Crawling under barbed wire, carrying Atlas stones and climbing up ropes might 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.
Skateboarding and sport climbing are on the program for next year’s Games in Tokyo, while break dancing is set to make its debut at Paris in 2024.
Many have reacted with skepticism to the changing face of the Games, but not Joe de Sena, founder of the Spartan Race, one of many OCR series attracting millions of participants per year.
De Sena has been a big part of the movement to get OCR recognized as an Olympic sport, over a short distance of 5km with about 20 obstacles including tire flips and log carries, and believes it is only a matter of time.
“I would be shocked if we’re not in by LA [the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics],” the American said 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 5,000 to 10,000 athletes around the globe, right — just the Spartan brand has 1.3 million per year.”
The International Olympic Committee has said that 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 has 89 national federations among its membership.
OCR is also to make its debut as a medal event at this year’s Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines. Six events are to be featured for men and women, with two each for 100m 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 and the Ultra World Championship can win a share of US$1 million in prize money.
However, many still view an Olympic medal as the pinnacle.
Ryan Atkins, who became men’s Ultra World Champion last year in Iceland, said 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 US$6,000 by finishing in first in Iceland having completed 132km in the 24-hour endurance event.
The popularity of events such as Spartan is on an upward trajectory with millions entering every year.
For elite competitors, as many as 25,000 in Spartan Race last year, the events can act as qualification for the independent OCR World Championships, which this year is to 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 [US] Navy SEAL for a day.”
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