Gravity Games Defy Newton's Law, Traditional Sports

By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - These aren't the sports your father wanted you to play.

In fact, the Gravity Games are downright "sick" -- today's lingo for cool.

The aptly named Gravity Games, where dirt bikers and skateboarders defy Sir Isaac Newton's law against a backdrop of slacker fashion and pulse-pounding music, have landed on the shore of Lake Erie.

The five-day event is expected to attract 250,000 visitors and pump more than $30 million into Cleveland's economy.

That means little to Shawn Korell, a skateboarding, biking and inline skating enthusiast, who arrived early Wednesday to watch practice rounds.

"It's awesome, man," the 19-year-old Clevelander said with a big grin. "It should come every year."

For the first time, the games aren't in Providence, R.I., which played host the last three years.

The Gravity Games have decided to branch out, trying to reach a wider audience, said spokeswoman Christine Brown. The games are being taped by NBC, which will broadcast them this fall.

"Every year it seems to be bigger," said street biker Mike Laird, 28, who won a bronze medal in the 2000 games.

But could this alter ego of traditional sports be in danger of becoming mainstream, thereby alienating its young audience?

Not to worry, Korell said, exposure's sick.

"I think so many people are getting more credit for what they can do," he said. "It's going to get to the Olympics. They're starting to realize it's a sport."

Most of the competitions, such as skateboarding and inline skating, are similar to the Olympic snowboarding event where athletes perform a variety of jumps that are scored by a panel of judges.

Laird said the games are still for athletes who don't like authority or team sports.

He said that growing up in Greenville, N.C., he was the kid who sat in the back of the classroom and didn't say much.

"I wasn't a bad kid. I just squeaked by school and focused on riding my bike," he said.

After high school graduation, he spent six years working as a welder and riding on the side.

"When I was working, I thought, how sick would it be if I could ride my bike for eight hours a day instead of punching a time clock for the man," Laird said.

Laird has earned between $20,000 to $70,000 a year since he started riding full-time a few years ago. He said his wife, a graphic artist, provides a more steady stream of income.

Laird wears a two-inch long goatee, a pair of 10-gauge horseshoe earrings and has five porcelain teeth from when he "got squirrely, went over the bars and hit my face."

He has the slacker look, but he and the other Gravity Games athletes are anything but that.

"There's no shady dudes here. They're all seriously focused," Laird said.

For spectators, however, there's more to the Gravity Games than competition.

There's a festival village featuring concerts by rappers Busta Rhymes and Run DMC and booths hawking everything a 15-year-old needs to survive: SoBe energy drinks, Clearasil, video games, cell phones and Snickers candy bars.

The Gravity Games attract a large audience of male viewers ages 18-34 but have a long way to go to compete with baseball and football.

Last year's games averaged a 1.7 Nielsen rating compared with 15.7 for the World Series and a 10.1 average for NFL Sunday football.

Eleven-year-old Josh Brenner, who watched inline skaters soaring far overhead Wednesday, said he'll choose the Gravity Games over the NFL when the two go up against each other on Sundays in October and November.

"I don't understand that," said his uncle, Joe Dugan.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)