"I WOULD LIKE to be Bill Gates, but I never will be," says Mark Burnett. "I am not smart enough."
Some would beg to differ. After coming under fire in the adventure-racing community for allegedly squashing a major competing event, the 40-year-old mastermind of the CBS hit Survivor and September's Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000 is nonetheless emerging as a Microsoftian force in the big business of high-risk cross-country spectacle.
"Mark has told me he wants to be the NBA of adventure racing," says Don Mann, producer of The Beast 2000, a grueling 12-day slog originally planned for August 2000 in the rugged Alaska Range. "He wants to have full control of the sport." Mann canceled The Beast this past July after too many teams dropped out to race instead in the latest Eco-Challenge—scheduled to start in Borneo a mere six days after Mann's race. "Mark told racers, 'If you do this Beast, you won't be allowed to do an Eco-Challenge,'" says Mann.
Burnett says he made no such threat, and guesses that teams may have misconstrued a ruling by his medical director that competitors must choose one race or another due to medical and liability concerns. (The decision was made easier for some when Burnett offered them free airfare.)
Tricia Middleton, Burnett's competitor relations manager, says "everyone desperately wanted to race in, specifically, the Eco-Challenge." Meanwhile, Burnett suggests that Mann couldn't assemble the needed cash to pull off a world-class race. "There is a shakeout going on," says Burnett. "Just like the dotcom business."
Whether or not Burnett intentionally slew The Beast, competition in the adventure racing scene—for TV coverage, sponsorships, and teams—is clearly heating up. To some, Burnett's free airfare pitch unfairly tipped the scales. "He leveraged his position, made the best offer in the market, and made it pretty much impossible for impoverished athletes to miss his race," says Ian Adamson of Team Salomon Eco-Internet.
And so, while Burnett works on plans to build his Eco-Challenge into an Olympics-style organization, Mann, who financed The Beast out of his own pocket, finds himself $100,000 in debt. "We are simply crushed," he says. Still, he vows to keep the sport open to the little guy. Next year, he hopes to take The Beast to Hawaii. That is, if he can find a sponsor.