(Editors’ note: Language in paragraph 21 that some readers may find offensive)
By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) - Crawling under barbed wire, carrying Atlas stones and climbing up ropes may not have been exactly what Pierre De Coubertin had in mind when he envisaged the modern Olympics, but obstacle course racing (OCR) could be the next event to shake up the Games.
The International Olympic Committee has been trying to attract a younger audience in recent years in an attempt to keep up with the changing landscape of sports participation.
Skateboarding and sport climbing are on the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020, while breakdancing is set to make its debut on the hallowed stage of the Games at Paris in 2024.
Many have reacted with scepticism to the changing face of the Games, but not Joe De Sena, founder of the Spartan Race, one of many obstacle course race series attracting millions of participants a year.
De Sena has been a big part of the movement to get OCR recognised as an Olympic sport, over a short distance of 5km with around 20 obstacles including tyre flips and log carries, and believes it is only a matter of time.
“I would be shocked if we’re not in by LA (Los Angeles 2028 Olympics),” the American told Reuters in a Skype interview.
“Look at some of the events in the Olympics and you tell me if this makes a good fit or not. Many of the events at most have 5-10,000 athletes around the globe, right - just the Spartan brand has 1.3 million per year.
“So this is very powerful because the Olympics has an issue where they need sports that are going to attract the younger people thus parkour, thus surfing, skateboarding, climbing, breakdancing - so this is a sport that will bring the eyeballs, and it will bring the feet too.”
The IOC has said any new sport to be included in the Games “must be in conformity with the Olympic Charter and implement the World Anti-Doping code.”
De Sena has already had a helping hand in setting up the sport’s governing body, World OCR, in 2014, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland and currently has 89 national federations among its membership.
OCR will also make its debut as a medal event at this year’s Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines. Six events will be featured for men and women, with two each for 100 metres with 10 obstacles, 400m with 12 obstacles and 5km with 20 obstacles.
As of this year, athletes participating in the Spartan World Championship, the Trifecta World Championship (three races in three days held in Greece) and the Ultra World Championship can win a share of $1 million in prize money.
Yet despite the rewards on offer, many still view an Olympic medal as the pinnacle.
“I’d love to see it as an Olympic sport,” Lindsay Webster, who won the Women’s Spartan World Champion title in 2017 and 2018, told Reuters in an email.
“Providing it stays true to its roots with different disciplines of sprint races, mid distance, and endurance races, and obstacle standardisation that would keep the fine delicate balance of completion versus potential failure effort.”
Ryan Atkins, who became men’s Ultra World Champion last year in Iceland, suggested that OCR could happily sit alongside athletics as an Olympic tradition, rather than just as a one-off exhibition event.
“Omitting OCR from the Olympics would make less sense than omitting a staple such as track and field in my mind,” said Atkins, who won $6,000 by finishing in first in Iceland having completed 82 miles in the 24-hour endurance event.
The popularity of events such as Spartan and rival races like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash is on an upward trajectory with millions entering every year. Many people use OCR races as charity fundraising opportunities, like they do in marathons.
For elite competitors, as many as 25,000 in Spartan Race in 2018, the events can act as qualification for the independent OCR World Championships, which this year will be held near London in October.
“It’s one thing to go for a 10k run, a half marathon or marathon but that’s linear. There’s nothing else to it, it doesn’t really scare the shit out of you,” De Sena said.
“I’ve got 90-year-olds coming out and competing,” he added. “It’s just a human sport - it’s like being in a video game or being a Navy SEAL for a day.”
Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Toby Davis