It was a sticky summer night, one best spent in close proximity to a ceiling fan and a glass of iced tea. But under the bright lights of an open-air track and field complex in Columbia, Mo., a college town dotted with an enticing array of climate-controlled malls and cineplexes, more than mosquitoes were buzzing. Athletes of every shape and skill level were sprinting, leaping or throwing as an electronic scoreboard monitored their performances relative to their age groups. Septuagenarians in sweatbands race-walked just a discus throw from where elastic-limbed high schoolers long-jumped. Middle-aged moms socialized at water stations with Lycra-clad collegians. All were striving, in front of some 500 spectators, toward the same end: a flimsy gold medal that would proclaim them Show-Me State champion.
Few celebrate their state games as Missourians do. Conceptualized by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1977, state games were envisioned as sports festivals to ferret out promising young athletes who might one day win Olympic gold. But with national teams drawing their top talent from colleges, developmental camps and other pipelines, the USOC has long contributed little more than a letter of endorsement to states that wanted to start festivals. As a result the success of such games has fluctuated with state budgets and governors' interest levels; in some of the 40 states that now host them (down from 45 in 1998), the games come and go each year like forgettable summer action flicks. A sparkling exception is the Show-Me State Games, which has grown like a pampered sunflower since then governor John Ashcroft planted the seed in 1985. When the festival drew just 600 competitors that debut year, natives dubbed it the No-Show Games. In 2002 a staggering 28,431 participants turned out for the three weekends of finals in Columbia, ranking Missouri second behind New York—a state with a population more than three times greater—in state-games participation. In finals that ended last weekend nearly 28,000 athletes from Glasgow (Mo.) to Cairo (Mo.) converged on Columbia to test their mettle in any one (or more) of 35 sports.
How has this state succeeded where others have failed? For starters, the Show-Me Games, which fall under the umbrella of the state Governor's Council and are hosted by the University of Missouri at Columbia, are aggressively marketed, both to average Joes and all-stars. "Our mission," says director Ken Ash, eschewing any platitudes about the Olympic movement, "is getting as many Missourians as possible to participate in activities that promote health and fitness." Anyone with ties to an athletic organization, from youth-league soccer parents to Mizzou football fans, receives frequent Show-Me Games mailers encouraging them to sign up and compete.
Along with typical fare like basketball, soccer and track, the Show-Me Games menu features activities suited to the everyday rec leaguer or country clubber, including bowling, table tennis, miniature golf and disc golf (a golf- Frisbee hybrid played with discs for balls and waist-high metal baskets for holes). Even butter-balls can battle: In the Show-Me Shape Up, a program added to the games this year, teams will be awarded medals according to the collective poundage their members shed between May and September.
In between competition, the 2003 Show-Me Gamers offered insights into why so many Missourians—from 87-year-old bowler Blanche Deal to three-year-old sprinter Camille Porter, from 51-year-old basketball player John Brown (a former Olympian, Missouri star and first-round NBA draft pick) to 14-year-old wrestler Josh Haner, who is afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind—had joined in the festivities. "We don't have theater and other stuff that city people have," said Danny Todd, a salesman from Columbia who ran the table tennis event as one of 800 games volunteers. "What we do have is big, open spaces, and as a result, soft-ball, soccer and just about every other sport you can think of trying."
Janet Ossie, a real estate agent and Boy Scout troop leader from Troy (93 miles east of Columbia) who competed in the 100-meter dash and the triple jump, agreed that geography plays a part. "Well, I imagine that your West Coasters have that too-laid-back-to-care attitude, and a lot of your East Coasters are too busy. Here, we're looking for things to do," said Ossie. "I think you'll find that we Missourians are ultracompetitive."
Indeed, countless competitors lived up to their state's put-up-or-shut-up nickname, which, incidentally, was popularized by turn-of-the-century congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who once trumpeted, "Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri. You have to show me." Ossie, who was competing as a way to drive home the lessons of physical fitness she preaches to her 11-and 12-year-old Boy Scouts, spent the better part of the spring practicing the triple jump—which she had attempted in competition only once before the 2003 Show-Me Games—along a long carpeted hallway in her office. In Columbia, wearing '70s-era tube socks and a determined expression, she won the gold among women ages 40-44 in the triple jump as well as the 100-meter dash. "I can't wait to go home and show the boys," she crowed.
At a high school pool on the opposite end of town, 45-year-old Doug Noltie climbed onto a starting block with the same set-jaw mien as Ossie. Never mind that Noltie, a University of Missouri fisheries and wildlife professor, had last competed in a swimming event in high school, that he wore baggy blue trunks while most competitors donned Speedos, or that his physique was more Al Bundy than Matt Biondi. "After I had a stroke last fall, my doctor told me that I had to get in shape," said Noltie, catching his breath after he thrashed his way to a first-place time in the 100-yard individual medley in the 45-49 age group. "So my daughter [nine-year-old Brianne, who also competed] dared me to do this thing. I've been swimming laps almost every day since December to get ready."
All over town family members were showing each other up and cheering each other on. After their team was eliminated from soccer competition, 10-year-old pals Kristin Montgomery and Sami Scharf sucked on water bottles as they rooted for their dads, Bob and Marty, who represented the Altered Statesmen, a squad from Chesterfield (104 miles east of Columbia), in over-40 play. "You should have seen the header my dad scored on earlier," said Sami proudly. At a dimly lit bowling alley, the Greenes from Lebanon (114 miles southwest of Columbia) were rolling their way to a full collection of gold medals. Twelve-year-old Austin and 13-year-old Asia combined to place first in mixed doubles in their age group, and nine-year-old Andrew won the boys' nine-and-under division by knocking down, over the course of three games, a total of 138 pins more than his average. "You should have seen the grin on the little one's face when they handed him his medal," said the kids' mother, Tammy. "We'll definitely be back next year."
Curt Davison will too. The 78-year-old retired art director started running at age 50, when his son, then a high school cross-country runner, said his father probably couldn't run a 5,000-meter loop around their Kirkwood neighborhood. Dad did, with equal amounts of pain and triumph, and has been a jogger ever since. Over the oppressively humid weekend on which the track and field events were held, Davison competed, alongside a handful of fellow white-haired warriors, in 10 running and throwing events. As he half-sprinted, half-limped to a 37.20 finish in the 200-yard dash, his favorite and final event, the crowd shouted its approval. "Same time, same place next year," said Davison, who took seven golds, two silvers and a bronze home to show his family. "As long as I'm still around, I'm going to stay busy."