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. gmail.com is on leave.
SwimRun Australia participants race along in their swimming caps