It’s Time for an Olympic Ultra
The average round of golf takes a pro about four hours. Golf was f irst included in the 2016 Rio Olympics, ostensibly to draw in more TV viewers. Over the course of four days of competition, the dulcet tones of the commentators whispering near the green may or may not have lured millions of viewers to their TVs, and, certainly in my case, lulled to sleep. Golf is a great game, and a global one at that, but it’s about as engaging for a viewer as being the on-duty lifeguard while Michael Phelps had his warm-up time.
In 2020, the International Olympic Committee ( ioc), hell-bent on attracting a younger generation of viewers, will add climbing, karate and surfing to the programme. I’m going to make a radical proposal, that at first blush looks like I’m suggesting we consider “the golf of running” as the next event in the Summer Olympics: ultra-trail running.
Yes, an ultra would be nearly impossible to broadcast live, in its entirety on television. But an ultra would be the ultimate Olympic sport for the streaming and VR era, which by 2020, will probably overtake television as the way we engage with sports. A 10- or 12-hour marathon of endurance (actually four of them) and drama, tracked through a beautiful landscape, such as up and down Mount Fuji in 2020, the French Alps in 2024, or ripping through Griffith Park in Los Angeles in 2028 would highlight each region in a way never before achieved at the Olympics. Every runner in the world would watch and think, “I need to run there.”
Of course, delivering this beauty, along with the dramatic level of suffering in a high-level ultra is about packaging. A facile argument against having an ultra in the Olympics would be that lengthy events lose TV eyeballs, and you can’t sell tickets to populate the full course with a paying fanbase. VR experiences and other emerging technologies would not only drive interest to a sport like trail running, but also challenge the status quo for how we engage with sports as fans. With VR we could see where, say, we would be on the course, given our own current fitness as it has been fed into a Garmin during our own training runs, thanks to the Internet of Things. Or, we could go to any place along the course and virtually stand there, on a mountain ledge in Chamois, watching Canada’s Rob Krar hang on to an upset win over Kilian Jornet. Immersive storytelling would be key to making such a grand, adventurous event a worthwhile spectacle.
Let a videographer like Billy Yang, who makes gorgeous, captivating productions, get creative with a f leet of drones, GoPros on athletes and 360-degree cameras. This would also challenge the io c and media partners to better use their social media channels so that we can follow along all day in a variety of ways. This would make the three weeks of Olympics not just a series of events, but a way of life for millions of fans.
At the core of a successful sporting event is what reality television producers call “great TV” – the unscripted drama and secondary storylines that unfold when the stakes are high and the tension has increased. There is no more dramatic, and thus far untapped, context for “great TV” than a 100-miler. Athletes are battling their physical limits, implementing various strategies and also trying to overcome the harsh realities of nature. I can think of no more harrowing and extraordinary experience than clear, immersive access to what it really looks and feels like to run through the darkness, over a mountain, after being on your feet for eight hours, stalked by some of the toughest competitors in the world. I want to watch that on my phone and in my living room as much as I want to watch track or a marathon, and certainly more so than a round of golf, no matter how much I love napping.
ABOVE Annie Jene racing the Trail World Championships for Team Canada