Monday, September 26, 2011

triathlon in the great recession

a couple of years ago i wrote a post regarding triathlon and the current recession (reference: recession proof). sad to say it's been ~3 years, and the "Great Recession" (i'd venture to argue it's actually worse than that, but that's another story for another venue) is still ongoing and looks to continue for the foreseeable future (and potentially longer, but again, that's another story for another venue).  seeing that things seem to be getting worse, or at the very best staying the same, i thought i'd revisit the topic.

that post was dated December 8, 2008, and referenced a USAT report that suggested triathlon was recession-proof, with data indicating that USAT membership was still growing and race participation was still increasing despite the recession. the implication was that triathlon, at least in the United States, continues to be a growing sport and that it could still attract competitors and audiences even in a bad economy.
well, i'm starting wonder about that.

for its part, USA Triathlon continues to provide data showing continued growth. they provide a substantial amount of reports that you can review for yourself:
something about this data bothers me. it just seems entirely too rosy and entirely too positive given the current state of the economy. there seems to be a major dissonance between the ideal being presented by USA Triathlon and the reality of what i (and i suspect most of us) are witnessing around us.

if you need a reminder of the sobering state of things, you can check out the sample of recent new media reports:
i'm scratching my head to make sense of the dissonance.  i find it difficult to believe that there are that many people who have 1) the financial status, 2) the job security, and 3) the comfort level to dedicate discretionary income to the expenses of this sport (race registration, equipment, training, nutrition, etc.) in the quantities presented by USA Triathlon. what makes it even more hard to believe is that USA Triathlon claims that their numbers actually accelerated for a portion of the recession.

i can only offer a number of possible explanations as to the disjuncture in outlook.

first, the US economic data may be wrong. there may not be a recession. the economy may actually be growing. unemployment may actually be low. poverty may actually be nonexistent.

uh, yeah. i doubt that. and as the saying goes: if you believe that, then i've got the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.

second, the converse is that the picture presented by USAT may be suspect. i've heard grumblings from acquaintances in the industry to this effect, and apparently they're not alone. you can see a summary of the sentiments at the following (i should note that it was written in response to the USAT data from 2008, but i think the arguments are still applicable):
third, it may be that triathlon is becoming popular with a certain segment of American society for whom there is no such thing as a recession and for whom there is no reason to stop spending money. this is entirely conceivable, and something i'd be willing to accept on a conceptual basis.

but if so, it poses all kinds of issues for those of us who see triathlon, as well as endurance sports in general, as a vehicle for popular acceptance of healthy, active lifestyles. for those of us who want to see a larger proportion of society engage in sports as a way to improve physical and mental health, it's troubling to think that triathlon is becoming a domain for a specific elite--especially if it's a financial elite, since it means the barriers to the sport are not ones of motivation (and hence choice), but instead ones of money (and hence, given the current economy, not of choice). and that would mean that triathlon is a sport of exclusion rather than inclusion.

this is something i'm leery of, and prefer to reject on an ethical basis. even from a utilitarian perspective, i think it's bad for the long-term survival of the sport (sports that endure are the ones that have mass appeal, and mass appeal means mass access to participation). from an ethical perspective, i just think it's better to have sport (all sports, including triathlon) operate on the basis of equality in terms of access--inequality in terms of winning/losing should be proven on the field of competition via preparation and talent, not at the bank account via cash and credit. we want athletics to be on the field. not off it.

although, i should point out, that even here there seem to be some cracks forming, in that even if triathlon is becoming an elitist sport, that elite may not be as impervious to recession as it is letting on. there's a poll at BeginnerTriathlete that i think is really illuminating, in that it reflects a self-selecting sample of triathletes reporting on their financial struggles vis-a-vis the sport in the current recession:
the numbers seem to be supported by others in the triathlon community. Competitor magazine had an article from Samantha McGlone that seemed to present sentiments consistent with the BeginnerTriathlete poll numbers, with advice on how to pursue triathlon on a budget:
which brings me back to my original conundrum: how can we explain the dissonance between the rosy numbers being touted by USA Triathlon and  current US economic indicators?

the disjuncture in narratives is just...Orwellian.

it's just bizarre.

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