Could UltraRunning and Trail Running be an Olympic Sport ?

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 .

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12 thoughts on “Could UltraRunning and Trail Running be an Olympic Sport ?

  1. I think you also need to factor in the ‘dull factor’… we all look at ultra running with rose tinted spectacles on i.e. we love the sport and would fight for it to be included. BUT… to average Joe, what we do is ‘out there’… and is also beyond comprehension. It’s also a very ‘nice’ sport… and while it’s one of the qualities we admire in the people whom we run with, being nice doesn’t make for great TV, which is ultimately what this is about, and selling ad space. Call me Mr. Cynical 🙂

    You could argue why the hell are ‘sports’ like race walking in there? Well they walk funny don’t they? That’s appealing in itself.

    1. The walking’s especially funny when they reach the end and have to bend their knees for the first time in over 3 hours!

  2. Disagree with DJB about the boredom factor. The coverage of the 24 Hour Worlds drew an enormous number of people away from their day to day lives and lead to a great deal of (un)productivity. TV would love it, fill in all that dead space in the middle of the night.

    As for federations getting together. IAU is already in bed with the IAAF hence 100k and 24 hour now being called world championships and not challenges. I think the IAU have around 50 member nations so is most of the way there to Olympic Status already. Around 30 nations have been competing at the 100k and 24hr Championships.

    Sure there are a ton of people (Elite included) who don’t want that to happen. So be it, don’t enter, no one says you have to go. It won’t happen in my career so Worlds will be as good as it gets. Man it would be cool to go to the Games.


  3. I was also thinking about including mountain running into the Olympic games. I think it would be quite spectacular to see all the best climbers from all over the world competing against each other. I think if you would want to take trail running on to another level including its self as an Olympic sport it would give it a major popularity boost(not that it has not come along way), but imagine all those Kenyans or Ethiopians against all the Americans and the “Killians”. On the other hand though, long distance running and ultra trail running have not become tainted from all the disadvantages that professional sports have, like the advertising and the hype from the media. These sports are on another level compared to Olympic sports shall i say “purer” or less competitive. Main goal for most Ultrarunners is to finish besides winning. From my experience Greece applied for the Spartathlon(a 245KM road race) to be included into the Olympic Games in 2004 in Athens and they were denied because the IOC considered its as a track+field sport.

  4. If there’s cycling in 3 places, why not running? It makes perfect sense. If open water marathon swimming, why not ultramarathon trail running? The only problem is finding courses to satisfy the criteria.

    1. Enough TV appeal, are you kidding, I just watched the Doco “Unbreakable” for the 2nd time which covered the 2011 Western States 100 with the top 4 men going around at the time competing against each other for the first time – Hal Koerner, two time defending Western States champion, Geoff Roes, undefeated at the 100-mile distance (at the time), Anton Krupicka, undefeated in every ultramarathon he has ever started and Kilian Jornet, the young mountain runner and two time Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc champion, from Spain. Ultra has all the TV appeal it needs, dont worry about that!

  5. Not being rude here but I think our sport lacks speed! Any other sport I watch is almost impossible to achieve for an average athlete(runs swims jumps dives etc) they are highly skilled and mostly around a young field of individuals, ours seems to be achievable if you put enough distance into your training, many of our good ones come from no fitness background/mums and dads getting bored/past addicts etc…not that ultras are easy but they seem to lack that level of eliticism that many other sports hold today! And of course this can change in future but I think this will take time and needs a lot more stronger younger faster athletes to join the sport to make it happen!

      1. And Kilian Jornet has one of the highest recorded V02 Max’s and would be a pretty safe bet to make it as a TdF rider if he wasnt already a world class skier and runner. I think we have enough elite talent locally and globally to show to the world the speed at which these guys go up and down mountains. Just ask Jono Wyatt – a former Olympian and now legend trail runner

  6. I think the first step is to adapt something that is already there at the Olympics. Looking at the cross country MTB race I was thinking how cool it would be to see elite cross country/trail runners on the course. Start off with a 50K to get our foot in the door and then build from there. My dream would be to see an ultra held just inside the main track (on the grass) that starts and finishes when the games do- 15 days or so- always there for people to see the wonderful deterioration while lots of other stuff is going on!

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