Picture this: The year is 2010. The setting is the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, Vermont, less than 9 miles from Burlington. There are roughly 500 local competitors running, crawling, jumping, and swimming, just having a blast. It's weekend entertainment, purely experiential, something to cross off your bucket list while enjoying nature and getting a solid workout in.
This was the first iteration of Spartan, in its infancy, when founder and CEO Joe De Sena first got it off the ground. There were gladiators at the finish line and Roman columns on the grounds. We can look back on it now and admire it for what it was, but also acknowledge that it was somewhat raw, rough, and immature as it tried to find itself and figure out exactly what it wanted to be.
More than a decade later, there are no longer questions about what Spartan, and the sport of obstacle course racing, is. In a remarkably short period of time, Spartan has turned OCR into a legitimate mass-participation sport with tremendous global appeal and recognition. It's been standardized, refined, and built into a true professional sport, with races timed to the millisecond, some of the best prize money in endurance sports, regulated distances and obstacle layouts, officiating teams, and even drug testing.
Obstacle course racing, with Spartan as the innovator and custodian of the sport, has proven that it belongs on the biggest stage.
The Most Well-Rounded Athletes on Every Corner of the Globe
It's no secret that Olympics viewership has fallen in recent years. There are numerous reasons for this, including some that have absolutely nothing to do with the product on the screen (cord-cutting and streaming trends, for example). But part of the reason for the decline in interest is the lack of watchability among the sports in the Games. Unlike some of the slower-paced sports featured in the Olympics, Spartan offers action-packed, fierce, in-your-face competition from some of the most well-rounded athletes in the world.
“What we’ve created in OCR is highly explosive," says David James Watson, Spartan's Vice President, Product. "It’s great to watch. It showcases athletic talent in just such a perfect way. What other sport do you see long-distance endurance, plus strength, agility, balance, dexterity, the mental, and the tactical? There's also a bit of pushing, shoving, and trash talking. It’s got everything.”
Calling the top Spartan athletes world-class is not hyperbole, and it's not far-fetched. The sport's incredible depth continues to grow and expand with each passing year. As recently as 2017, there were fewer than 50 Spartan pros. Today, the team is made up of 250 elite athletes from 40 countries. (Of those 250, 175 are from outside the United States.) And if you've never seen the best of the best Spartan athletes compete, all you have to do is look at the numbers, which are striking.
Canadian Ryan Atkins, widely regarded as the best obstacle course racer in the world — and formerly a world champion unicyclist, when he was a teenager — completed 82 miles and 300 obstacles in 24 hours at the Ultra World Championship in Iceland in 2018. The following year, at the same event in Sweden, he completed 80 miles and 320 obstacles over the same period.
Slovenian Rea Kolbl, another OCR star who was on her country's national gymnastics team when she was a teen, completed 70 miles and 280 obstacles in 24 hours in Sweden in 2019. The following year, she set a skimo (ski mountaineering) world record by climbing 55,045 feet on skis in 24 hours.
The well-roundedness and diversity of OCR athletes were also on full display at Spartan Games, a multi-disciplined competition featuring obstacle course racing, ultra running, swimming, mountain biking, functional fitness, and other strength- and endurance-based events. Held on De Sena's farm in Vermont in the fall of 2020, the competition pitted OCR athletes against an impressive field that included a CrossFit world champion, triathletes, an Olympian, a former NFL linebacker, marathoners and ultra-marathoners, and weightlifters. The OCR athletes more than held their own in the battle of the fittest, representing the top two finishers in both the men's and women's fields. (Atkins placed first amongst the men, and his wife, legendary Spartan pro Lindsay Webster, finished first amongst the women.)
Making a Global Footprint
Spartan's growth extends far beyond the elite ranks, and its reach extends far beyond North America. The International Olympic Committee is well aware that in order to regain its past success and potentially reach even greater heights, it needs sports that are highly relevant, extremely watchable, digitally integrated, and relatable to a younger demographic. Obstacle course racing checks all of those boxes, and the numbers tell the story.
How relevant is it? One million people race globally every year. How global is it? There are 250 events annually, in more than 40 countries. How buttoned up are the series and championships, to find and celebrate the most elite racers on Earth? There are 15 global series, four regional championships — European, Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and North American — and three World Championships. (The Spartan World Championship will be held in Abu Dhabi in 2021, marking the first time it will be hosted outside of the United States.)
“Spartan has taken it upon itself, at the extreme risk to our bottom line, to say, 'We believe in this sport,'" says Watson. 'We’re going to expand it globally into all these countries, and we’re going to commit to growing it.'"
What Would OCR in the Olympics Look Like?
A sport doesn't merely show up on the IOC's doorstep and proclaim, "OK, we're ready for the Olympics!" It doesn't work like that. Getting into the Olympics is extremely complicated and extremely difficult, as it should be. It's the mecca of sports, the biggest stage. Getting in should be arduous and painstaking. As OCR continues its pursuit of the Games, it's working diligently with World Obstacle — the international governing body for obstacle sports — and those outside of the federation to strategically position OCR as Olympics-ready.
The following obstacles (no pun intended) and questions are bound to inevitably come up, and for good reason: Where would Spartan fit in the greater context of the Games? When and where would it be held? How would it be filmed, and optimized for maximum fan engagement? There are no clear-cut answers, but Spartan is continually brainstorming and considering potential options and solutions that would make sense for both the sport itself and the larger event.
First, the question of where OCR would be held: Spartan lives in the mountains and on the trails. At its core, it's essentially trail running with obstacles. One option is to take over the mountain bike park, where there are steep descents, there is mud and trees, and the camera angles are perfect. It's a natural and cost-effective fit.
The other factor of great importance is watchability. In an effort to make the sport even more watchable, as well as media- and fan-friendly, Spartan has experimented with a 3K, multiple-lap short-course format. It's still long-distance running, but this type of race format would promise an increased level of action and speed. Imagine two elite athletes barreling down a narrow, extremely steep track, hauling ass over an 8-foot wall and biting the dirt in the fight to the finish. Perhaps that would be OCR's Olympic format?
“These are not discussions we’ve had yet," Watson says, "but they’re certainly things we’re thinking about as we shape the sport ... We deeply respect athletes and we deeply respect elite sport. By building this sport, the next logical step is to say, ‘Let’s give this a shot. Let’s give this a shot for athletics, for history of sport, because we can make global records and history with these people.'
"We can also entertain hundreds of millions around the world with this sport, because there is nothing else like it. It’s a dose of excitement and relevance that the Olympics sorely needs."