from 17 countries and kids of all ages harnessed up in Portland, Oregon, for the 2012 ISA International Tree Climbing Championship.
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