The Wannabes: It's Been Fun, Modern Pentathlon...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

The Wannabes: It's Been Fun, Modern Pentathlon...

...But don't let the door hit you on the way out. Presenting the winner and losers in the made-for-tv future of the Games

Beach Volleyball | Surfing | Modern Pentathalon | Triathlon
Orienteering | Mountain Biking | Synchronized Swimming

Every sport wants to be an olympic sport. at least it appears that way, given the frequency with which they pound the Olympic door with plaintive cries of lemme in! Of course, if the IOC brought everybody into the fold, the Games would quickly swell to a month or more. So the IOC hews to a no-nonsense policy which states that a new sport can't be added unless another gets the boot.

Applicants for Sydney's 2000 Games, perhaps inspired by the welcome given beach volleyball and mountain biking, include such sunny, sexy sports as surfing and triathlon. Both should get the critical nod from IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and TV rights-holder NBC Sports. The most likely to be shown the door? Modern pentathlon and--brace yourself--synchronized swimming.

With the final decision for Sydney just months away, jockeying among the sports--both those looking to be added and those hoping to hang on--has never been more intense. For instance, glad-handing proponents of orienteering have showered Olympic officials with free compasses and 1:15,000-scale maps autographed by legendary trailblazer Annichen Kringstad. Meanwhile, surfing plans to offer up an homage to the IOC in the form of a mini-Olympics (known officially as the World Surfing Games) at Huntington Beach this October. To fight off such rivals, synchronized swimming's governing body has added an eight-woman team competition, hoping the TV appeal of an aquatic Nutcracker can turn its ebbing tide.

At this point, the only certainty is that a sport's legitimate athletic merits probably won't carry much weight. Increasingly, the bottom line is dictated by TVQs--will the event engage the correct viewing demographic and translate into ratings and sales? With that in mind, we've worked up a viewer's guide to the coming Games, forecasting the prospects of both Atlanta's new arrivals and the sports on the bubble for 2000 and beyond.

Beach Volleyball
Number of participants worldwide: 14 million
Booster countries: United States, Brazil
Selling points: A hyperkinetic game requiring athleticism, dexterity, and skimpy togs. Bitchin' tans, too. Is contractually linked to NBC through 1997.
The coming-out party: In 1993, Brazil Olympic Federation president Carlos Nuzman invited Samaranch to the lavishly produced FIVB Men's World Championships on Rio's Ipanema Beach. Before the last beer was quaffed, Samaranch vowed to get beach volleyball on the roster for Atlanta.
Breakout star: American Karch Kiraly, the four-time King of the Beach and pin-up plaything.
Possible television highlight: Young turks Adam Johnson and Jose Lioloa pulling within one point of perennial powers Kiraly and Kent Steffes, who had built a 12-3 lead with just three minutes left on the clock.
Outlook: The folks who really matter are all on board. 'Nuf said.

Number of participants: 17 million
Booster Countries: United States, Australia, Japan, Brazil, South Africa
Selling points: Acrobatic, dangerous, and a sure hit in Sydney
The coming-out party: This October's World Surfing Games, which will include 35 national teams, parades, Olympicesque opening and closing ceremonies, and regular shuttle jaunts to the Surfing Hall of Fame.
Breakout star: Kelly Slater, the three-time world champion and former Baywatch superhunk.
Possible television highlight: Two-time world champion Lisa Andersen surfacing unscathed after riding a gnarly ten-foot tube into the rocks at Sydney's Bondi Beach.
Outlook: Has all the ingredients for Olympic success, but sports with subjective judging criteria tend to bum Juan out.

Modern Pentathlon
Number of participants: 5,000
Booster countries: Russia, Hungary, Britain
Selling points: Consisting of air-pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and a 4,000-meter cross-country run, the pentathlon has been condensed from a leisurely paced five-day event to a frantic 12-hour free-for-all.
The coming-out party: The 1994 World Championships in Sheffield, England, where the new one-day format was unveiled.
Breakout star: Rocky IV co-star and U.S. team manager Dolph Lundgren, hired last year to help the sport shed its "perceived obscure image."
Possible television highlights: Long shot of enthralled and delighted NRA spokesgeezer Charlton Heston, enjoying the marksmanship from the stands.
Outlook: ACOG gypped them on parking (the mountain biking event, to be held the same day, got the lot at the International Horse Park) and set the ticket ceiling at a paltry 7,000. Pentathlon officials claim they're being set up for the big ax.

Number of participants: Two million
Booster countries: Australia, United States, Japan, Germany, France
Selling points: Clean (no drug scandals), green, and revamped (drafting is now allowed) to promote made-for-TV sprint finishes.
Coming-out party: The 1995 ITU World Championships, which thanks to a hedonistic Canc÷n locale overcame a boycott by top triathlete Michellie Jones, who called the sport's new direction "embarrassing."
Breakout star: Mark Allen, six-time Hawaii Ironman winner and arguably the sporting world's most notable Buddhist.
Possible television highlights: Australian Greg Welch, lovingly regarded Down Under as the world's finest beer-swilling athlete, drafting his longtime mentor and rival Allen--still on top at age 42--and then outsprinting him in the last 50 meters to win the inaugural gold on his home turf.
Outlook: Slated for the coveted leadoff spot at Sydney.

Number of participants: One million
Booster countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia
Selling points: Cerebral, eco-friendly, timeable. Has attracted pari-mutuel betting in Sweden.
The coming-out party: For the 1991 O-Ringen, nationally televised in Sweden, organizers abandoned their traditional woodsy locale and instead tested the 22,000 competitors in a made-from-scratch "city," complete with church, bank, and flea market. IOC board members were invited but, alas, declined to attend.
Breakout star: Bjorn Kjellstrom, the brains behind both the sport of orienteering and the Silva compass company, whose death last fall prompted a major run on Swedish bookstores for his seminal work, Be Expert with Map and Compass.
Possible television highlight: Swedish world champion Jorgen Mortensson crouching over a crinkled map with a panicked look on his face, holding just a 100-meter lead over Norway's Petter Thoresen.
Outlook: Despite the always sexy appeal of compasses, not likely to find its way into the lineup.

Mountain Biking
Number of participants worldwide: 30 million
Booster countries: United States, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands
Selling points: A boomer pastime with a youthful image, cross-country mountain-bike racing is quickly understood, is engaging on TV, and--perhaps most important--provides a perfect replacement for road cycling's widely ignored and costly team time-trial event.
The coming-out party: The 1994 World Mountain Biking Championships in Vail. With four influential ACOG representatives in attendance, the crowd was treated to an impressive display of speed and stamina by doughy Danish icon Henrik Djernis (who surprisingly failed to make Denmark's '96 Olympic team), causing Greg LeMond to opine that knobby-tire racing is the "two-wheel sport of the future"
Breakout star: Six-time U.S. champion Ned Overend, still winning races and dishing pithy quotes at age 40.
Possible television highlight: Sentimental favorite Overend, down by 100 yards with one lap to go, reeling in front-running Dutch automaton Bart Brentjens.
Outlook: With NBC placing 30 cameras around the Atlanta course, not a single endo will be missed.

Synchronized Swimming
Number of participants: 5,000
Booster countries: United States, Canada, Japan
Selling points: Underwater make-up, nose-plugs, and the addition of the crowd-pleasing eight-woman team competition.
The coming-out party: The 1994 World Aquatic Championships, where Samaranch--after witnessing the new team event and seeing the never-before-attempted "double lift" held for a full 15 seconds--deemed ignorant all those who dis the sport's athletic merits.
Breakout star: Becky Dyroen-Lancer, history's winningest synchronized swimmer and veteran Avon pitchwoman.
Possible television highlight: The prohibitive favorite U.S. eight squad performing its stackable aquatic tribute to Machu Picchu.
Outlook: A sure thing for Sydney, but you may not have synchro to kick around anymore in 2004.

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