As a sea kayaking fan, should you root for the activity you love to become an Olympic event? The benefits of shining a global spotlight on the sport seem obvious, but the drawbacks of high-profile competition merit a second look—especially for paddlers who value personal exploration and the simple freedom to play around.
According to the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, play exists on the margins. “A free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being ‘not serious,’” he defines it. Many outdoor adventure sports were created in this spirit by tinkering renegades and free thinkers turning their back on the spotlight of competition and the big business of sponsorship and sales. But most of these sports have changed.
The quintessential counterculture pursuits of mountain biking, rock climbing and surfing were all featured in the Olympic Games in 2021, the pinnacle of mainstream sellout. We celebrate this as progress, but why? Should we want the same result for sea kayaking?
Sea kayaking will never be an Olympic event—and that’s okay
High-profile competition brings money, power and influence to various entities involved in promoting, officiating and outfitting these sports. Manufacturers can sell more widgets, convincing more people they need the best and newest gear, and promote their brands so non-participants will want to be seen in their logo clothing. It also brings more kids into the development assembly line so there will be greater numbers of entry-level products sold, more coaches who can make a career of it, more airlines can sell tickets to events in far-off places, and so on.
Granted, it’s nice to share the benefits and joys of the sports we love with the masses. And a greater pool of participants from a greater range of ages and backgrounds brings with it a higher level of performance and exponential innovations in technique and equipment. New talent comes out of the woodwork, and it’s inspiring to watch elite athletes break records and exceed the bounds of what we ever thought possible.
Despite these benefits, I remain a contrarian, and a selfish one at that. Because I wonder, why would I want my outdoor sports to become more popular? I asked myself this question repeatedly when I briefly worked in the outdoor industry and heard people at conferences talk about “growing the sport” as if it were a house plant. Wouldn’t it just mean more people in the places where I go to get away from them?
Needless to say, I didn’t last long in the business.
Whenever a sport gets caught up in the mass marketing machine of commerce and competition, it becomes harder to separate what’s essential about the pursuit from all the distractions: titles, trophies, toys, and gadgets. Once so-called success in a sport starts to be defined on a measurable continuum, Huizinga’s realm of the “not serious” departs.
Hitting the mainstream means making some sacrifices
Look what has happened to running. Recreational runners now have to consider whether they want to shell out twice as much money to buy the latest shoes, like the Nike Vaporfly, which allegedly make you four percent faster for twice the cost.
Ditto for gear-obsessed cycling, which saw all its pro riders switch to racing with disc brakes. Disgraced former racer Lance Armstrong lauded this innovation, saying on his podcast it would be great for the industry because all the amateur riders would want to go out and buy new bikes. How typical of the bike business, which is great at making everybody think they need a different frame material or wheel diameter every couple of years. And when that doesn’t work, they invent a whole new product category, like gravel. Carbon replaced aluminum replaced steel. Next comes electronic shifting. Then electric assist.
I’m their worst nightmare because I bought just one cyclocross bike for commuting two decades ago and have used it for every type of riding since, from Ironman racing to group road rides to trails. I made my bike as long-lived and versatile as my kayak. Can you imagine what other industries would say if you suggested their products should last for as long as we keep our kayaks and canoes?
This nonstop cycle of specialization and obsolescence is driven by a business mindset that goes hand-in-hand with the competitive mindset. Nobody ever mentions all this so-called innovation is an environmental disaster, a hyper-acceleration of our disposable culture, or questions whether it is good for the sport’s participants, those poor suckers who have to shell out for the gear. When competition creeps in, the gear soon becomes more technology than craft; we start to take for granted that it will be worn out or obsolete within a few years, like an iPhone or a computer, instead of a wooden canoe or kayak, which can be indefinitely repaired.
Soon enough, whatever competitive edge you get from the carbon-plated running shoes or the aerodynamic bike with deep-dish wheels and ceramic bearings vanishes, either because the gear wears out or gets replaced by something better, or the benefit is neutralized by everybody else buying the same equipment. In the world of competitive sports, the top-of-the-line gear becomes a baseline requirement, raising the price of participation. The only true winner is big business, which has figured out how to con us into spending twice as much, twice as often.
Competition can obscure other measures of success
And once sports become competitive, they are inevitably plagued by scandal and controversy. The never-ending push and pull of governing bodies struggling to ensure a fair and level playing field while individual competitors try to squeak out every possible advantage. And now there’s the issue of transgender competition, where at the very time our culture is moving away from binary identification and toward greater diversity, competition gatekeepers are fortifying their definitions of who can compete against whom, all to elevate the winners to a podium. This controversy just underscores the fact that the only pure competition is ultimately with ourselves.
I prefer sports where the individual experiences are unique and participants focus on internal measures of success and the pleasures of the moment, rather than the elevation of the end goal, and where the equipment is secondary to the experience.
Sure, anytime humans take on an activity, some will try to do it faster, longer and stronger, and others will cheer them on. I would be lying to suggest I’m immune. If anything, I’m just trying to protect my paddling experiences from being corrupted by my own devilish competitive streak. I spent a morning last summer obsessively watching the Tour de France riders battle in the Pyrenees, bloodthirstily eager to see who would crack on the Col du Portet. All the while multitasking on my phone to check out how my trail run metrics stacked up on Strava.
There’s a place for competition. But I love wilderness canoeing and kayaking all the more because they take me away from it. The whole notion of going into the wilderness is to remove ourselves from the culture where such comparisons are possible and to pretend we’re traveling in a place where there aren’t even any other people to compare ourselves to.
The experience is genuinely playful in that it is outside the ordinary. It’s too dazzlingly rich and complex to quantify and measure, a Zen koan in contrast to the linearity of conventional sport. How fast we paddle and the equipment we use doesn’t matter, as long as we get where we need to go—not just in space but also in spirit.
The only true competition is with ourselves, argues Shuff. Agree or disagree? | Feature photo: Elizabeth Gadd