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Obstacle Racing: The Next Olympic Sport?

21 Oct, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It wasn’t the fact that the first European Obstacle Racing World Championship was to be held next year in the Netherlands that made people sit up and blink. It was another sentence on the press release:

The ambition of the BeNeLux OCRA is to have Obstacle Course Racing become an Olympic sport.

While most recently, the focus on future Olympic sports has been on those under consideration for the 2020 Olympics, there is room for more sports to be added beyond that. Ever since the IOC abolished the cap of 28 sports allowed per Games as part of the Olympic Agenda 2020, sport federations, international governing bodies and enthusiasts of various pursuits have been hoping their favorites would find a place in the five rings.

Is obstacle course racing (OCR in the parlance of its followers) a possibility for inclusion? It certainly has two things the IOC wants to see: a youthful vibe and undeniable growth that has created its own industry. In fact, Running USA released its report, 2014 State of the Sport - Part III: U.S. Race Trends, revealing that a record 4 million runners had participated in what were called non-traditional runs, the untimed adventure-type races in the past year. And that’s only in the U.S.

The sport also lends itself to a variety of landscapes, with organizers being adept at building courses and erecting obstacle structures in a variety of regions around the country. Venues have included everything from off-season ski resorts (where organizers took advantage of natural features like hills, mud, slopes, rocks and water) to baseball stadiums that allowed athletes to run up and down stairs and through the concourses, as well as tackling obstacles in the outlying parking lots. Add to those advantages the fact that the sport is co-ed and exciting to watch – and that it has become a calling for devotees and a one-time bucket-list check for others. It appeals to a variety of ages; Spartan organizers noted they were planning a standalone children’s event, for example.

But could it make it to the Olympics? That’s the big question. It has already cleared one major obstacle (see what we did there?): It now has a governing body, the International Obstacle Racing Federation.

To even be considered for the Olympic stage, a sport must have an international governing body with World Anti-Doping Agency-approved anti-doping policies. By maintaining ties with the IOC and WADA, the IORF hopes to get OCR into the Olympics within the next two to three summer games.

“Obstacle racing requires basic functional fitness close to the Olympic credos of faster, higher, stronger,” IORF organizer Ian Adamson said to Outside Magazine in 2014. “I think we’ll be able to shape and position obstacle racing for inclusion in the Olympics.”

The Outside article also noted that much is under consideration when it comes to Olympic sports. "You have to look in considerable detail at, not just the sport itself, what it might offer to the Olympic Games, what it brings to the Olympic program," Mike Lee told CNN. Lee is the former director of communications and public affairs for London 2012's successful bid. "What do you offer to the Olympic experience? What is it your sport will do to enhance the Games, in a way which is also in line with the spirit and the values of the Games?” The IOC’s official evaluation document shows that a sport’s history and tradition, universality, popularity, image, and costs are also considered.

For any sport to be considered, it also needs governing bodies in other countries – not just internationally. On the American side, USA Obstacle Racing Association notes that its own mission statement includes, among other goals, acting as a resource to athletes and event owners, expanding the quality, standards, and safety of all events that are produced within the obstacle racing industry and offering a professional annual meeting and expo in alternate major cities of the USA. (The website of another umbrella organization, U.S. Obstacle Course Racing, presently is just a landing page.)

The question, of course, is whether these international and national organizations will be able to take the lead in governing a sport that is growing exponentially and previously did not have oversight from any one group.

“Simply declaring yourself the go-to governing body for an emerging sport doesn’t necessarily make you the governing body,” noted blogger Kelly O’Mara in an article entitled, “Obstacle Races Get a Governing Body — Whether They Want One or Not.”

To date, obstacle race event owners have served as their own governing bodies, taking responsibility for the whole host of activities involved in each event, including creating rules, designing and building obstacles, registering participants, designing medals and staffing races. And they’ve been doing a great job of it, as witnessed by the growth and popularity of the sport.

But to a certain extent, the effectiveness of an NGB, or even an IGB, can only be guaranteed if major event owners and rights holders give their buy-in. And in a strong market, organizers may be hesitant to relinquish control when it comes to adopting pre-set standards for competition – one of the hallmarks of any governing organization. There’s also the matter of creating a sanctioning process for races and getting event owners to submit their events for approval. If event owners and rights holders, particularly from the most well-known races, get on board, count on the train to pick up steam.

But for now, it may be that the Olympic podium has to wait. We’re still talking about a sport that is early in its evolution, after all. And it’s a sport that is on an undeniable upward trajectory, with a lot of growth to look forward to.

“Whether or not the new federation reaches its ultimate goal of getting OCR into the Olympics, its presence signals a concerted effort to preserve the sport’s longevity—an effort adventure racing never had,” notes Outside Magazine.

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