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May 19, 2019

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Barbed wire, massive stones: Obstacle course racing on its way to the Olympics

CRAWLING under barbed wire, carrying Atlas stones — heavy, spherical rocks — and climbing up ropes may not have been exactly what Pierre De Coubertin had in mind when he founded the modern Olympics, but obstacle course racing 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 program 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 recognized as an Olympic sport, over a short distance of 5km with around 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 (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 5-10,000 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 meters with 10 obstacles, 400 meters with 12 obstacles and 5 kilometers 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 US$1 million.

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,” said Lindsay Webster, who won the Women’s Spartan World Champion title in 2017 and 2018. “Providing it stays true to its roots with different disciplines of sprint races, mid distance, endurance races and obstacle standardization 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 US$6,000 by finishing first in Iceland having completed 82 miles (132 kilometers) in the 24-hour endurance event.

The popularity of events such as Spartan and rival races like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash is rising with millions entering every year. Many people use OCR races as charity fundraisers.

For elite competitors, 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 is not really scary,” De Sena said.

“I’ve got 90-year-olds coming out and competing. It’s just a human sport — it’s like being in a video game.”


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