Sherpa is good

Sherpa is good

Monday, December 7, 2015

The "Sport" of OCR: Final Thoughts (Part Three of a Three Part Series)

A funny thing happened on the way to cancer surgery; the cohesion of this series slipped away. :)

On the upside, 90% of the points I had to make were in Parts 1 and 2. Part 3 just contains some final thoughts to consider as we all move this “sport” forward.


THE OLYMPIC DREAM

A few people have asked why we are so concerned about OCR being an Olympic sport in the first place, and wondered if it was a way of trying to seek out validation. I confess that I may have muddied the waters by switching back and forth between “sport” and “Olympic sport” in Part 2.

I think most people understand that the “Olympic sport” ideal is a long shot, and certainly not one that will be achieved any time soon. But the reason why the pursuit of the Olympic ideal is so exciting to some people is because many of the mechanisms that need to be put in to place to make it happen are the same things that OCR needs to become a sport.

Besides, there are plenty of legitimate sports that aren’t in the Olympics. People talk about the Olympic Games goal, but most of those individuals that are interested in OCR becoming a sport just want the standard sport criteria to apply. You don’t need the Olympics to validate that.

Joe DeSena is the one who suggested getting OCR in to the Olympics in the first place, but as it is now, Spartan seems to be acting mostly alone. So at this point, the pursuit of “OCR as sport” and “OCR as Olympic sport” might have different factions, which is unfortunate, because it would behoove the movement to have unified support and action.

Before I leave the subject of the Olympics, one more thing…

There has been talk this year about trying to get surfing in to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. If you search the web, you will find a number of articles discussing the pros and cons. Just recently in the New York Times, William Finnegan wrote an article called “Surf For Love, Not For Gold.” In it, he brings up a number of issues that strongly resemble what OCR will have to confront on its path to the Olympics.

But here’s the thing: surfing is already a sport. As is running, and cycling, and snowboarding, and skiing, and climbing. The fact that these activities have a sport aspect (and in some cases, an Olympic sport aspect ) to them doesn’t prevent millions of people, all over the world, from enjoying those activities every single day.

If you love the activity of surfing, why do you care that professional surfing has ambiguous and obtuse judging? How does that affect your own personal experience out there on the wave?

I’m not addressing this to Mr. Finnegan, specifically, but there is the strange human tendency to want to get other people to believe that we are in sole possession of all that is good and right. Even his phrase “surf for love” would seem to imply that there is one definition of what “love” is; or at the very least that his definition is the one that counts. What if someone loves sport climbing but doesn’t care so much about being out there on the rock? Would their love for what they do be less valid because it isn’t “real” climbing to the purist?

Different people like different things. OCR is big and diverse enough to hold many different variations. I would understand the loud push back if people thought their version would disappear if another version was developed, but that is not what I foresee here. (And it sounds like many people were relieved reading in Part 2 that the “OCR sport group” was not implying we change the current race formats.) Just like it doesn’t currently happen in surfing and snowboarding and climbing.

As it is now, the “masses” are out there participating in the current versions of OCR. They are generating revenue through participation. I don’t really see that going away any time soon.


YOU DOWN WITH MOC? YEAH YOU KNOW ME!

Ahhhhh….MOC. Mandatory obstacle completion. Another hot topic.

Advocates say that you have to have MOC to provide legitimacy. They say, “How can you stand on the podium for an obstacle race if you can’t do the obstacles?”

Most critics of MOC point to races where they have it, like BattleFrog, and bring up examples where there is 20-60 minutes between podium finishers. That doesn’t make for a very exciting race, they argue.

And, of course, underlying it all, is Spartan’s relationship with the burpee, which doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

I am intrigued by what races like Toughest do; easy lane, hard lane, varying penalties. It allows for some flexibility, and even Jon Albon takes the “easy lane” some times. (If you don’t know how their races work, you should look in to it.)

In the end, I think there will have to be MOC of some type. I just don’t see something like a burpee penalty being a valid path to sport legitimacy.

And that leads us in to the next thing….

The Y Axis of Obstacles

Thus far, we have discussed the X axis of obstacle course racing, which is the distance of the race, and we have shown the biases that are inherent in the existing structures. Along with terrain, distance is the measuring stick by which we currently determine “difficulty.”

But what about the Y axis; the difficulty of the obstacles themselves? If you refer to Part One of this series, this difficulty can be applied to both relative and absolute strength based obstacles.

As we have seen thus far, while heavy obstacles can drop a fast race pace to a slow grind, a particularly difficult relative strength obstacle can bring the whole thing to an abrupt halt. This is what happened at the BattleFrog races mentioned above. Very difficult monkey bars and rigs kept many racers from even finishing, and it contributed to the large gaps between the top finishers.

So if you institute mandatory obstacle completion, how far can you push the edge on the obstacles? How heavy can you make the absolute strength obstacles and how hard can you make the relative strength obstacles?

If open heats are using the same course right after the elite wave goes, it would seem to constrain your Y variables even more, as you don’t want a high percentage of your race population to DNF or feel totally defeated.

Remember, we are talking about the “sport” here. In the case of OCRs, it is a race. This isn’t a bouldering problem that someone works on for hours, alone or with friends. This is something that is timed and very likely has an audience.

What does the audience want to see? They probably don’t want to see the top ten people all doing burpees 20 yards from the finish line, but they probably also don’t want to see half of the athletes not finish the course. What makes races exciting is the head to head aspect.

So where is the line? How far can you push obstacle difficulty without bringing the race to a standstill? And regardless of how heavy or hard things get, isn’t the point of a race to get through it faster than someone else? Speed will always be the most important element of racing; far more than strength will ever be.


AND IF YOU GET HOOKED, BABY, IT’S NOBODY ELSES FAULT (SO DON’T DO IT)

If OCR wants to be a legitimate sport, at some point, they have to address performance enhancing drugs and therapeutic use exemptions. OCRWC has already instituted a policy of testing the podium finishers, and at this year’s SRWC there was an unexpected drug test of “random” finishers.

Every athlete in a sport that has PED testing will tell you that to truly accomplish the objective you have to put athletes in a testing pool and test randomly, not just after a race. Critics will say that not even that method works. They argue that testing doesn’t catch cheaters, because it is too easy to get around it all.

Testing might not catch all of the cheaters, but it does catch some of them. Many top athletes, in every sport, have been caught and suspended.

Additionally, just since I started writing this piece there have been shocking stories coming out in track and field about systematic, institutional cheating (Russian athletes) as well as governing body cover-ups (Kenyan athletes).

None of this is possible without having the rules in place to begin with.

But in a sport like OCR, maybe we shouldn’t be comparing to these other sports quite yet. Maybe it is better to not use examples of Olympians and highly paid professional athletes, but instead focus on examples that fit the current OCR paradigm; examples like Christian Hesch.

If you don’t know the story of Christian Hesch, you should look it up. Christian was a road racer who started taking EPO in 2010. Entering local road races and international competitions, he won $40,000 in prize money in a two-year period, primarily composed of races with prizes of $1500 or less. He knew those races would not have testing.

He didn’t need sophistication to beat the testing system, because there wasn’t a testing system. And he took full advantage of it.

Someone eventually found an empty EPO vial in his bag and reported him. Had that vial not been found, how much longer would he have done it?

This example is more in line with the current OCR situation. Without any testing, even just post-race testing, you aren’t discouraging anyone. In fact, by not having a PED policy in place, you aren’t even deeming PEDs illegal.

At least create the policies. If you want to argue about testing and enforcement after that, by all means, go for it.


N-B-C, EASY AS 1-2-3

Every time NBC Sports airs a Spartan Race episode, the following day there ensues the same argument over how good/bad the show was.

From what I can tell, there are four main camps, and people might be in more than one camp at the same time:

1) Good episode. Inspired. Enjoyed the format and breakdown of elites and open heats.
2) Bad episode. Tired of seeing the elites and listening to them say the same thing.
3) Bad episode. Don’t care to see anything other than the top racers; and would really like to see the whole race with all of the obstacles.
4) Bad episode. Complaints about filming, editing, production, etc…

Having spent a lot of time talking to Transition Productions, who films and produces the show for NBC, I can tell you that they are going for the largest appeal. How do you capture and entertain the largest television viewing audience possible?

There are those who would like to view the races they same way we view other sports; all of the action, none of the personal interest/backstory. The problem is, given the current race formats, I think that would only be interesting to a very, very small percentage of people. When I started writing this article way back when, I was going to encourage everyone to go to this link: http://www.tv4play.se/ to watch Sweden’s Toughest episodes to get a feel for what that format is like. The problem is, I don’t think the races are on there any more. Perhaps some Swedish speaking/reading people can chime in and let us know. :)

Toughest does show most of the entire race, from the vantage point of stationary cameras, cameras on moving vehicles, and drones. I found the episodes to be pretty interesting, but do I think they would have mass appeal? Absolutely not.

NBC is creating a product that, while watched primarily by the Spartan population, is aimed at those who have yet to be inspired to do one. It is meant to satisfy the faithful, and capture the uninitiated.

The fact is, the backstory serves a commercial purpose. There is a large group of people who are inspired by those stories, whether they are about an athlete in the elite/pro heat or a participant in an open heat. I know this because I have been standing next to Rose when people come up to her and tell her that they are doing their first Spartan Race because they saw it on TV and got motivated to do one. It happens way more often than people might think.

Of course, you might agree with NBC’s mission and still not find the episodes to be a good product in line with that mission, but that subject is way outside of my expertise level.


WHEN AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR RETURNS

I sometimes feel like ANW is the cute, flashy kid of OCR; lots of production, compelling backstories, and a “made for prime time” pacing. Whether you love or hate the format, it is difficult to argue with its success.

I will use Rose again as an example. After Rose’s Houston region run aired, every single week, and usually numerous times a week, complete strangers (and sometimes very young children) recognized her and approached her; in parking lots, in airplanes, in restaurants, on playgrounds, everywhere.

Even after Spartan races, people would come up to her and not say “Great race today. Can I have a picture with you?” but “I saw you on American Ninja Warrior. Can I have a picture with you?”

Like it or not, ANW is a lead block for OCR; paving a path of familiarity in to the viewing public’s hearts and minds. And in my opinion, the more that OCR embraces this idea, the quicker some of these “sport” pieces can fall in to place.

Even ninja warriors want this to happen. ANW happens once a year, and unless you win it all, you get paid nothing. Like OCR athletes, most of the ninjas train year around, and while some work other jobs, others have left their jobs to give themselves the best shot at winning the one million dollar prize.

OCR must look like a shining gem to them; cash prizes, sponsorships, hundreds of races a year. Ah, if only they liked to run. There’s the rub. The current race formats aren’t very appealing to strength/power athletes who probably don’t run more than 100 meters at a time.

But there is an opportunity there. You don’t need to create a whole new list of characters, because the public already knows them all. If OCR can find a way to bridge some of these ninjas in to the current race brands, it could be a win-win for everyone involved.


IN SUMMATION

I think the most important thing to consider when looking at making OCR a sport is how to create a sense of legitimacy, both for the athlete and for the spectator.

My own personal answers are spelled out in detail in parts one and two of this series. First and foremost, you have to recognize and identify the current biases. A race brand does not need to change their format to accommodate these biases if they don’t want to, but then they have to accept the built in limitations of those biases.

If I could pick one thing that could be changed today that would at least start to move things in the right direction, something that would take almost no extra work or time, it would be to eliminate the distance bias.

OCRWC has taken the first step by creating championship races at different distances. Spartan needs to change its point system so that Sprints, Supers, and Beasts are all worth the same number of points. They might also consider revisiting the idea that they started in 2013 of having a Sprint Championship, a Super Championship, and a Beast Championship.

And, of course, Spartan should bring back the short course that they experimented with in Vermont, even if just for fun. Everyone loved it, where did it go?

I also think a series or circuit championship should be instituted, preferably across brands (but Spartan could have one of their own; like an NBC points series champion), that would identify the most well-rounded athletes in all of the categories previously mentioned. As things are now, I think Amelia Boone and Cody Moat have proven themselves to be the best across all distances, but other good racers enter the sport every year, and as we start to account for all of the different race distances and formats, it would be fun to see how everyone measures out, both within their “specialties” and across all possible variables.

Ok, that is more than one thing. But you get the idea. You don’t need to make drastic changes to the race formats, you just need to adjust how you account for and score success within those formats.


FINALLY

There is one last story I am saving for 2016, primarily because I want to get it from a first person perspective. If you don’t know already, Spartan Pro Team member Kate Cramer’s mother, Jan Ripple, was a world-class triathlete back in the 80s and 90s. At OCRWC this year, Jan told me the whole story about how the sport of triathlon created the legitimacy it needed to become an Olympic sport. She was there for the whole thing and experienced it first-hand. It is a very interesting story.

Whether OCR ever becomes an Olympic sport or not is not really the issue. The issue is OCR does not need to reinvent the wheel, as countless other activities have made the jump to sport status, and there are lessons that OCR can take away from them all.

Until then…

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