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Irrational Pastimes : Foot Tennis? Frisbee Golf? Even for a Nation of Sports Nuts, Competition Is Getting Nuttier and Nuttier

November 12, 1989|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor of this magazine.

I CAN'T BELIEVE WHAT passes for sports these days. "It's the Battle of the Monster Trucks and Mud Racing Spectacular," says the television announcer. My jaw drops as a giant truck with immense tractor tires drives over 10 cars and squashes them like soda cans. "How can you watch this?" I ask my husband.

"It's riveting in its awfulness," Duke says as a foolhardy trucker tries to plow through a mud bog, even though his engine is in flames. "It amazes me that anyone would spend so much time and energy doing something this weird."

It's not just anyone. Pick a Sunday, any Sunday. Pick a town, any town. The beaches, mountains, stadiums, gymnasiums, playgrounds and parks are mobbed with aficionados playing or watching some incredibly dubious sport. I can understand baseball, basketball, golf, track and field, tennis or even football. But rattlesnake rodeos? Motorcycle racing on ice? Foot tennis? Executive war games, where weekend warriors dress up in combat fatigues and pay to shoot each other with paint pellets?

"Trash sports," exclaims John Cherwa, associate sports editor at The Times. "That's our official name for them. Because they're not traditional and, in many cases, they're not real. Supposedly, in Atlanta they have a thing called cat chasing." What ? "They throw a cat out of an airplane and then different parachutists try to chase and catch the cat. I don't know if it's true, but I've heard it."

For the life of me, I can't figure out why anyone in his right mind would do such a thing. Of course, I also can't fathom what draws a person to competitive cheerleading, curling, hang gliding or the granddaddy of dubious sports--synchronized swimming. Some sports are glamorous. Some sports are exciting. Some sports are good for your heart. Some sports are good for making money. But some sports are good for nothing.

"And there certainly are a lot of them," says my brother Bobby, who lists target diving (training to be an arrow?) powerboat racing (go out on the water, burn gas and wreck your hearing) and air shows (die!) among the world's dumbest sports. "But kick boxing is as bad as it gets," he insists. "It's not enough that you've got a guy beating his opponent's face in with his hands. He's got to use his feet. And not only can he kick his opponent when he's down, if he kicks him in the head, he gets a point."

I think you should get 10 points if you turn off the television. "Historically, a lot of these trash sports started in the 1970s when major networks had sports anthology shows," Cherwa explains. "The networks were starving for programming, and all this bizarre stuff began showing up. There was one guy I'll never forget. He was called the Human Fly. They actually strapped him to an airplane, and they flew him around."

Technically, the Human Fly is more in the spirit of a publicity stunt, unless there's an American Federation of Human Flies out there, sponsoring tournaments somewhere in Arkansas.

"Have you heard about hoe-de-o?" asks my friend Sabina. This sport, which sounds like the world's worst date, is played by backhoe operators who don't get enough ditch-digging during the regular week so they get together on weekends to turn on the old Caterpillar and watch the dirt fly. "In one event, they see if they can pick up an egg and race across the track without breaking it," Sabina says. "It gives all new meaning to the term party game ."

I realize that America is a nation of sports nuts, led by a horseshoe-tossing, powerboat-piloting fly fisherman. But lately, it seems as though the sports keep getting nuttier and nuttier. Forget about obvious death-wish sports such as parapenting (where you run down a hill with a wing on your back until you gain enough speed to fly) or acrobatic skateboarding in the gutters adjoining high-speed boulevards. (Duke believes that skateboarders have had the fear centers of their brains surgically removed.) I am struck by what is a popular and relatively mainstream activity--mountain biking.

According to the Bicycle Institute of America, 7.5 million people rode mountain bikes in 1988. Yet I can't figure out what's fun about this sport. I see these bicyclists painfully struggling in very low (rat treadmill) gear to get up steep inclines on bumpy trails. I hear their anxious voices yelling "get out of the way" as they hurtle past on the lips of precipices. And it's not as if those spandex shorts are really flattering.

Recently, when Duke and I were hiking up the Temescal fire road, I asked a mountain biker just what he saw in the sport. "How far did you get? Six miles?" sneered the biker, who looked as if he'd been freeze-dried on his bicycle. "I've come 40 miles."

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