Ultramarathons in the Olympics?
Track and field events have begun this week at the Olympics.
Like many ultrarunners I watch and wonder: "Why aren't ultramarathons part of the Olympics?"
Ultramarathons have long been international events, particularly the 100k and the 24 hour. Although the 100 mile trail mountain ultramarathon originally became popular in the US in the 1970s, it has since spread to many countries.
Ultramarathons have a long history. In the 1800s six day races were extremely popular. The participants were called pedestrians. They ran, jogged and walked as they pleased to cover the maximal distance possible from midnight Sunday to midnight the following Saturday. The tradition of multi-day events continued with the transcontinental races of the 1920s before fading into obscurity.
Evidence suggests that the Greeks were running ultra distances long before the marathon distance was added to the Olympics in 1896. Many believe that the mythical original marathon runner, Pheidippides may in truth have been more accurately described as an ultrarunner than marathoner. One of the world's greatest ultra events, the 152.8 mile Spartathon, is run in Greece. The world's greatest ultramarathoner, the true "ultramarathon man" if there ever was one, is Yiannis Kouros of Greece.
Part of the problem is that ultras have little or no commercial support. You could say that because of this ultramarathons should be considered the ultimate amateur non-professional sport. No one makes a living from ultramarathoning (unless you write a book about it). Of course, that is a reason why ultras are not likely to ever be added to the Olymipcs: they would be unlikely to make money for sponsors. Only a handful of dedicated invdividuals participate and compete in them.
The other issue is that quite honestly watching an ultra is less exciting than watching paint dry. Unless you are or have ever been a participant, ultras can be pretty boring to watch. Only rarely are there dramatic photo finishes as in other events. Often the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes are minutes or even hours apart. In our short-attention-span and media driven world, that is also big problem.
Thus, it is pretty unlikely that ultras will be ever made into a regular Olympic event. However, that's probably OK.
Part of the attraction of ultrarunning is its obscurity and lack of overcommercialization. Many do not know that such events even exist. Because of this, ultramarathon races are much more down to earth and friendly affairs.
Despite some ultrarunners complaining about the lack of attention we get compared to other more well-known running events, most of us, including myself, prefer it that way. We have had our share of controversies but in my opinion, this has been lessened by the fact that there are no high dollar incentives or media coverage. Ultrarunning is quite simply, just about the running as well as the community and the comraderie. It is not about fame, money or one's ego.
Many say that ultramarathons are where marathons used to be in the 1960s and 1970s before marathons were "discovered" and since become mainstream events. Being on the fringe and even a bit misunderstood is not necessarily a bad place to be. Indeed, many of us kind of like it that way.
If you dream of becoming an ultrarunner, we welcome you to our small and somewhat eccentric tribe with open arms. But please leave your big ego, search for media fame, and greed for money at home. Just come and run with us. This is the essence of ultrarunning.