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Birmingham, Ala., is hosting athletes for the World Games

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Thousands of athletes from around the world are in Birmingham, Ala., to compete in the World Games. The 11-day competition, which is held every four years, kicks off with an opening ceremony tonight. As Kyra Miles from member station WBHM reports, it's a little like an edgier, off-brand version of the Olympics.

KYRA MILES, BYLINE: It's just the second time that the World Games have been held in the United States in the competition's 41-year history. Santa Clara, Calif., hosted the inaugural event. And this time, Birmingham beat out finalists Lima, Peru, and Ufa, Russia, to put on the competition for some 3,600 athletes representing more than a hundred countries. Rebekka Dahl will compete in jiujitsu for Denmark.

REBEKKA DAHL: I've never been in America before.

MILES: Dahl jokes that she's a little worried because she's vegan, and she's heard Alabama is known for its barbecue. But she's excited because she says the World Games is the biggest international jiujitsu event. And she looks forward to rubbing shoulders with other elite athletes.

DAHL: We're all here, like, the best of the best. It's a weird kind of mix that this is your biggest thing, but it's all of our biggest thing. And just enjoy that kind of special feeling that we get.

MILES: Dahl hopes to repeat the gold medal she won in the last World Games in Poland. Athletes will compete in 34 sports, including some unfamiliar to U.S. audiences like korfball, floorball and fistball. For some of these lesser-known sports, the World Games is an international showcase. Some eventually become Olympic events. And others are just making their debut, like drone racing. Competitors sit in chairs and wear virtual reality goggles to pilot their drones through an obstacle course at speeds as high as 100 miles per hour, which generated a lot of excitement at last year's world championship.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: This is an unbelievable race. These guys are neck and neck and back and forth the entire time. Remember, if these...

MILES: Evan Turner from Tennessee won and now represents Team USA at the World Games.

EVAN TURNER: I kind of worked my way up through the ranks. And it feels like a dream to be competing at the World Games.

MILES: Turner started out flying drones with his dad as a hobby just a few years ago. Ryan Lindsay Lessard is the female drone pilot for Team USA. She teaches elementary school in Maine. She hopes her participation encourages more women to join the sport.

RYAN LINDSAY LESSARD: There's very rarely a female even at the national level. So to have 12 of us competing at once, I'm really excited to meet all those ladies.

MILES: Excitement is an understatement to describe Tim Wilkerson's (ph) feelings about the games.

TIM WILKERSON: I mean, Atlanta has the Olympics of '96. We have the World Games of 2022, so - (laughter).

MILES: He lives in Birmingham and loves the Olympics. He became a World Games superfan the moment he heard it was similar and would be held in his city. Wilkerson's collected T-shirts, coins, buttons and set a timer on his phone to count down the hours until the opening ceremony tonight. Wilkerson says the World Games, with its lineup of new and emerging sports...

WILKERSON: It's definitely the future.

MILES: But it was an ancient sport that really caught fans' eyes, sumo wrestling. It was the first competition to sell out.

For NPR News, I'm Kyra Miles in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "CORAL CASTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyra Miles