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

Dozens of them from across Florida stood up, caricatured competitors in tank tops and shorts, for a showdown that treats dodging police and wrestling for beer like Olympic sports.

The Florida Man Games are being promoted as “the craziest track and field competition on earth,” poking fun at the state’s reputation for outlandish stories involving brawling, drinking, gunfire, reptile wrangling and other antics that put them at risk end up in prison or in intensive care.

Several thousand people paid real money to come and cheer on a dozen teams at the debut event taking place Saturday in St. Augustine, with competitions 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, owner of a pressure washing business in St. Augustine and captain of the five-person Hanky ​​Spanky team. “When I was in the military, I did a little alligator wrestling.”

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

Other events involve participants wrestling sumo-style while holding pitchers of beer, or running from real-life sheriff’s deputies while jumping fences and dodging obstacles. Some signed up for a pool noodle duel over a mud-filled pool, while others faced a battle for cash flying in simulated hurricane winds.

Florida Man Games organizer Pete Melfi said he was stunned to discover no one else had beaten him with the headline-grabbing idea for a sporting event parody. He expected more than 5,000 spectators to pay $45 or more per ticket to join in the fun at Francis Field downtown.

“We’re giving someone the opportunity to live a day in the life of a Florida man without ending up in a police car,” said Melfi, who runs the St. Augustine media outlet The 904 Now. But he had to soften some racist aspects of the Florida Man mythos to get a license.

“There’s typically drugs and nudity involved,” he said. “But the city frowned upon me asking 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 stories about the world’s worst superhero” and shared headlines like “Florida Man Bites Dog to Establish Dominance” and “Florida Man Tried to Pay McDonald’s with Weed.”

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

Apparently no one was listening. Today, Florida has 22 million residents, the third largest population of all US states. And they all share roads, beaches and timeshares with more than 130 million tourists a year.

“If you cram that many people together, they’re going to run into each other’s cars and chase each other with machetes,” Pittman said.

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

The Commandos did not stop with online promotion and trash talk about rival teams. Barr, a 37-year-old film critic and podcaster, said they also printed T-shirts, temporary tattoos and a large custom flag to wave on the field.

“We take it perhaps more seriously than most people,” Barr said. “You just have to be part of the joke at this point.”