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Published February 24, 2024

At the Florida Man Games, tank-topped teams compete at evading police, wrestling over beer

Florida Man Games - AP

By Russ Bynum, The Associated Press

They rose up by the dozens from across Florida, caricatured competitors in tank tops and cutoff shorts, for a showdown that treats evading police and wrestling over beer like Olympic sports.

Promoted as “the most insane athletic showdown on Earth,” the Florida Man Games poke fun at the state’s reputation for bizarre stories that involve brawling, drinking, gunfire, reptile wrangling and other antics carrying a risk of time in jail or intensive care.

Several thousand people paid real money to come cheer a dozen teams at the debut event set for Saturday in St. Augustine, with contests and sideshows inspired by real events from America’s most surreal state.

“I have an absolute disregard for self-preservation. I will do anything,” said Larry Donnelly, 42, who owns a St. Augustine pressure-washing business and serves as captain of the five-man team Hanky Spanky. “When I was in the military, I did a little alligator wrestling.”

To train for the games, Donnelly rode a bicycle around his neighbourhood with a second bike strapped to his back. His event Saturday: a race requiring competitors to switch between bikes while toting a catalytic converter and a handful of copper pipes, common items in Florida theft stories.

Other events involve contenders wrestling sumo-style while holding pitchers of beer, or running from actual sheriff's deputies while jumping fences and avoiding obstacles. Some signed up to duel with pool noodles over a mud-filled pool, while others faced a scramble to grab cash flying in simulated hurricane winds.

Florida Man Games organizer Pete Melfi said he was stunned to find nobody else had beaten him to the ripped-from-headlines idea for a spoof sporting event. He expected more than 5,000 spectators paying $45 or more per ticket to join the fun at the city's Francis Field.

“We kind of give a person an opportunity to live a day in the life of Florida man without ending up in a cop car,” said Melfi, who runs the St. Augustine media outlet The 904 Now. But he had to tone down some racier aspects of the Florida Man mythos to obtain a permit.

”There’s typically drugs and nudity,” he said. “But the city frowned on it when I asked for drugs and nudity.”

The “Florida Man” phenomenon seeped into the nation's conscience thanks in part to a Twitter account that started in 2013 with the handle @_FloridaMan. The account touted “real-life stories of the world's worst superhero,” sharing news headlines such as “Florida Man Bites Dog to ‘Establish Dominance’” and “Florida Man Tried to Pay for McDonald’s With Weed.”

Florida's claim to being the strangest state goes back much further, said Craig Pittman, a Florida journalist who wrote the book “Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.” He noted that the first flag to fly over its state Capitol in 1845 bore the motto “Let Us Alone.”

Apparently, nobody listened. Florida today has 22 million residents, the third largest population of any U.S. state. And they all share roads, beaches and timeshares with more than 130 million tourists per year.

“You cram that many people together, they’re bound to start running into each others' cars and chasing each other with machetes,” Pittman said.

Leading up to Saturday's games, Joshua Barr and his Cooter Commandos teammates spent time whipping up fan support on Facebook with posts showing the trio chugging Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and jogging in jean shorts and mirrored sunglasses. Their team name comes from a turtle species celebrated by their hometown of Inverness.

The Commandos didn't stop with online promotion and trash-talking of rival teams. Barr, a 37-year-old movie reviewer and podcaster, said they also printed T-shirts, temporary tattoos and a large custom flag to wave on the field.

“We might be taking it more seriously than most people," Barr said. “You kind of just have to be a part of the joke at this point.”

Banner image via The Associated Press

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