The Outsider: Will obstacle races like the Spartan make the Olympics?
August 26, 2016
And just like that the Rio Olympics are done.
It always feels like Olympic season flies by in a blink, and I'm only a spectator. I can hardly imagine how it is for the thousands and thousands of athletes who train their entire lives for one single, fleeting moment on the world's biggest stage. It must be something like a bride and groom on their wedding day: so much planning and preparation, and then it's over in a blur of faces and toasts and applause. Thank god for social media — at least there they can relive the best day of their lives for weeks and years to come. (Ryan Lochte and crew? Yeah, they probably wish it were the Stone Ages.)
Earlier this week, I interviewed real-life action hero Robert Killian for today's preview on the Breck Spartan Race. He's the definition of an ultra-athlete, the type of guy who turned military training with the U.S. Army Green Berets into a burgeoning career in obstacle racing. But, unless Killian decides to take up a more "legitimate" sport, chances are he and dozens of fellow elite racers on the course today will never see the Olympics in person, at ground level, with millions of eyes watching their every move on a course made to beat and batter and pulverize. And that kind of sucks.
I guess it makes sense — obstacle racing is relatively new in the grand scheme of things — but, to me at least, it feels like he and his peers compete in a more classically Olympic tradition than ping-pong jockeys and the like. (Nothing against ping-pong, or table tennis, or whatever. I was at the Silverthorne rec center the other day and a guy in the lobby was watching the medal matches on his laptop. Intensely.)
I asked Killian if he thinks obstacle racing will ever make it to the Olympics, and, like the tempered U.S. Army captain he is, he said the discipline just isn't big enough yet. There aren't enough rules, there aren't enough series and, most importantly, there isn't a big enough following to justify Olympic medals. That might change over time, but for now the sport is still too niche.
All this got me thinking of all that snow we got this week and another niche sport that might never make the Olympics, even if the athletes are more all-around talented than specialists: ski mountaineering. The discipline has been huge in Europe for ages — there's a World Cup series and everything — but it's only now taking off in the U.S. Summit County is home to a few of the best, guys like Teague Holmes and gals like Nikki Larochelle, but, outside of a couple dozen people at community races, most skiers and snowboarders would rather tempt death blasting gates on a downhill course, or throwing 1440s in the superpipe.
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But that can change. Olympic snowboarding is just 20 years old in 2018 and freestyle skiing is even younger. Ski mountaineering might not be too far behind, granted the International Olympic Committee picks venues more fit for high-alpine adventuring than soggy Sochi (but that's another rant).
And who knows? Obstacle racing might not be far behind. By then Killian will be pushing 45 or 50 years old. Chances are he'll still kill it.
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