Unless you have been under a rock recently or possibly up a mountain pursuing some crazy fastest known time it has been hard to go past the biggest event on the planet. The Olympics rolls into town for 16 days every 4 years and everyone and I mean everyone on the planet stops to watch. And the goings on in London have not escaped the ultra running and trail running communities lightly.
A quick Google search throws up hundreds of social media comments on what sports should or could be in the Olympics. This debate has at times got quite personal with nation pitched against nation, males v females and team sports v individual pursuits all coming to blows over what is an Olympic sport. How can a sport where judges make the decision over a performance be on the same level as a simple footrace over 100m to find the fastest man on the planet ? If you have to match your twirls and kicks to the beat of the music to gain enough points to progress to a Gold medal as long as the sequins on your costume don’t fall off then what is the point in staring down at a black line in a pool for 4-6 hours every day for 20 years to be considered in the same breath as Michael Phelps ?
And how can a franchise such as Basketball or Tennis, where the annual earnings of some of the individual players are greater than the costs of the opening ceremony itself and the entire sporting budgets of some nations.
So now the closing ceremony has concluded and a synchronised swimmer, archer, gymnast, diver, shot putter, tennis player and ping pong player walked alongside Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and Alistair Brownlee wearing their Gold medals with pride – who had the biggest smile on their face ? Who believed they are a true Olympian and embodied the motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” and who felt like they were just in the right place at the right time ?
So what does it take to be an Olympic sport and does the likes of trail and ultra marathon have the right ingredients ? Well firstly some boring bits to think about. The IOC will consider you for inclusion in the games if you meet one or more of the following 3 criteria :- you are a brand new sport such as the debut of Triathlon in Sydney and Rugby 7’s in Rio, a branch of an existing sport such as trampolining being part of gymnastics and finally a new discipline, such as women’s pole vault as part of Track and Field. Further, to be considered for the Summer Games your sport has to have male participants in at least 75 countries on 4 continents and female participants in at least 40 countries. You also have to have your sport organised and recognised as an international federation. And finally, it can certainly speed up your lobby process if you sport is already commanding a very high televisual presence.
Some sports have found it easier to come under the umbrella of larger organisations such as Snowboarding being part of the International Ski Federation. It is easy to see why a bunch of boarders intent on finding the steepest, purest and deepest powder without actually having a paying job were smart enough and are grateful to the sophisticated skiing federation to get their act together and become a sport at the Winter Games. I am not sure they could have done it solo somehow !
But here’s the rub – anyone of you who has watched those RedBull inspired boarding and skiing movies on YouTube will notice that the activities they portray there is nothing like the disciplines of a bunch of judges in a stadium holding up scores out of ten for artistic intent and calling it aerial skiing ? The sport in its purest form is often refined and rebadged to meet the requirements of the IOC. Obviously this approach is less intrusive for more pure sports like running, but even in the London Triathlon, we still sore one of the Brownlee brothers standing in a box 2m x 2m for 15 seconds because one of his toenails was too long when he stepped off the bike leg !
So even though all of our running disciplines currently not in the Games such as cross-country, mountain running and ultra marathon (in anyone of its 3 guises of track, road and trail) meet pretty much all of the above criteria do we really want the sport to change beyond recognition ? Will we see the day when the outfit worn at the summit of Pikes Peak is judged on how well the colours match the MacDonald’s logo or the food put on by volunteers at aid stations is carefully controlled by ASADA ?
At the International Skyrunning Federation conference in May on the island of La Palma a select group of the best in the business got together to discuss this very topic. Whilst we all recognise that the closest thing to the Olympics is the World 100km Road Champs, the spirit of Skyrunning was able to exist pretty well without being under the watchful gaze of the IOC.
As we saw at this years Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa, the prize money, prestige and enormous iconic status attracted not only the best athletes in the business but unfortunately those willing to bend the rules to win. Drug taking is and will become more prominent in our sport if the rewards go beyond buckles and bragging rights.
From a purely selfish perspective I would love to see the beauty and splendour of mountain running and trail ultras as an Olympic sport – why ? Well the sheer scale of the mountains, the crowds the European’s and US races seem to attract to the very highest of mountain peaks and the potential for it to be very televisual with the helps of some of those film crews who capture the likes of Kilian et al descending off the very edge of planet earth. Think Tour de France without the lycra – crazy crowds, places changes depending on who is a better climber than descender.
This will of course throw up challenges across a number of levels – firstly can all the various bodies such as the WMRA, IAU, ISF IAAF etc all get together to make it happen ? Can a city such as London find mountains and trails magnificent enough within driving distance for the spectators ? Probably not, but we can marvel in how fast our sport is growing that conversations about Olympian’s and trail shoes could one day be used in the same sentence .