Unworthy of the Name: A Discussion of Athletic Elitism

It is all too common for athletes who have trained hard and reached elite levels to feel a disconnect with those who have not achieved the same level.

Some, among them many of the greats, remain connected and encourage others to keep pushing their limits, even if those limits seem paltry.

Sometimes this disconnect grows into a swollen ego, and that is where problems with being considered an athletic snob come into play. There is one particularly annoying aspect of this that has been cropping up lately: The idea of “Anyone who is not near my athletic level has no right to call themselves (insert whatever title I want just for me).”

The New York Times carried this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/sports/23marathon.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0a) asking if slower runners have the right to call themselves “marathoners”. They have “lowered the bar” and “ruined the marathon’s mystique,” and if you didn’t finish in a certain time, then you didn’t “really” run it. You were merely a “participant.”

What is that magic time that is worthy of the name? Typically just a bit slower than the finishing time of the person who wishes to label someone a “participant.”

T Nation published a rather poorly-thought out article dealing with who can and cannot call themselves “athletes”. (http://www.t-nation.com/training/crossfitters-arent-athletes) It claims that the requirements to earn this title are to participate in a sport that has a large fanbase (while deriding Olympic events that it would appear are no longer “sports”) and you have to find yourself on the winner’s podium fairly often. You must also derive a large portion of your annual income from your sport.

What are you if you finish every event but don’t place in the top three?

You are then a “Recreational Non-Athlete” (Really?) or a “Competitor”.

Okay, now that we have put the snobbery out in the open, Let’s look at real definitions.

Marathoner, noun. Someone who participates in long-distance races (especially in marathons).

If you finished a marathon before they took down the finish line, then congratulations, you ARE a marathoner.

Athlete, noun. A person who is skilled or competent in sports and other forms of physical exercise.

Skilled or competent. Not the best in the world. Not making a living off of it. Just competent, able to complete the task at hand. So the DFL race finisher is still an athlete.

Sports and other forms of physical exercise. So the Yogis, the bodybuilders, the obstacle racers and the Crossfitters are athletes too.

Journey to make sense of

Why is this important?

Because our sports push us to make ourselves better, stronger, tougher. We complete the same event as all of those who finish before and after us. We become better human beings. And calling us “recreational non-athletes” or “participants” (the sports world equivalent of telling us to sit in the corner and color) can hold people back from reaching their true potential. While being recognised for our accomplishments, to have the title of Athlete placed on us before we would ever think of saying it ourselves, helps push us on to greater heights.

“But everyone having the title makes it worthless!”

First off, not everyone has the title. Finisher’s medals are not “participant ribbons”, they mark that you finished and did not falter halfway through a tough challenge. Less than 1% of the US population will ever run a marathon, even with us slowpokes in the back. If being in the top 1% is meaningless to you, I really don’t know what to say to you.

Secondly, if you truly are so great, so elite, so badass to have earned the right to decide what people can call themselves… You should be tough enough to not let what everyone else calls themselves bother you.

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