Watching Ourselves Do the Things We Do

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 1

"Fandom" in triathlon compared to other sports. If you're a sports fan and simply love to follow sport, why pick a sport that may offer a view of the start, the finish and a few moments in between?

by Scott Tinley
   
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

          Watching Fourth of July fireworks with a crowd of reverent masses is the worst kind of spectator experience. You huddle as a mostly-naive collective, stare up at Chinese-made products, and suffer the glower of the fervently patriotic for your distracting conversation. We celebrate our independence by paying economic allegiance to a country that controls respectively, 97 percent and 88 percent of our fireworks and flag imports.

          Forget the economic-ideological blunder for the moment. We might ask the larger question: Are we celebrating our country's 235th birthday, following the crowd because that's what crowds do, or looking to sustain the afternoon beer buzz? The same might be asked about sports fandom: Do we really think that Derek Jeter's autograph will get us into heaven or is it just a fun thing to do and maybe we can trade it for something more useful in the future? Like a medical text co-written by Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, and Roger Clemens.

          The challenges of sport fandom have been flowing like slow-but-hot lava into the sport of triathlon and no one is really sure what to make of it. There is first the obvious-money. Event owners, governing bodies, sport managers, agents, media production types, and advertisers all necessarily might encourage the opportunity for the sport to become attractive to those other than athletes in competitive participation.

          Then there is the why of it all. If you're a sports fan and simply love to follow sport, why pick a sport that may offer a view of the start, the finish and a few frenetic moments in between? Why watch an event where the competitors disappear into the hinterlands and leave you with a sunburn and a coupon for a free smoothie?

          Triathlon fandom has traditionally been constituted by family members or significant others of participating athletes who want to show support. But that doesn't automatically make them a fan; more so it signifies friendship and care. Still, at the Ironman in Kona each year, approximately 25,000 people visit the area to cheer on nearly 2,000 competitors. We'd imagine that most competitors are not attracting 12.5 family and friends each to cheer them on. 

          So, who else is coming to Kona to watch? 

          Fans are guided by the actions of sport figures, both by their intangible achievements on the field of play and the way they hold themselves up to the world off of it. Sometimes the relationship is healthy, sometimes not. 

          Major League Baseball recently inked a deal with a maker of caskets and urns that will pay them an 11 percent commission on all funeral products that carry the team names and logos. I would say that the fan willing to pay a premium to be buried with a Yankees logo on the side of their coffin may have developed an unhealthy relationship with sport. But what do I know? I don't particularly like MLB baseball, the Yankees, or being dead. 

          I would like to think that endurance sport athletes appreciate fans in a healthy way not often found in mainstream sport. We know that sports such as triathlon, long distance running, cycling or paddling were never created for mass audiences and will never have the same appeal as the contained and constructed, sometimes violent, sometimes aesthetic sports with their own simmered history and culture.

          We know how hard it is to see what we do. That means something. 

          Before my grandparents passed, they used to come to the Hawaiian Ironman every year. They struck up friendships with the parents of Dave Scott and Mark Allen, took blurry pictures of the blue-green water, drank Mai Tais at the Kona Inn and generally had a grand old time. They were celebrities in their own right, giving splits to the athletes, reveling in the ceremony of it all. They were more than fans and more than friends. They were committed to what the Ironman meant.

          The last time I was in Kona, it seemed a lot more spectator-friendly. There were live video feeds on Jumbotron screens, moment-by-moment updates, webcasts, podcasts, and sportscasters staged at every strategic point of the newly-tightening course. There was no need to try and get out onto the Queen K HWY and see it live. There was that same fervor in the air like static electricity; people wanting to feel the Hawaiian Ironman without the Hawaiian sunburn. I thought, 'Well, this is cool for the family and friends and political economy of the sport.'

          It was only in 1982 that a roll of toilet paper stretched across the street while cars allowed me to merge across Alii Dr. that designated my first win. For the briefest of moments in 2010, with the world tuned in I almost wanted to compete again. But I blamed it on the Mai Tais and let it pass.

          Balance was holding the hand rail.

          Being a true sports fan is a tough job. You have to want to get excited about the feats of others. It's not exactly a selfless occupation and has more to do with identity than altruism. Sports fans can give and take in the same explication: the peanuts passed to a buddy or thrown at the umpire.

          Regardless of what event promoters do to bring the action into the hearts, minds and living rooms, there are doubts whether triathlon will ever reach more than a cursory level of media-driven viewership.

          But then again, the Tour de France is enjoys the largest number of spectators in any sport. As hard as the commercial interests may go in vaccinating the athletes against the inherent intrusions, we are still a cult of individualists, a collective of solitary figures who are more than happy to race for and with family, friends and a few who can see through our neurotic tendencies.



Scott Tinley won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California. 

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date: July 11, 2011

Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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