This article was originally published in April 2016 on the previous Obstacle Racers NZ site.
Please note: since the original publication of this interview the International Obstacle Racing Federation has changed its name to the International Obstacle Sports Federation (OSF). The original interview has been re-published below.
Ian Adamson is the President of the International Obstacle Racing Federation (IORF), the international governing body for the sport of obstacle course racing. In this interview we hear from him on leading OCR towards international recognition (does this mean the Olympics?), what is Spartan’s involvement in the IORF, and the importance of both obstacle racing elites and mass participants.
As well as leading the IORF Adam is also the CEO of Healthy Running and has had an extensive career: Ten years in the implantable medical device industry including five as COO for Reflex Medical Products which you also started, Principal and Executive at Presidio Adventure Training and Corporate Teams, Director of Product Development and later Director of Medical & Education at Newton Running Company, Course and Technical Director contracting to International Management Group on multi-sport races, and more. As an athlete, he’s been described as the “the most successful adventure racer of all time” with 7 world championship wins, 18 international adventure race championship titles and Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the ESPN X-Games. He’s also a 3 time Guinness world record holder for endurance kayaking (262 miles / 422 km in 24 hours) and has competed at world championships in canoeing (bronze medal in 1992), kayaking and sailing.
ORNZ: Obviously, you know what you’re talking about when it comes to sport – as you’ve been involved in both the athletic side of sports as well as the business side. Do you see being involved in the governance side of sports as the newest challenge in your career?
Ian: Interestingly I was on the board of the University of Sydney Sports Management Committee in the 80s so being involved in on the political side, albeit on a much larger scale, is full circle for me. The international side of sports is fascinating and extremely challenging since we are governing populations approaching small countries, approximately 12 million OCR competitors globally in our case. The budgets and media are significant, and you can get an idea of this from the television viewership and advertising dollars. Approximately 4 billion people are expected to watch this years Olympic Games in Rio, and NBC is paying almost on dollar per person for the rights.
ORNZ: With your adventure racing background, how do you find the experience of participating in obstacle races compares to that of participating in adventure races?
Ian: I’ve competed at an international level in two Olympic sports, sailing and canoeing, but was never good enough to win individually (achieved some team medals though.) Adventure racing was a pay day for me, seven figure income over my career, and due entirely to the convergence of reality television and sports, at the time. The combination of being involved in Olympic sports (and their governing bodies), as an international competitor and with an ongoing involvement in television and event production is a fortunate combination.
Modern OCR has a clear hereditary to Adventure Racing, with some of the 1990s sprint races virtually identical but with the addition of bikes and or boats. Muddy Buddy eliminated boats from the HiTec and Balance Bar races in the 1990s and then Spartan Race and others eliminated the bike. Arguably the fist “sport” that resembles today’s OCR was George Herbert’s un Parcours (circa 1902, based partly on Francisco Amorós Nouveau Manuel Complet d’Education Physique, Gymnastique et Morale, 1847). More recently OCR style competitions have appeared as modern military obstacle runs, formalized by Lt. Col. William in the US in 1941, and the Tough Guy race in England in 1987.
Regardless, my experience in OCR closely resembles sprint adventure races form 20 years ago, but with less equipment commensurately less complex. It would be fair to say the the value and fun of OCR is inversely proportional to the amount of time needed to train, i.e. it’s a ton of fun for a small investment.
ORNZ: A major goal of the IORF is for OCR to be included in the Olympics. What does it take for a sport to become an Olympic sport?
Ian: There are certainly people and organizations in OCR who have their sights set on the Olympics, however the IORF is focused on international recognition. Attaining official recognition is a complex process, considering there are 207 recognised countries in the international system, each of which can potentially have a National Federation (NF) that belongs to the International Federation (IF). Our mission is to promote the sport of Obstacle Course Racing and it’s related sports and disciplines throughout the world, to lead the sport of Obstacle Course Racing, and meet the requirements as specified by the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee.
If a sport wants to be recognized at the Olympic level, there are specific criteria that must be met, such as a minimum number of NFs, governance structural requirements, minimum number of years of congresses (the annual meeting of the highest power of the sport between NFs, executive board, committees, etc.)
ORNZ: Do you think OCR has to become more spectator or television friendly in order to become an Olympic sport, or just to grow as a sport (outside of the Olympics)?
Ian: Growing organically and being television friendly are mutually exclusive in the context of international sport. The IORFs goal in guiding the sport is to encourage organic growth and to maintain the identity of all races, producers and brands, while concurrently building a media friendly international standard event. The international format is required for international recognition and global rankings but should have no effect on existing and future race formats.
I’m actively working on television shows on the production and integration side in the US and internationally to facilitate this process. At this point in north American TV, we are already a category, with time slot and demographic leading ratings for various shows in the broader space. American Ninja Warrior is a good example, with more than 7 million views on their best nights.
ORNZ: Seeing Spartan Race was involved in the establishment of the IORF, is it Spartan Race in particular or OCR in general which is being pushed to become an Olympic sport?
Ian: Spartan Race initiated the IORF and Joe Desena asked me if it would be possible to take the sport to the Olympics. After considerable research and talking with various international governing bodies already in the system my conclusion was “not likely, at least any time soon”. It quickly became apparent that having a production brand like Spartan Race effectively running the international federation was a conflict and there was significant and rapid push back from various NFs and race producers.
Spartan subsequently dissolved their interests in the IORF but remain a strong supporter, along with several other international out of category brands. To answer your question directly, the IORF promotes the sport in general, and is working to validate it as a unified and ratified sport at the international level. If Olympic recognition occurred at some point in the future, this would be at the request and under terms specified by the IOC.
ORNZ: Do you think that individual race companies see their events as part of a wider, emerging sport of OCR? Is it in the best interests of race companies to fit their races into a wider sport?
Ian: I would hope all race companies have an interest and provide support to promote the wider sport. The big picture for me, and by extension people I’m inclined to align with, want to promote sport for all and make a global difference in people’s fitness, health and well being. I see OCR being a vehicle to do this on a mass scale, which is a major reason I’m involved in the IORF. 4 billion people watching and being motivated to get out of their chairs would make a difference.
ORNZ: With talk about international-level sport, something I notice often left out of the conversation is the mass participation side. A strength OCR, I would say, is that it allows for both elites and everyday people to both take part. And I would guess that OCR as an industry rests more on mass participation than it does on elite races for revenue. Is this side of the sport something that the IORF is also focusing on, or is the IORF focusing more on the elite level?
Ian: Great observation and to my earlier point. Elites are heroes who can motivate and encourage the masses through skillful use of media (TV, internet steaming, social media etc.), but the masses are the goal. We may have less than 100 people world wide making a living at OCR, but there are millions who simply love the challenge, achievement, socialization, community, health, fitness, mental and image benefits.
ORNZ: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ian: You are most welcome and thank you for the interview opportunity. As you know, my roots are firmly entrenched in adventure racing, and in no small part due to my Kiwi teammates and lifelong friends. John Howard, Steve Gurney, Keith and Andrea Murray and our peers (too many to mention here) have been profoundly influential in my education and thinking, and this continues to affect everything I do today.
More information can be found at the International Obstacle Racing Federation’s website or at Ian Adamson’s website.