OKOBOJI, Iowa | What combines a human dog sled race with chili in a mug and people under the ice?

Perhaps just one event brings this trio under the same frosty umbrella: It's the 35th Annual University of Okoboji Winter Games, which unfolds in the teeth-chattering chill of the Iowa Great Lakes from Jan. 23 to 25.

What began as a little broom-ball tournament to beat cabin fever in 1980 has blossomed into an all-out frontal assault on curling up with a book indoors.

Well, that's not entirely true. For as the number of Winter Games outdoor activities has grown (it loosely -- VERY loosely -- resembles the Olympic Winter Games), so has the number of indoor options, ranging from a card tournament to a chocolate classic to the ever-popular Chili Cook-off.

A human dog sled race competition has been added this year, a fun twist on the long-distance Iditarod sled-dog race in Alaska.

"Teams of four will race down and back on a 20-yard track pulling one rider on a tube with a rope," said Jen Johnson-Ross, program director for the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "The winner of each heat must have each participant cross the finish line."

The real winner at the University of Okoboji Winter Olympics is the Iowa Great Lakes, the biggest tourism magnet in Northwest Iowa. This wintertime party draws an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 visitors.

It's so big, jokes Three Sons clothier Herman Richter (founder of the fictitious University of Okoboji) that the National Football League's Super Bowl had to move into February so as to avoid a scheduling conflict with Okoboji's Winter Games.

Richter's line, of course, is delivered with a wink, tongue in cheek. It mirrors the way many of these "Olympic" events play out, a little competition and a whole lot of smiles. In the end, it's a winner for Dickinson County and the people who make tracks there each January.

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