Run­ning De­bate

It’s Time for an Olympic Ul­tra

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Michael Doyle

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

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