Opinion: Australian Spartan – Is This What Spartan Is All About?

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Australian Spartan premiered in New Zealand Sunday 4th March on TVNZ 2, and premiered in Australia the week before.

Welcome to a commentary on the New Zealand premiere of the tv show Australian Spartan.

Featuring Australian and New Zealand contestants (we’ve got a run down on the Kiwi teams here), the show is based on Spartan Race – a “series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty ranging from 3 miles to marathon distances. They are held in US and have been franchised to 30 countries including Canada, South Korea, Australia and several European countries.”

But in all honesty, is the show really based on Spartan Race?

Any discussion of Australian Spartan isn’t complete, it seems, without mentioning Ninja Warrior.

Australian Ninja Warrior came out last year to a massive ratings success in Australia, and it’s been heavily suggested that the Australian Seven network was wanting to cash-in on the popularity by creating its own sports-entertainment tv show of an obstacle course phenomenon.

But perhaps they copied the Ninja series too closely as it’s been reported that the network behind Australian Ninja Warrior was planning to sue the network behind Australian Spartan due to the similarities between the two shows. However, they dropped the legal proceedings after Australian Spartan’s premiere achieved only disappointing viewership ratings that didn’t touch Ninja Warrior’s ratings success.

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Spartan or Ninja Warrior..?

Tuning into Australian Spartan for its premiere, one could easily make the mistake that they were watching Ninja Warrior. Despite the Spartan Race promo at the start of the episode, the show unleashed its contestants on a course that involved only one team competing at once. An element of the previous ‘Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge’ show from the US and Spartan Races around the world is that the races are run with competitors going head-to-head, but in Australian Spartan teams compete solo against the clock and against disqualification (just like in Ninja Warrior), with the only head-to-head action in the show being the upcoming grand final once the majority of the teams have been eliminated in a Ninja Warrior-style knock-out tournament. Furthermore, the show saw its contestants run through the first section of the course swinging and jumping through obstacles while avoiding disqualification from touching the water below (again… just like in Ninja Warrior). An element of Spartan Races are that any obstacle failure results in a penalty, such as the infamous 30 burpees, but not a disqualification Ninja Warrior-style. Perhaps to remind people that despite the Ninja Warrior format of competition they are infact not watching Ninja Warrior,  every conceivable angle of the course seemed to have Spartan logos plastered over it as the hosts shouting things like “This is what Spartan is all about!”

But that is not what Spartan is all about.

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Spartan or Ninja Warrior..?

This is what Spartan is all about:

Spartan is more than a race; it’s a way of life. We believe that you can’t have a strong body without a strong mind, that you can’t grow without pressure, that obstacles help shift our frame of reference and make us more resilient. We believe that signing up for a race holds us accountable and keeps us motivated to train harder and eat healthier. With more than 200 events in over 30 countries, there’s no excuse not to take the first step

The above description is taken from the Spartan website. Spartan has developed a brand, an image and values associated with Spartan Race, which Australian Spartan is, I argue, not doing justice with. Spartan is very much a lifestyle brand. One that many of you, and myself included, identify with or want to aspire to because it’s about pushing your limits, overcoming obstacles, rising to the challenge and not being afraid to get stuck-in and get dirty with some hardwork to achieve more than you thought you could. I think Australian Spartan has lost some of this in its mission to imitate Ninja Warrior.

News.com.au recently reported that, unlike in season one of Australian Ninja Warrior, a winner will be crowned at the end of season one of Australian Spartan and the prize money given away. But it also hinted that no team actually completes the course: “There’s a definite winner at the end of the season” Bartholomew said, “and that winner will have got the furthest in the fastest time”.  Is this what Spartan is all about? I don’t think Spartan is meant to be about giving away the first place prize as a participation merit to a team who failed to meet the athletic challenge set for them. Although, we’ll have to wait and see if the course is conquered at the end of season one.

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Spartan or Ninja Warrior..?

Looking at the Australian Spartan show in a vacuum, it’s a pretty decent show. It’s entertaining, it’s athletic, it’s got ripped and fit looking people making fools of themselves by falling off obstacles that we can laugh at and cheer on from our couches all in good fun. But the show isn’t being watched in a vacuum but rather in the Oceanic context of Australian Ninja Warrior having aired in Australia and New Zealand and Spartan Race Australia holding events around Australia (and potentially New Zealand – more on this below). For Obstacle Racers NZ readers at least, we are likely already somewhat familiar with both Australian Ninja Warrior and Spartan Race and its various properties before watching Australian Spartan. We’re coming at Australian Spartan with a pre-conceived notion of the Spartan brand.

Because Spartan Race or other Spartan events have yet to come to New Zealand, Australian Spartan is now the predominant association of Spartan in New Zealand. While readers of this website may be familiar with Spartan Race before watching the show, many viewers of the show probably aren’t. For many in New Zealand, Australian Spartan is their first exposure to Spartan. Not only can New Zealand contestants compete on the show for prize money, but so too can New Zealand viewers win prize money with The Hits radio station giving away $1,000 NZD after each episode and significantly increasing the reach of Spartan to a New Zealand audience  (we have the Hits playing at work, where people with no previous exposure to Spartan Race are learning about it, except perhaps for me doing some crazy mud run things in the weekends which they’re partly aware of).

I would personally like to see Spartan Race in its legit form, by which I mean Spartan Race events, come to New Zealand. And, thankfully, Spartan Race Australia may very well do that. As posted to Obstacle Racers NZ recently in a rumour mill post, a hint was dropped for a potential upcoming 2019 race location strongly suggesting New Zealand! This is the association of Spartan I would like to see in New Zealand. Let’s just hope they leave the tyre swing back on the Australian tv set.

In conclusion, Australian Spartan is not quite Spartan Race, not quite Ninja Warrior, but it’s now arguably the pre-dominant association of Spartan that has entered the New Zealand consciousness. Like it or not, and while New Zealand ratings of the premiere are yet to be reported, when we talk about Spartan many may think we’re talking about not about barbed wire and mud and endurance, but Ninja Warrior-style dodging water while swinging across elaborate obstacles to excited commentators.

On a more positive note, the heads up is that next weeks episode will showcase Kiwi team Fish Out of Water taking on the course! Make sure to tune in Sunday 11th at 7pm on TVNZ 2 to cheer them on and see how they do.

You can catch up on the Spartan action by watching episodes online on TVNZ OnDemand.

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