Has this ever happened to you?Â You’re in the middle of an off-road bicycle race and you think to yourself, “Man, I wish I was drunk right now.”
Well, you’re not alone. There’s a whole subculture of people who think things like that. Luckily, Zach Dundas decided to write a book about themÂ and other enthusiasts of non-mainstream competitions.
It’s called The Renegade Sportsman.Â Zach was kind enough to answer questions about roller derby, chronic liver disease and the culinary masterpiece that is the Taco Bell chalupa.
SCP: The first, and most obvious, question is: How did you find these people in the first place?
ZD: An under-appreciated aspect of America’s genius is that there’s always someone, somewhere, doing whatever it is you can imagine and many things you would prefer not to imagine. The addition of Google to this sprawling republic of oddity has made the journalist’s life much, much easier. Generally, I just kind of attuned myself to the underground sports world rather than the mainstream sports world. Time I might have otherwise spent reading ESPN.com, I spent clicking through roller derby websites. The brainspace I might have otherwise devoted to MLB stats, I gave over to falconry. I kept my eye out for lucky connectionsâ€”I found out about the TransIowa cycle race, which turned out to be a major component of the book, by chance while I was working on a short chapter about bike messengers. People are chattering about all kinds of stuff out there.
SCP: What was the single craziest thing you witnessed while writing this book?
ZD: Seeing a large, half-drunk man in a red negligee blow out his knee during a Hash House Harriers run comes to mind. But I would also give honorable mention to seeing two sleep-deprived, almost-hallucinating cyclists racing down Iowa dirt roads at 3 o’clock in the morning.
SCP: Are you rejecting mainstream sports altogether?
ZD: Not at all. I think that mainstream, major-league sports have become a very important and very interesting aspect of our culture. But I also decided, at the outset of the research for this book, that mainstream sports on their own are not enough. And I came to that conclusion entirely *because* of sports’ cultural importance. We don’t usually think of sports as a cultural movementâ€”we’ve been trained to follow them as this weird combination of celebrity gossip and business news. But if you adjust your perspective a little, you could just as well compare sports to music or art. Imagine if Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber were the only musicians in the world. We would all immediately kill ourselves. In order to be healthy, music needs that band playing at the corner bar and that lonely, maladjusted singer-songwriter who might never make it out of her bedroom. All cultural movements need that grassroots chaos to stay fresh and evolve. So I decided to find the sports equivalent of a DIY basement rock show or some art-school kid’s first gallery openingâ€”that moment of raw potential when there’s no way to know what something will become, if anything.
SCP: You focus part of the book on MLS fans. That league seems to be aiming for mainstream acceptance. Did you run into any problems with them because of that?
ZD: I was not in touch with league HQ at all. I did have minimal contact with the club offices at DC United and the Chicago Fire, and those people were very enthusiastic and helpful. The supporters groups themselves, in both DC and Chicago, were completely open and accessible. That’s the thing about American soccer fansâ€”we have an earnest and probably annoying evangelical zeal. Like, Have you accepted Diego Maradona as your personal savior?
I think that MLS now understandsâ€”to a much greater extent than it did when it started in 1996â€”that soccer occupies a unique position in the American sports world, and rather than fight against this peculiar status, the league needs to use it to its own advantage. There is an audienceâ€”it tends to be a young, urban audience, composed of people who have some kind of cosmopolitan or international outlookâ€”that wants an alternative to the usual sports experience. In the book, I write about fans who want to create a live atmosphere that is very distinctly connected to international soccer culture. To the extent that MLS can cultivate that following, it will have a strong base that may or may not overlap much with “mainstream” sports. It seems to me like it’s paying off. You’re starting to see the new MLS franchisesâ€”Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia, for exampleâ€”getting off to explosive starts in terms of attendance and loyalty. When Portland and Vancouver join the league next year, they’re going to bring intense fanbases with them from the lower divisions. Montreal is coming in 2012 after a very successful run in the minors. This kind of organic, grassroots growth is going to serve the league very well.
SCP: How real is roller derby?
ZD: Very. I’ve seen the bruises and blood, the sweat and the tears.Â The competition among top teamsâ€”Austin, New York, Seattle and Chicago, among several othersâ€”is extremely intense, skilled and brutal.Â I would add that the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association is one of the most impressive organizations in American sports right now: completely grassroots, totally run by players and former players, and managing a rapid national expansion of its sport in a very responsible and even-handed way. If you want to play WFTDA roller derby in your city, you have to organize a league and meet very specific training and safety standards, and then the Association brings your league along to the point where you can put a competitive team on the track against one of the established powers. If you look at the WFTDA website, you’ll see that they just added affiliate leagues in Ogden, Utah and Hagerstown, Maryland and Florence, Kentuckyâ€”I mean, this thing is happening. My hometown in Montana just got a league.
At the same time, the exciting thing about roller derby right now is that it is not a finished product. The players are refining their skills, new cities are coming on board, and really unexpected things can still happen. A new team from Olympia, Washington came out of nowhere and won the national title last year. That’s exactly the point of sports evolution I wanted to capture in the book. You don’t know where it’s going or what it’s going to be. Maybe nothing. Maybe something big.
SCP: How did your liver survive the writing process? It seems a lot of these events are half sport/half pub crawl.
ZD: Well, I definitely set out with the idea that a sociable drink or two should be a key part of the sports experience. In all honesty, though, attitude matters more than total consumption, and I didn’t really drink all that much (except when I was out with the Hash House Harriers…that’s another matter entirely). I guess you could say that a little beer-drinking, among both participants and fans, signifies that sport is meant to be a good time and a chance to hang out with other people rather than a deadly serious money-making venture.
SCP: You bring up fans in Portland cheering for the Blazers (or their opponent) to score 100 points so they would all get free chalupas from Taco Bell as an example of where mainstream sports have gone awry. But have you ever had a Chalupa? They are delicious! It’s crunchy and chewy at the same time.
ZD: I have no doubt that the chalupa is a typically impressive achievement on the part of America’s food sciences industry. It’s just weird to see sports fans chanting for food rather than their hometown team. I think it’s fine for those fans to want their chalupasâ€”I’m just urging them to check out the Belgian waffles at the nearest cyclocross race, too.