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New Sports Let Everybody Play

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Creators of sports like Wiffle hurling and Mojo Kickball (TM) believe the new games can level the playing field between athletes and non-athletes. (Courtesy of Tsubasa Berg)

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In an "aesthletic" sport, fun and spectacle are supposed to outweigh competition. (Courtesy of Tsubasa Berg)

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After being rejected from an Irish hurling squad because it was deemed too dangerous for a newcomer, Tom Russotti decided to play his own gentler version-- with Wiffle bats. (Courtesy of Tsubasa Berg)

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Wiffle hurlers are required to wear uniforms provided by the game's inventor. (Courtesy of Tsubasa Berg)

Martha Clippinger, a 24-year-old graduate student, tossed a Wiffle ball into the air and batted it into a soccer goal over the waving arms of her opponents. She and her teammates, wearing matching blue sleeveless jerseys painted on the front with green butterflies, cheered and exchanged high fives.

The ball sailed past the goalie's outstretched hand into the net. Warren Fry, 28, let out a dismayed grunt as Clippinger scored yet again on his watch. Though armed with a plastic bat twice as big as Clippinger's, he could not keep her from dominating. His slight build and need to take frequent cigarette breaks meant he was no match against Clippinger, who appeared to be a rising star in the sport. Her team beat Fry's 8-6.

In the spirit of Wiffle hurling, however, Fry--wearing a red jersey adorned with flowers--did not let defeat dampen his spirits.

"It's not serious sports, but we're serious about having a great time," Fry said after the game, played on a September afternoon on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

That is the essence of a few new and casually organized hybrid sports like street bicycle polo and Mojo Kickball that are springing up in pockets around the country. They have small but loyal followings and embrace a spirit of inventiveness and improvisation.

Many people who are turned off by traditional sports like basketball, softball and soccer are getting their exercise through hybrid sports. Some participants take an established sport and tweak the rules, while others devise new sports that are unlike anything you will ever see on ESPN.

Wiffle hurling was designed by Tom Russotti, a student in a master of fine arts program at Rutgers, as a gentler version of hurling, the violent, fast-paced national sport of Ireland. Instead of the traditional wooden hurleys--flattened sticks used to pass and strike the ball-- Wiffle hurling incorporates the hollow yellow bats and white plastic balls many American children use to learn to play baseball. Russotti calls it an "aesthletic" sport, one of several he has created as his personal twist on American sports culture, which he sees as overly competitive.

"New sports don't have the same baggage as old sports," Russotti said. "You don't have five guys who are really good at it. If you set up a game of basketball, you get basketball players. Here, you draw a crowd of athletes and nonathletes."

Russotti has invented several aesthletic sports, including straitjacket softball (bases are players wearing straitjackets); lawn basketball (three teams, three hoops, two balls); and babyball (baby dolls substitute for the pigskin in football).

While Russotti expects participants in aesthletics to follow the rules and play to win, he tries to manage their competitiveness. He puts especially combative players on separate teams. He mandates that players wear outlandish uniforms that he designs: Sombreros, homemade knickers, and the occasional gorilla suit have been worn during Wiffle-hurling matches.

"The uniforms make people look really ridiculous and self-conscious, so they can't take themselves too seriously when they play," he said. "They loosen up."

Wiffle hurling came about after Russotti, a New York native, was turned away from an Irish hurling team in Dublin. He was told the sport would be too dangerous for a newcomer. But Russotti never forgot the game.

Seven years later, in 2005, as he drove past a football field on Long Island, N.Y., inspiration struck. The uprights reminded him of hurling goals. He then remembered the Wiffle bats he and his brothers had amassed over the years. Russotti went home, heated the plastic bats over a stove and flattened them. (It was easier to dribble the ball on them that way.) He dragged anybody he could to play his new game.

Some people may not consider Russotti's games to be sports at all, since they emphasize spectacle over competition.

"Sports are inherently competitive," said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Meaning of Sports." "If you're not interested in winning and losing, sports are not for you. Whether you care is another matter."

People like Fry, who said his athletic ambitions ended after grade school, say they feel comfortable picking up bats, mallets or balls for these games because, while the competition is sincere, winning isn't everything.

"I'm not expected to do something very well, and that I'm a failure if I can't," Fry said.

Mojo Kickball, a sport bearing only a nominal resemblance to its namesake, is the invention of another admittedly unathletic man, Eric Heiberg, a 35-year-old Web developer from Austin, Texas.

"If somebody threw a ball at me, I kind of flinch," Heiberg said.

Two years ago, Heiberg wanted to change his exercise-free lifestyle and find a sport to play after spending 12-hour days in front of the computer. Having fled traditional team sports after junior-high-school football, he suspected that the intense competitiveness that turned him off then lurked in local leagues.

He thought kickball might be the right speed for him, but he couldn't find others who wanted to play in his city. So he decided to reimagine the game and eventually came up with Mojo Kickball, a name he trademarked. The game is played with six balls, and elements of dodgeball are mixed in. Pitchers throw balls at their own team, runners score on third base, and there is an official part of the game called "mayhem," in which all the players on one team can chase anyone on the other team who is holding a ball. The rules sound confusing to a neophyte, but that hasn't stopped 350 people from signing up to receive invitations to weekly games.

Like Russotti, Heiberg sees the newness of the game as an advantage, leveling the playing field, as it were. But he also designed the game so that players with different skills can play together, and those who lack any specific skill can find lots to do.

"I wanted to be in a sport where, even if I'm not good at running or catching or throwing, but I'm good enough at each of them, I can still contribute to the game," Heiberg said.

Not all hybrid sports are created to accommodate a lack of physical adroitness. In fact, some are built around a particular skill. Street bicycle polo, for example, requires players to be able to stay on their bikes while opponents are charging toward them with mallet in hand, trying to swipe the field hockey ball from under them. Enthusiasts say the game is played in cities across North America, including New York; Philadelphia; Milwaukee; Chicago; Seattle; Portland, Maine; and Ottawa. It's a hybrid of a hybrid, a modification of traditional bicycle polo, which is played on grass with many of the same rules as the polo played on horses.

In New York City, up to 40 cyclists show up on an asphalt court every Sunday afternoon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to play pickup polo until sundown. Many are now or were formerly bicycle messengers. Few of them played team sports before polo.

"It's a sport that wasn't so serious," said Ken Stanek, 30, who started playing a year ago. "It didn't matter if you're good or bad."

Stanek and other street-polo enthusiasts agree, though, that right before a tournament, players start to behave more like traditional athletes. They form fixed teams, practice every day, try new moves and strategize.

"People get a lot more intense" before a tournament, Stanek said. "They want to win."

The attempt to downplay competitiveness in these hybrids is exactly what will keep Wiffle hurling, for example, from becoming a popular sport, say sport historians. Players and spectators will lose interest if they do not see a cutthroat element.

"In the '60s and '70s, there was a movement to invent new games that were not competitive," said Warren Goldstein, chairman of the history department at Hartford University and the author of two books on American sports. "No one plays them anymore."

In fact, historians point out that as sports are played more often, participants become more competitive.

"If these games were to catch on, they would be dominated by competitive athletes," said Randy Roberts, a history professor at Purdue University. "Athletes are the most competitive people."

Aesthletic games do not escape this reality of human nature.

"Wiffle hurling has been played enough that people want to win," said Clippinger, who has played the game several times.

Besides goofy costumes, Russotti sees only one solution in stanching players' all-consuming desire to win: to keep introducing new games.

"The continuing reinvention of games is important to maintaining the joviality of it," he said.

Winning may not be everything in an aesthletic event, but losing is still not much fun. After Clippinger scored her fifth goal on Fry, who is a writer and performance artist, he shook his bat in frustration.

"This is why I went to art school," he said.

E-mail: al2501@columbia.edu