The Sporting Life 

Zach Dundas, author of The Renegade Sportsman, explains his wild journey into the underbelly of American sports culture.

In the introduction to his new book, Zach Dundas acknowledges that most sports fans "prefer their competitive athletes sober, aerodynamically shaved, and honed to a pitiless muscular edge. They prefer their events 'organized.'" Not Dundas.

While attending a cyclocross race—an event he describes as "a rustic form of bike racing that combines grueling obstacles, hellacious ascents and descents, a fetish for bad weather, athletic masochism, and rabid beer consumption"—Dundas had an epiphany. Fans consistently bummed out by the mega-business of professional sports deserved something more pure, less fame-obsessed and, well, more fun than what was being offered in major venues. They deserved to know about events like cyclocross.

Dundas' epiphany led to a cross-country journey into our country's burgeoning alternative sports landscape—and to his first book, The Renegade Sportsman, which was released this month. We caught up with the former Indy arts editor and current Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer to learn more about his theory on the future of sports, how 1970s stadium rock is like professional basketball and to discuss something called "soccer."

Indy: The Renegade Sportsman is based on something you've dubbed the "Two Futures of Sports Theory." Please explain.

Dundas: Well, as I was conceiving of the book, it struck me that we never think about sports as a cultural movement, like music or art. Because 90 percent of the attention paid to sports goes to mainstream, major league sports, we tend to view sports as this weird combination of big business and celebrity gossip. And yet sports, like music or art or literature, is a manifestation of culture before anything else. In music, even people who are just fans of mainstream pop recognize the role played by the band that plays in the corner bar—the grassroots level of chaos that keeps the overall organism alive. So my Two Futures of Sports Theory (which has a pretentious name by design) tries to apply that thinking to sports. Obviously, the major leagues will just keep getting bigger, barring civilization-wide catastrophe. But I also think there is an opportunity for a much more cohesive, vibrant, grassroots sports underground to thrive at the same time, and that the two can feed off of each other.

Indy: Each chapter delves into a different alternative sporting culture. What criteria did you use for choosing what made the book, and what didn't?

Dundas: It was like porn—you know it when you see it. I was really attracted to sports that are being organized, or even invented, by the participants themselves as we speak. Roller derby fits that bill, as does bike polo. I wrote at length about a bike race in Iowa, the Trans-Iowa, which is effectively staged by one man but has nonetheless achieved a certain legendary status. I was looking for that kind of dirty-fingernailed Yankee ingenuity, mostly. At the same time, there's a broad spectrum within the book—I wrote about the Cresta Run, which is this crazy sledding event in Switzerland that seems to attract European aristocrats almost exclusively, just because I think it's cool and bizarre.

Indy: Which sport made the biggest impression on you, for better or worse?

Dundas: It's hard to argue with the Trans-Iowa. It's a cycling triple-century over the worst backroads you can imagine, out in the middle of nowhere. (The Iowa-style middle of nowhere, not the Montana-style middle of nowhere, i.e., you're surrounded by seas of corn.) Just physically, it's a monumental task and achievement—I really doubt that many professional athletes, in any sport, could outdo the guys who finished in the top five, in about 25 hours. Culturally, it was a reminder that this part of the country that people tend to think of as very boring and conventional is actually home to a bunch of very creative, engaged people. I think that resonated with me as a Montanan. And just personally, everyone involved in the race has this kind of folkloric stature, from Guitar Ted, the guy who runs the race, to Ira Ryan, the cycling fanatic who won the edition I witnessed.

Indy: Almost every sport involves—requires?—the consumption of alcohol in some way. Did you need more Bengay or detox after your research?

Dundas: You know, in retrospect I probably over-emphasized the drinking, mostly just to be funny and set the right tone of serious unseriousness. People seem to be pretty struck by that as they read it. I think it's important to note that even among the Hash House Harriers, the so-called "drinking club with a running problem," there are people who are teetotal. I guess I'm saying that it's a matter of attitude and approach rather than overall consumption.

Indy: Which one of the sports you discovered has the best chance of eventually reaching a wider audience? (And is that a good thing or a bad thing?)

Dundas: Bike polo and roller derby are both becoming full-fledged international sports, with established competitive calendars and broad, deep groups of players and fans. At the same time, I think both could remain relatively underground and still be very healthy and vibrant.

Certainly, within both sports, you would find a wide range of opinions about the best way to evolve. There are some bike polo players who can't wait to cash that first Red Bull sponsorship check, and others who fairly vehemently want the sport to remain grassroots-controlled. It's possible that there is a viable middle ground. I think roller derby, which has seen such phenomenal growth and yet has remained amateur and player-owned, is in the process of finding out.

Indy: How did growing up in Montana, and your time in Missoula, contribute to your view of sports culture?

Dundas: I think Montana fosters an appreciation for the DIY approach to life. That can mean playing in your own band, or it can mean shooting, gutting and skinning your own deer. It means that some people do both those things, which is a combination that, as I have discovered since moving to Portland, is sort of lost on people elsewhere. Even in the 21st century, Montana remains a fairly unmediated, authentic place. And I think Missoula, specifically, obviously exposed me to both great writers and great sportsmen and -women from an early age—it does not seem remarkable to me, at all, for someone to be both a serious outdoors person and a serious reader. I am neither a great writer nor a great sportsman, but I'm trying on both counts.

Indy: Aside from soccer (see excerpt on last page), what'd you play during your time in Montana?

Dundas: As I say in the book, I am not personally a great example of the Montana lifestyle, but I certainly did a bit of fishing, an extremely small and unsuccessful amount of hunting, some wilderness hiking, some rafting, some mountain biking, all that. When I was a kid, I played a bit of basketball (I was terrible) and briefly started at linebacker for the city champion Roosevelt Rebels flag football team. What can I say? I was a nerd by choice.

Indy: Knowing your passion for soccer, what's your expert analysis heading into the 2010 World Cup, and who do you think will ultimately hoist the trophy in South Africa? (Needless to say, your answer will constitute the entirety of the Indy's official World Cup preview.)

Dundas: Everyone is looking to Spain to stage a defining performance and make good on their promise as the most stylish and tactically sophisticated team in world football. They have the horsepower, but also a history of flameouts on the big stage. Likewise, the best player in the world right now, Lionel Messi, has never really proven himself with Argentina, and he must cope with having crazy Diego Maradona as his coach. Holland has potential to be a beautiful team. I don't think we'll see a repeat of the French and Italian tours de force of 2006—those teams are past their sell-by dates. England finally has a brilliant manager, but I remain unconvinced. Sadly, I don't think the African teams will show much beyond their usual flashes of brilliance and their fatal inconsistency. While I don't believe the United States will make it past the Round of 16 (or beat England this coming Saturday), I do think we have a team to be proud of. We've got players who have roots in Mexico, Haiti, Nigeria, Canada, Brazil, Scotland and elsewhere, many of whom made a conscious choice to represent the U.S. We've got white dudes, black dudes, Hispanic dudes. It's not the old suburban-collegiate soccer factory anymore, either. Clint Dempsey grew up the only Anglo kid playing in the all-Mexican leagues down on the Texas border. Landon Donovan grew up poor in California. Jay DeMerit got zero attention coming out of college, paid his own way over to London and painted houses for spending money while he scrapped his way up through the minor leagues, all the way to the Premiership. Win or lose, this team is the real America.

Indy: You make a detailed comparison between mainstream sports and 1970s stadium rock in the book. How's that work, exactly?

Dundas: The overblown, grandiose and occasionally silly nature of major league sports somehow recalls Jefferson Starship to me. Meanwhile, I was trying to write about people who are the modern-day sports equivalent of The Slits.

Indy: Have you sworn off mainstream sports entirely?

Dundas: Not at all. I am really enjoying the NBA Finals, and looking forward to abandoning society, more or less, for a month of World Cup action. I think it's great that the best in the world have an outlet for their skills. I just think everyone else needs an athletic outlet, too.

Zach Dundas reads from The Renegade Sportsman Tuesday, June 15, at 7 p.m., at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third Street W.

Beware the Carnies

Before searching for the world's wildest grassroots sports, Dundas captained perhaps the worst team in Missoula soccer history

Excerpt of The Renegade Sportsman by Zach Dundas reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010.

The world soccer explosion, well under way elsewhere, hadn't quite happened yet in late-1990s Missoula. Social trends tend to wash over Montana about a decade late. (About half the time, this is a good thing). Isolation breeds creativity, so my friends and I were used to making our own fun. Sometimes that meant hauling a rented generator down to the riverside to power a show by an extreme-leftist punk band on tour from North Dakota. All too often it meant those weekends aptly described as "lost." In '97 and '98, it meant the Carnies Football Club. The Carnies wore black T-shirts. Our team crest consisted of a wobbly, hand-drawn shield bearing a skull, a switchblade, and a bottle marked "XXX." When I solicited a sponsorship at a sports bar the owner gave me a blank look and said, "Soccer, huh? Well, I guess. We wanna see you guys in here after every game, ordering puh-lenty of beer. Think you can do that, buddy?" Yes.

I can't say for sure, but I feel confident that Missoula Co-Rec Division 1 never before saw and never again would see a team as awful as us. For our debut match, about thirty rookie Carnies, lured perhaps by the team captain's talk of puh-lenty of beer, showed up. Our sideline resembled a protest against the World Trade Organization, and every substitution opportunity devolved into total chaos. If memory serves, we trailed a well-kempt team from a law firm 5-0 at halftime. The referee—a tallow-skinned, fifty-something character who wore a vintage Santos FC warm-up suit and chain-smoked straight through the break—strolled over. "Captain," he said, "you've got to get your team organized." I didn't ask if he had any teargas I could borrow. We did bag a consolation goal in the second half. A Carnie striker, one of a handful of our players with real experience, nailed a scorcher from twenty-five yards out. A fantastic goal from any perspective, it must have looked equally beautiful to him. Before the game, he told me he had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms.

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As the season progressed, the Carnies improved—a little. A Belarusian named Pavel, a paternal gent with salt-and-pepper hair whom none of us had ever met, mysteriously started showing up promptly at game time to play for us. He proved good for a couple of goals a game. Our pugnacious goalkeeper, a National Guardsman who both served in Afghanistan and played bass for Missoula's most venerable punk band, put a little muscle in our defense. So did the linebacker from the Montana Grizzlies football (the other kind) team, recruited by my brother, who spent much of his time in Carnies black trying to start fights with opposing players. Our female players, it turned out, were much better than our men—for some reason, the Carnie women tended to be physically fit and less lifestyle-impaired than their male counterparts. I don't know why.

Other teams—genuine amateur athletes seeking bona fide recreational competition, I suppose—seemed unimpressed by our freewheeling approach. "This is ridiculous," one snotty hotshot whined to a referee. "These guys don't belong out here." His team had scored three goals in fifteen minutes while dodging homicidal slide tackles, so maybe he had a point. That didn't stop me from screaming "That was for you, motherfucker!" when we (Pavel) leveled the score in a game that we (Pavel) almost stole.

The Carnies put together an immaculate winless streak. No other team, however, could match our party record. About half the core squad, including the hapless cap'n lived in a nine-bedroom decommissioned nunnery behind Missoula's oldest Catholic church. By postmatch midnight, a choreographed wrestling match usually took place in the living room, with Heinz 57 used as fake blood. We chewed over tactics, technique, and lineups, but soon enough the day's result started to feel irrelevant compared to olive-oil belly flop contests on the kitchen linoleum. Sadly, Pavel never joined us. I believe he was a religious man.

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