The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@ Jon Kudelka

It’s easy to see how sports were once a proxy for war. Ro­mans threw javelins at the ground so they didn’t throw spears at each other. They jumped high bars to show they could jump walls — if they wanted. They ran like the wind to show they could catch en­e­mies — if they needed. They lifted heavy iron ob­jects just to re­mind ev­ery­one that they could pack a cat­a­pult with boul­ders.

It’s less easy to see how sports have be­come a proxy for com­pe­ti­tion to­day. For in­stance, take the lat­est sports craze that most peo­ple call swim­run, some call run-swim-run and more in­ven­tive peo­ple call frog­man events.

As the name sug­gests, this is an am­phibi­ous sport where com­peti­tors run and swim in stages. But there are some cu­ri­ous as­pects about it that have some­thing to do with the fact that it orig­i­nated in Swe­den — home of na­ture, equal­ity, sour her­ring and Ikea life­styles.

First, the cour­ses run across sev­eral bod­ies of wa­ter and the sur­round­ing hill­sides so they are like ob­sta­cle cour­ses through na­ture. No track, no field, no sta­dium, it’s all about work­ing with na­ture. So, yeah, bring the Pa­leo trail mix.

More im­por­tant, per­haps, is that the events are run as a team sport. You have a part­ner at the start and you’re meant to fin­ish with that part­ner. Some events will in­sist you are tied to your part­ner for the du­ra­tion; other more oc­cu­pa­tional-health-and-safety-minded events say you must stay within 10m of each other. Ergo, it’s not all about you.

And then there’s the fact you don’t have spe­cial equip­ment for the dif­fer­ent legs. You run, then you leap into the wa­ter and swim, then you crawl out and start run­ning. So, ev­ery­thing you carry or wear is suit­able for land and wa­ter. You have all the equip­ment of an am­phib­ian.

When you get past the froggy im­age of wet­suited com­peti­tors wear­ing toed shoes and bathing caps and car­ry­ing camel packs, this sport is a per­fect com­pe­ti­tion for our era. It’s a proxy for the start-up era be­cause it’s about small teams, be­ing ag­ile in dif­fer­ent ter­rains and mak­ing do with Ikea fur­ni­ture while rein­vent­ing sports as we know it.

If you think this is a stretch, com­pare it with its clos­est rel­a­tive — the iron­man events and triathlons in the 1980s. At a time when capitalism was on the march, the iron­man events were in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, win­ner-takes-all, machismo con­tests that had lots of mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties at­tached. The dif­fer­ence be­tween iron­man and frog­man is the dif­fer­ence be­tween a can of Red Bull and a jar of kom­bucha tea.

There are solid rea­sons why sports such as frog­man, Tough Mud­der, zom­bie runs, ice marathons, geo­caching and his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ments are dis­rupt­ing tra­di­tional sports. And the big­gest rea­son is the state of old sports.

Take the foot­ball codes. While these were iconic in the mid­dle of last cen­tury when work­ing men were tough, clan­nish and didn’t have to bother about women, ex­cept when they needed or­anges to be cut up, they are now madly re­cruit­ing women play­ers and fam­ily au­di­ences to be­come rel­e­vant again — if only for the rat­ings.

Or have a look at the global com­pe­ti­tions, like the Olympics and the World Cup. They’re find­ing it’s hard to keep alive the es­prit de corps of olden days when all the head­lines about them are about cor­rup­tion, crony­ism, bul­ly­ing, drug test­ing and staff be­hav­ing badly. Of­ten, you can’t see the javelin events for the spear car­ri­ers.

Cricket? Even if it wasn’t the big­gest in­dus­trial dis­pute in town, it’s got more con­tests than Tim Tam has new flavours and those that haven’t been bought by In­dia are lucky if they get a quo­rum in the stands. Ten­nis? Ex­cept for the gen­tle­man gi­ants of the game, it’s look­ing more like brat camp for en­ti­tled kids. Bernard Tomic isn’t the only one bored with him­self.

It’s easy for a sports ag­nos­tic to swing a boot at the codes of old but a glance at the rise of pick-up games around ur­ban cen­tres tells you that even the sports trag­ics are find­ing other ways of en­gag­ing in games they love.

The dis­rup­tion of sports is well un­der way and like the dis­rup­tion of in­dus­tries ev­ery­where, it will be painful, ex­pen­sive and, if frog­men end up re­plac­ing foot­ballers, be­wil­der­ing to many.

But there is ex­cite­ment too, es­pe­cially if we em­brace the thrill of the new. So, maybe the pa­ram­e­ters of the am­phibi­ous event aren’t am­bi­tious enough. If we com­bine the swim/run with fish­ing and hunt­ing, the win­ners will be those who can run, swim and catch din­ner along the way. And we might all need those skills in the age of dis­rup­tion. is on leave.

Swim­Run Aus­tralia par­tic­i­pants race along in their swim­ming caps

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