Saturday, August 4, 2012

IOC Approves Ultrarunning as Demonstration Sport for 2016

NOTE: This blog is intended to provoke thought and dialogue, and not to mock my readers nor alienate myself from them. I have, therefore, edited my initial post to be more forthright.

It's a grabbing title, isn't it? Indulge me in a bit of dreaming on a curious little journey through the looking glass, if you will. A timely article, combining two great interests of mine to consider one possibility. Check it out.

"Now that the 2012 London Olympics are at the half-way point and the track and field events are underway, the IOC officially announced early this morning that since deliberations beginning last November they have approved several demonstration sports for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Whereas demonstration sports have officially existed since 1912, including the likes of baseball, volleyball, and stranger varieties such as kaatsen - a form of handball, they were suspended after the Barcelona Games in 1992, because the IOC felt that it could not maintain the growing program size and still give the demonstration sports their due attention. Due to a spike in revenue generated through broadcasting and advertising bids from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and for these London Games, along with a growing number of nations participating for the first time, demonstration sports will be allowed once again in 2016.

Included in the debate as to which sports would receive demonstration status were both the NOC for these London Olympics as well as the NOC for the Rio Games. Representatives of SportAccord and various IFs, along with the NOC committee members, were able to agree on three new sports to showcase: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, ultimate frisbee, and trail ultrarunning.

[...cut out the first two and get to the point...]

Most notable in this trio is trail ultrarunning, the newest of the three and perhaps the most difficult to organize and conduct consistently around the world. Ultrarunning races constitute any distance beyond a marathon, usually in the distances of 50km, 50 miles, 100km, and 100 miles, and are often separated into road ultras and trail ultras. Because the traditional Olympic marathon is a road race, the decision was made to focus on the trail ultra, as it offers an additional degree of technical difficulty, as well as a unique setting for the spectator. The main concern of the IOC, however, is how to choose an appropriate course that will meet the criteria of an Olympic venue for the athlete, as well as the accessibility needs for monitoring and spectating.

Interestingly enough is how this sport came to the attention of the IOC. In fact, there were three key individuals involved, starting with Welsh-born Steve Jones, former world record holder in the marathon and winner of the London, Chicago, and New York marathons in the 1980's. Settling in Boulder, Colorado just a few years ago, Jones began training at altitude, ramping up his distance on trails in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in order to prepare for a comeback to the Chicago marathon. In a chance meeting on the trail, Jones came across the second important figure in this story, ultrarunner legend Scott Jurek. The two instantly hit it off. Jurek, seven-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in California and victor at a slew of other ultras in the US including the Badwater Ultramarathon - a 135-mile test through Death Valley, also resides in Boulder and continues to train and share his knowledge with others through his new book Eat & Run. After only a few runs together on the trails near Boulder, Jones was convinced that ultrarunning is the next frontier in distance running. Although Jones had no plans to personally commit to distances of 50 miles or more at the age of 56, he was, however, enamored with the idea of ultrarunning and the grit and determination of ultrarunners, a trait at the core of his own being. With the London Games approaching and an inspiring new sport in mind, Jones decided to utilize his connections to see what might happen.

Enter the third individual in this story, American marathon icon Frank Shorter. Winning the gold medal in the marathon in 1972 and the silver in 1976, Shorter was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 and was instrumental in helping to establish the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Also residing in Boulder, Shorter has had close ties with Jones even before Jones moved to Boulder, and it could be argued that Shorter was part of the reason that Jones moved to Boulder in the first place. For the last 4 years, Shorter has been a representative of the IOC through the IAAF which represents all track and field and cross country events in the Olympic Games. Having both experience and influence, it was Shorter who brought ultrarunning to the Olympic stage, only after Jones badgered him about it for months. Indeed, it seems that Boulder, Colorado is not only a multinational town with strong running tendencies, but it also carries some clout around the world.

The challenge now is to determine a venue for the event in Rio. Representatives have already agreed that 100km will be the distance for the event and they are currently seeking out an appropriate trail system in the Serra do Mar mountains of the Brazilian Highlands as a venue. The IOC is also working now with the IAAF which sanctions the IAU - the International Association of Ultrarunners - to determine appropriate qualifying races for the event in Rio. The decision will be made sometime by the end of 2013."

Sound convincing? This could be huge news, with even greater implications for the ultrarunning community, if it were true, of course.

"What dude?" 

Whereas many of the details of history, people, and places are true, the connections were of my own making. I have no idea if Steve Jones, Frank Shorter, and Scott Jurek know each other personally, although they all do live in Boulder, and according to one article, Jones has at least loose connections  to the Bolder Boulder, a race that Shorter created in 1979. To my knowledge, there is no talk of reviving demonstration sports in the Olympics, nor is Shorter an IOC representative. Unfortunately for me it's not April Fool's Day, so consider this my "Douche Move of the Day" by leading you on, but I did it to elicit an honest visceral response, and to pose the following questions: what was your initial gut response to this, and what would this mean for the ultrarunning community if ultrarunning were to become an Olympic sport? There has already been a great deal of talk in the ultra community ie. on the Interwebs about the growth of ultrarunning and the potential ruination of the sport once prize money and advertising creep in to crush the simple, for-the-love-of-it attitude that many of the older veterans speak of. I'm certainly no veteran ultrarunner, and in fact I'm not even an ultrarunner, at least not yet, but I am interested in the debate nonetheless as a trail runner and aspiring ultrarunner who has great interest in both the sport and the people involved in it. I have thus kept up with the debate on this subject, and with the Olympics going on, wondered how this might play in to the sport.

In any case, I'd be very curious to know what the ultrarunning community thinks of this idea, if it's in the same category as the impending degradation of the sport that some speak of, or if it would be a positive growth factor. The Olympics, after all, are a place for non-professional athletes to come together and compete on the world stage, at least in most cases (basketball not included). Could this be similar to the race atmosphere in Europe, and would the Europeans be more open to ultrarunning in the Olympics? As we all know, athlete sponsorship is huge in regard to access to training facilities, coaching, and other financially-dependent aspects of competition, and in some cases it can make or break an athlete's chances. We certainly haven't seen that yet in the sport of ultrarunning, but where there is NBC and Coke and Nike, it could mean a drastic change in the atmosphere and even the fundamental nature of the sport, and this is but one issue to be considered. But could it ever happen?

Enjoy the contemplation, and all comments and debate are welcome; that is, if I haven't alienated you all with my misleading fiction. Cheers!

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