Rui Baptista-Gonçalves: Fit for purpose

August 11, 2006

Competing in a triathlon

It was only as I made my way through the crowded cavern of the ExCel Centre's hall that I realised the sheer size of this year's Michelob Ultra London Triathlon. Thousands of logoed-up competitors wheeled state-of-the-art bicycles on a choreographed march towards the bike racks.

Social learning theory gained a whole new meaning as those of us unfamiliar with the London event could only follow the herd and imitate those who seemed to know what they were doing. Before me there was yet another challenge.

When I registered to take part in this year's London Triathlon, I was confronted again with the outdated line that seems to be compulsory to any large-scale sport event these days: "all fitness levels accepted".

It looked like lazy marketing to me - after all, funny costumes, comic acts and the "taking-it-easy" approach characterised by the London Marathon do not fit the concept of a triathlon, where water, open road, a considerable amount of gear and timing requirements are involved.

We are all aware of the wow factor associated with the marathon. For one Sunday, the city takes to the streets and cheers whoever takes part. And do they ever deserve to be cheered on. It has become almost as hard securing a place in the event as completing it. For the first time this year, the same phenomenon happened in the London Triathlon, further evidence that we all love a challenge, and the bigger and more demanding the better.

Is this the true Olympic spirit, or something baser and more obsessive? Not only do we yearn for new and stimulating challenges, we seek to aim higher at every opportunity. We must also acknowledge the social nature of our striving. With the increased popularity of challenge events over the past two decades, hundreds of local sports groups have been founded, introducing this motivating spirit to numerous communities throughout the country.

And it is all for a thousand good causes. A glance at any charity website reveals a plethora of challenges and events, from week-long cycle trips abroad to mile runs at the local park. Fundraising has gained a new dimension through large-scale sports events. It has become a driving force and an inspiration for many athletes who might never have dreamed of taking up sport for selfish reasons such as personal fitness.

Perhaps we really are motivated by some ideal of super-humanity, of being used for a mighty purpose, or even a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances and the rest of it.

From a health professional's perspective, I can only hope that more of us respond to these calls to action. Britain is still officially one of the laziest, most sedentary and obese nations in Europe, and the thousands diving lemming-like into the Royal Victoria dock last weekend were vastly outnumbered by the millions who chose to channel surf on the sofa instead.

As I type these words, with the event successfully completed in good time, the noise and colour a fading memory and my muscles pleasantly fatigued, I can't help feeling a vague sense of dissatisfaction - are these transcendental withdrawal symptoms? Luckily the entry form for the 2007 London Marathon is on my desk ready to be posted.

Rui Baptista-Gonçalves is head of student health at the University of East London.

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