About the evolution of triathlon: from resistance to elitist…
The first triathlons were casual ad hoc races among lifeguards and teachers in San Diego. Not exactly an elitist sport! And, definitely not mainstream or conventional.
The sport of triathlon has evolved from a sport subculture that resisted convention, elitism, and commercialization of other organized sports such as track’n’field, cycling, marathon running and, of course, the team sports such as football, basketball, etc. into a a rigid institution with specific norms, rules, socioeconomic barriers to entry, jargon, embodied and material culture, values, etc. There are legions of sponsored professional triathletes. It’s an Olympic sport. For the amateur triathlete, doing the long distance races is now prestigious. It is no longer an obsessive fitness hobby (well, it is to some people…). It’s taken seriously. It’s symbolic of your status. It shows that you have the time and resources to spend hours each day devoted to training and racing–basically leisure–rather than working for pay. Triathlete Magazine’s online media kit for prospective advertisers emphasize the affluence of it’s readership who spends on average thousands each year on race products.
Rules, rules, and more rules
The sport seems more structured now than when I began racing in the late Eighties. In the Eighties the sport of triathlon was still fringe enough that the rules weren’t codified yet (some races no drafting, some races drafting) and TriFed, the governing body wasn’t created yet. In the equipment arena, there was a lot of experimentation going on in the technology. Aerobars were just starting to be mass-produced and were still evolving, bike geometry was still based on conventional road bikes, disk wheels, carbonfiber in bikes, tri-suits for running and swim wetsuits for swimming were just coming out. There were not any triathlon stores yet so the only way to find this stuff was by going to the races and buying the gear straight from the guy (or gal) who just put here lifesavings into developing it was was still selling it out of the back of their car.
Triathletes themselves were radical for this time. They valued fitnes, innovation and being outdoors over making money in a office. The sport itself was a form of rebellion against the “dress-for-success-greed-is-good” ethos that permiated our work culture and the traditional euro-based road racing bike culture of those times.
When I share with a younger triathlete (who is contemplating an expensive new piece of equipment that she “needs” for the Carpinteria Sprint Triathlon) that I had my best races riding my old $600 steel “sticker bike” in San Diego (sans “fit kit” and tri-geometry– but lot’s of surf stickers) she just shakes her head. When I share that I didn’t own a swim wetsuit or bike jersey until I trained for Ironman and that for the long century rides I carried a baked potato in a fanny pack a la Dave Scott, my younger tri friends just laugh. It was a different sport then and a different time.
In the Eighties and early Nineties in San Diego, I remember racing for pies at the Sri Chimnoy events in La Jolla. Or, doing ad hoc mt. bike and run ride’n’ties with a bunch of friends on a mountainside, collecting stuffed animals in the bushes with a post-race recovery that included bunny cookies. And, the RD was dressed like the Easter Bunny. Then there were the Avia Scramble races that went on for a while. These were like doing a hash run but without the nicknames and beer. There were no course markings the runs included un-marked trails and splashing through the surf on the beach and srambling through over rocks and their chapparel. Triathlon seemed more playful and fun in those days. But, then I never had to make a living out of it either…
The habitus of modern triathletes has changed. The signaling has changed. It’s not radical any more. It’s more status orientated. It’s embodied culture mimics the dominant culture of health and fitness that must be “maintained” through a regime of athletic training and special foods. It’s become (in my opinion), understandably and predictably, conservative and institutionalized. This has been good for pros in the industry so they can support themselves while racing and many fortunes have been made developing and marketing the new gear. Sell the myth that it’s youth-orientated, counter-culture and radical and make millions. Sound familiar? (“Pata…”).
What has remained the same in triathlon
The phenomenal aspects are still there: the intensity and extreme physicallness of playing along the borderlines of one’s physical and mental limits is a wonderful way to feel really alive and pure. The community of training buddies (bonded together by suffering together) is still there too.
Some of the commercialized aspects are good, too.
Some of the new technology really makes the sport more enjoyable. For example, my blueseventy wetsuit for open water swimming up here in chilly Ventura (w/my matching blueseventy neopreme cap and swim socks I’m never cold)is the bomb. I would get hypotherimia with out it in the cold water where I live. The Gu’s and Powergels are handy for long runs and increase my endurance.
I am enjoying learning and experiencing this new more conservative culture of triathlon. The commercialization of it and the expense of the racing can be a drag. However, the core experience of being a triathlete is still the same. It’s still about training and self-improvement. It’s still about spending time with your friends. It’s still about having fun in the sun.
okay….back to my anthropology research project (guess? Sport sub-cultures and cultures of triathlon and marathon running.)