1. Dakar Road Rally
I really wanted to do this when it was run on the purist Paris-Dakar route -- the ultimate marriage of wine and dust -- but instability in Africa the last few years has led the looniest road race on the planet to be cancelled or moved to South America. I'm willing to wait for its return, though; half the fun is the idea of running the tripwire between the West and the Mideast, between Christendom and the Muslim world, in a race run at spine-cracking, death-defying, or not, speed. It's an absolutely absurd construct, if you think about it, which is the point. Allez!
2. The Beanpot
I'm a sucker for sports as tribal warfare, and despite the collegiate veneer this is as basic as it gets. Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern in a couple bruising nights of ice hockey at the Gah-den. It's all about local bragging rights, and has been for the last 58 years. That's the core of competition for me. Start banging on that cowbell, boys. Uhhh!
3. Western States Endurance Run
No, I don't want to actually run this thing; these people are nuts. But that's the appeal: I can't imagine a more self-destructive act -- in athletics, anyway -- than punishing one's body with a 30-hour, sleep-deprived trot over Northern California mining trails. It starts in Squaw Valley and ends 100 miles later in Auburn, with racers climbing 2,550 feet in the first 4.5 miles, then another 15,540 feet, then dropping 22,970 before reaching the finish line in a blubbering heap. All for virtually no fame, no fortune and no sane reason. More than any sporting event, it makes me want to ask the principals the most basic of questions: Why the hell?
4. Volvo Round-the-World Ocean Race
I figure I'm vomiting before the ship -- boat, sloop, Kon-tiki, whatever they call that thing -- leaves the dock. Fine. Strap me in, give me a bundled spinnaker to sleep on and don't expect to hear from me for nine months, if ever. Ten-story waves, endless damp, treacherous icebergs off the starboard bow: Glug, gasp, sputter and wheeze, yes, I'm a landlubber and I've just gone overboard. I'll regret my going every second, but count me in.
5. Bullfights in Seville, Spain
Yeah, I get it: They kill bulls. But unless you're vegan -- and even if you are -- I don't want to hear it. And if you eat steak or chicken or any other once-sentient being, quit wincing and stop trying to have it both ways. I figure that, unlike the drug-filled, processed meat that comes from animals penned up their entire lives before the butchery begins, these Miuras live free, hump any cow they like, and get a chance to actually twist a horn in their tormentors on the way out. The fact that it's all done, especially in historic Seville, with an artistry and grace that approaches deep, abiding national mystery, only adds to the appeal. Sangria, anyone?
My favorite: World Cup soccer.
Nothing comes close to my first World Cup (note: this only counts if it's being held in a soccer-crazed nation; U.S. '94 doesn't apply). Italy in '90 was astounding, the perfect introduction to what the globe's greatest soccer tournament means. Soccer is easy. Yes, it has subtleties galore, but it takes ten seconds to understand the game enough to enjoy it; center the damn ball and kick it where the 'keeper ain't.
That's why no sporting event so trumps issues of class, wealth, race, and sex: Everybody has played, everybody knows the game and everybody knows their national team does as much -- or more -- patriotic work as any army or flag. Literally everyone in the World Cup host country cares.
How's this for a first taste? I arrived in Milan for the '90 opener, rushing bewildered into the glorious San Siro, and watched in a state of ever-expanding awe as Cameroon's Francois Omam-Biyik headed in a late goal to shock Diego Maradona and defending champion Argentina in one of the most titanic upsets in soccer history.
It was the dawning of Africa's rise, and cabbies, kids, teachers, fashionistas chattered about that moment for days, weeks, in some places forever. For the next month, I felt as if I had somehow been planted in the center of the universe, the absolute fulcrum. I know France '98, Germany '06, had the same impact on other first-timers, but, trust me, TV can't provide even a whiff of how it feels. You'd get the call from home: "So what's it like?" It was like being asked about love. You had to be in it to understand.