But are they athletes? Defining the term “athlete”

Under Armour is killing it when it comes to marketing these days. First, they released the Alter Ego series, which feature classic character emblems from Marvel and DC Comics. Then they caused a major stir when they debuted the “Ballerina” advertisement with Misty Copeland, and now they’ve done a follow up in the campaign with Gisele Bündchen (inserted above).

The ads have generated controversy from thousands of internet trolls claiming that the women featured aren’t athletes, and therefore have no place be showcased or sponsored by an athletic apparel company. Beyond the obvious fact that “trolls gonna troll,” the whole thing impresses me for two reasons. First, the ads themselves are phenomenal. Not since Duracell’s “Trust Your Power” has an advertisement given me chills like these did. Second, they demonstrate that UA as a company and a brand are not afraid of a little controversy, of a little risk, and not afraid to ruffle a few feathers. That, ladies and gents, is always worth celebrating.

But are the ladies featured “athletes” at all? First, what is an athlete, as without a definition we can’t even get off the starting block. I look at the Merriam-Webster definition, but found just a quick Google search was sufficient to establish a definition I’m comfortable with.

Athlete Definition Screenshot

I’m partial to the definition on the right, defining an athlete as “person who competes in one or more sports that involve physical strength, speed and/or endurance.” I would add skill to that cocktail, resulting in, “An athlete is a person who competes in sport or contest that involves physical skill, strength, speed and/or endurance.” That’s my definition, and I’m sticking to it.

Before we go any further, let’s quickly qualify each characteristic.

Physical skill refers to a motor movement technique that requires refinement and practice in order to achieve elite level of performance. Think a golf swing, a snatch, a quarterback’s throw, and so forth.

Strength refers to the ability to move sizable weight (bodyweight or greater) through space, generating tremendous force. A powerlifter executing a deadlift and an offensive lineman blocking a member of the opposing team are good examples of this.

Speed is the ability to move the athlete’s self or a load through space quickly or with violent action. A sprinter or hurdler move their body with incredible speed, while a weightlifter executing a clean and jerk moves both their body and the loaded barbell. Speed has a lot of overlap with agility, and even though I’m not making agility it’s own characteristic, one rarely sees an agile individual who is not fast (slow agility is an oxymoron).

Endurance refers to an athletes ability to sustain effort over a period of time, whether it’s unbroken or not. The triathlon is obviously the most obvious example of this, as athletes literally endure high level of effort for hours without rest. Gymnasts also have tremendous endurance as not only must they perform the striking feats of their sport, but the must make it appear “effortless.”

Now that I’ve defined an athlete and the characteristics that create one, let’s look at some some major contests as well as some of the newer, more controversial ones claiming their competitors are “athletes.” Essentially, I’ve broken down the four athletic characteristics for each sport or contest. Green indicates the characteristic applies strongly, red indicates it doesn’t apply, and yellow indicates it’s potentially debatable. Finally, this is simply my opinion, so if I managed to insult your sport or contest and you feel butthurt about it, get over it.

Characteristics Application

This chart demonstrates my assessment of a variety of contests and their need for the four athletic characteristics. Let’s touch on my likely more controversial calls.

With hockey, I went red for strength as hockey doesn’t require max effort strength in the same way football does. Hockey players rely on speed, endurance, and skill with the puck to achieve victory, and most hits in hockey generate their power from momentum rather than brute strength. The NHL doesn’t require the same strength standards as the NFL, illustrated recently by an article about a top tier player who couldn’t execute a single bodyweight pull up. While I that’s pretty disgraceful for any male over the age of 12, the reality is the player’s weak upper body strength never detracted from his ability to perform within the confines of hockey on the ice, making max effort strength not required for elite level hockey.

With Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting, both get pinged red on endurance because both are contests of single, max effort repetitions. While a certain level of endurance is required for training purposes, within the confines of their contest, the athletes only have to perform their peak effort once. While weightlifting requires explosive speed, powerlifters can grind out their reps so long as they travel the full range of motion, so I gave them a red for speed.

Triathlon and crew (rowing) both get reds for strength for the same reason weightlifting gets it for endurance; while strength will make athletes in both sports better, success weighs more heavily on the ability to maintain consistent effort over longer periods of time (or the ability to endure).

Now let’s really piss some people off. I gave both gymnastics and ballet green across the board. With gymnastics, it’s hopefully fairly obvious, as anyone that’s ever tried to hold an iron cross on rings knows it takes incredible physical strength, while other elements of gymnastics require exceptional speed and skill. It’s all capped with endurance, as I said above, gymnasts are penalized for perceived effort; if the judges see them sweat or bleed, points are taken off.

With ballet, I couldn’t help but see the striking similarities to gymnastics. Both require skill, speed. Ballerinas have agility and strength, able to launch themselves up into the air in a way 99 percent of the population cannot. And finally, like gymnastics, they must make it look effortless and graceful.

So, on to the “newbies” or contests that try to claim that their contestants are athletes. Actually, I don’t know if modeling has ever tried to make this claim, but since Giselle was featured in the advertisement for UA, I’m analyzing it. In terms of strength, speed, and endurance, modeling obvious isn’t even remotely there. I gave it a yellow for physical skill for two reasons. First, modeling is a skill in the sense that models must learn to pose, to control their body for photographs, regardless of the conditions (heat, cold, water, sand, and so forth). Models are very familiar with discomfort, and the ability to suppress that discomfort and still appear sensual and alluring is both a psychological and physical skill. Second, models are expected to maintain certain physical standards, which may require physical training. Still, neither of these are enough to get them a green.

Chess, eSports, and poker all fall into the same category. All require some level of mental skill, skill that is often perishable and requires diligent practice and refinement, earning all three a yellow, as the firing of neural pathways in the brain is a physiological action. Beyond that, however, they all flunk into the red. To claim that contests in which the contestant is seated for extended periods of time with short bursts of arm or wrist movement require endurance, or speed, or strength is a complete and utter joke.

In conclusion, I would argue that any participant in a contest that gets two or more green categories on the chart above is an “athlete.” Thus, Ms Copeland is very much an athlete. CrossFit’s prodigal son Rich Froning, Jr., is very much an athlete. Giselle, Bobby Fisher, and anyone involved in the growing eSports scene is not.

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