DARLINGTON -- Even before the race began, the 400-yard relay team from Rhode Island had the look of a winner: speed, attitude and, of course, hardly a stitch of clothing on their backs.
Less than 24 seconds later, the thrill of victory in the raw. The team's anchorman -- a hirsute 40-year-old sales manager from Providence -- crossed the finish line first, barely ahead of his opponents.
"We wanted to win this thing," said a triumphant Carlos Cardoso, after scoring the victory in the altogether for the New England Naturist Association. "We take it very seriously."
Serious or not, it was hard to dismiss competitors in the Nude Olym-pick Games yesterday -- not to mention maintain eye contact with them. (Imagine a mass skinny dip at the company picnic or maybe the YMCA locker room if it ever went coed.)
Staged in a private campground near the village of Darlington in northeastern Harford County and held in conjunction with an annual gathering of East Coast nudists, the four-day event was TC semi-seriously billed as a world championship for nude sports.
But in actuality, the Olym-picks bears no more resemblance to an athletic event than Lady Godiva's ride did to the Kentucky Derby. The estimated 1,000 participants have come primarily to socialize with fellow naturists -- the preferred term for outdoor nudists -- and could give a hoot about their track times.
"I'm not athletic at all," confessed Linda DiPippo, 22, a Warwick, R.I., resident who ran on the winning New England team. "I was manager of the football team in high school, but they don't have a contest for carrying water bottles."
As evidence of their whimsy, Olym-pick planners have included Ping-Pong, tennis, paddle boating, body painting, costume-making, dance, cheerleading and watermelon eating among their games.
The scheduled non-competitive events include jumps by nude sky-divers, twister (a "Nude Olym-pick demonstration sport" in 1991, but you can always keep your fingers crossed for next year) and even a workshop on nude public relations.
"It's great fun," said Robert Burger, 51, of Lansing, Mich., a ham radio buff "in the buff" who promotes nudism among shortwave operators. "It's nice to see the young folks come out for something like this."
The games, which began Thursday and will continue through tomorrow, are sponsored by the Tri-State Sun Club of Broadway, N.J., and the Naturist Society, a Wisconsin-based national organization. It is the 11th time naturists have gathered on the East Coast, the second time it has included Olympic-type games.
Organizers said the term, Olym-pick, is meant to give the competition a light-hearted atmosphere and to emphasize that people "pick" a clothing-optional lifestyle. However, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo., said yesterday that the committee is not amused by the variation on its trademark word.
"Bastardization of the terminology still falls under the federal law," said spokesman Michael Moran, noting that the committee successfully challenged a gay group's use of the word in 1984. "This is the kind of thing we may look into."
Nevertheless, sponsors of the Darlington games are hoping greater public awareness of nudism will promote their cause. Reporters were allowed access -- a chaperoned two hours in the morning and again in the afternoon yesterday -- to "tell our story to the public," organizer Michael Gessner said.
Not everyone seemed entirely comfortable with the arrangements. A Washington group declined to have their pictures taken whenever photographers came near. But they proved to be the exception. Most others in the crowd were willing to shed their anonymity as well as their clothes.
"All my friends and family know I come here. We're very open about it," said Mary Lou Schloss, a Rochester, N.Y., housewife accompanied by her 11-year-old son.
"Some people equate nudity with sex, and they're not the same," she said. "The attitude for me as a woman is that this is a place where I can relax and be comfortable with my body and where I can be with other people who are comfortable with their bodies."
Even though the athletics were less than world-class, the event could not escape a flurry of merchandising. A display by the Naturist Society featured T-shirts, souvenir caps, a directory of nude campgrounds nationwide and a pair of flip-flops with soles that imprint the words "nude" and "beach" as you walk on the sand.
Security at the campground was high -- IDs were checked at the front gate -- and no problems with would-be spectators were reported.
"We're willing to welcome anyone who believes in healthy, family nudity," said Bill Pacer, a Baltimore County resident and spokesman for the games. "Nudists come in all shapes and sizes, colors and flavors."