It’s the photo to sum up the Olympics. As the world’s fastest man jets towards the 100-metre mark, he flashes a smile at the camera as if to say “come on guys, this is easy”. At that moment, Usain Bolt is sprinting faster than a racehorse – so fast, he’s reduced to a Cheshire cat grin amid a blur of legs.
Even while executing the most extraordinarily specific skills, most Olympians make going for gold look relatively painless. At some point over the last couple of weeks you’ve probably found yourself sipping beer, elbow deep in popcorn, shouting “I could do that” at the television.
In fact, now most of the medals have been awarded, you’re thinking of taking up a sport. Who knows, perhaps you’ll rock up at the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo.
The thing is, almost everyone has done at least some sprinting – even if it was just a bid to catch the bus. It seems likely you would have noticed if you were a natural. Bolt is the world’s fastest man fair and square.
Even accounting for age – most Olympic athletes are between 20 and 35 years old – and gender, the chances of winning gold in the 100 metres are one in nearly 900 million. In any given year, you’re more than 11 times more likely to be crushed by a meteor.
The prospects for numerous other sports are just as intimidating. For football, it’s 2,390 times more likely you’ll fall victim to flesh-eating bacteria – or, if you’re a woman, twice as likely you’ll give birth to identical quadruplets. As for golf – well you’re around 18,000 times more likely to be selected as a Nasa astronaut.
To achieve Olympic glory the easy way, you’re going to need to get really good at something really niche
What if there was another way?
As it turns out, with steely determination, strategy and a sprinkling of statistics – you might be able to reduce your chances to one in a couple of hundred. Here’s how.
First, let’s state the obvious. Identifying your advantages early could make your life a lot easier. If you weigh around 55kg (121lbs), you might want to consider coxing a rowing team. If you’re rich – sailing might be the sport for you. If you happen to live next to rapids – why not let canoe slalom take you to Tokyo?
Dressage is one such sport. For those who haven’t seen it, “horse dancing” involves elegantly dressed riders attempting to coax a half-ton animal to pirouette with the grace of a ballerina. It’s not for the faint of heart – or the slim of wallet.
For a start, you’ll need a horse. Only five or six out of every thousand are good enough to compete at Olympic level. And since you’ll be riding it at least six days a week, you’ll probably have to buy one. That will set you back about $100,000. You’ll also need your own finery: a silk tie, gloves, custom boots, a top hat, britches, the list goes on. According to a journalist who worked it out last year, the uniform alone could set you back $12,000.
Finally, behind every Olympian is an instructor. “You need a coach who has been competing and training at the level you aspire to achieve,” says Allison Brock, who won bronze in the team dressage at Rio. Considering the majority of countries have never even qualified to enter – let alone won – Olympic dressage, this could be a challenge. If you have all these things, you’re in with a fighting chance. If you live somewhere too hot, humid or populated to be comfortable for horses, you can forget it.
Next you need to know how many other people you’re competing against. To achieve Olympic glory the easy way, you’re going to need to get really good at something really niche. The medals look the same, after all. But statistics on less popular sports are hard to find.
Take the hammer throw. If you’ve never heard of it, well – we’re off to a promising start. The “hammer” is a length of wire with a steel ball on one end and a handle on the other. The event involves swinging the hammer – which weighs about as much as a large domestic cat – overhead a few times and releasing it to soar through the air. Olympian athletes can throw the hammer more than 75 metres – nearly 250 feet.
The hammer has a remarkably long history. Legend has it that the Celtic hero Cu Chulainn invented it when he picked up a chariot by its axle, whirled it around his head and threw it further than any mortal could. Back in the Middle Ages, it was extremely popular.
Today it’s practised only by a handful of schools and its most dedicated fans. “The idea of a ball moving with such great velocity can be scary to administrators that don't understand the event,” says Matt Ellis, a throwing coach based in Cranston, New England.
Add to that the need for specialist equipment – hammers, safety cages, gloves, shoes and plenty of space – and you have a very small pool of competitors indeed. Then there’s the small problem of finding a coach. ““I have heard stories of parents driving their athletes two-to-three hours once a week to a coach to learn hammer. They literally spend more time in the car driving than they do actually practising the event,” says Ellis.
What we need is a sport so obscure it’s disguised as an everyday activity
Ellis estimates that between 15,000 and 25,000 people regularly practise the event. If it’s as popular everywhere else in the world – though it probably isn’t – that puts you up against roughly 400,000 people.
So the odds are better than football, but not exactly a guarantee your hard work will pay off. Another option is handball. The sport benefits from no television coverage, no scholarships and very little awareness. “We get $0 from the Olympic Committee for High Performance and $0 from the US government,” says Mike Cavanagh, the CEO of the US handball team.
It has the added advantage of seven-player teams (seven times more chances). In all, Cavanagh reckons there are around 10,000 players in the US – including schools. Extrapolating this figure on a global scale and accounting for team size would put your chances of winning gold at one in just over 16,000. Not quite there yet.
What we need is a sport so obscure it’s disguised as an everyday activity. What we need is race-walking. The sport dates back to 16th Century England, when noblemen would bet large sums on races arranged between their footmen. By the 1870s, it was the most popular spectator sport in the US and Britain. Before basketball, football or tennis, watching people walk was a source of affordable entertainment.
There was just one rule: at least one foot had to be in contact with the ground at all times. Judges stationed around the track would watch the competitors to make sure they were always walking, never running. Races typically lasted several days.
You don’t really see many people race-walking through the park on a Sunday afternoon – Matthew Algeo, author
“Part of the appeal was watching the competitors slowly break down over the course of a race. It was kind of sadistic, really!” says Matthew Algeo, who wrote a book about the phenomenon. He compares it to watching Formula 1 at five miles per hour – everybody was waiting for a crash.
“A play or a musical performance probably cost about a dollar to attend. A pedestrian match, however, only costs 25 cents, and since it was competed around the clock, workers on any shift could pop in to watch,” says Algeo. The death knell was the invention of the bicycle: “The crashes were more spectacular!”
Today the sport is much the same – except competitions are over 20 kilometres (men and women) or 50 kilometres (for men only) instead of hundreds. It also doesn’t really look like walking. To walk faster than most people can run while remaining in constant contact with the ground, athletes have learnt to rotate their hips 20 degrees – rather than four.
So how many people are you up against? “Well, you don’t really see many people race-walking through the park on a Sunday afternoon,” says Algeo. It’s impossible to say exactly, but he thinks it’s easily the least-popular event in track and field.
So there you have it. It might not come with the thrill of the 100-metre dash or the glamour of gymnastics – but it’s your best bet for Olympic glory in 2020. Winning gold will be a walk in the park.
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