I sat watching College Football Saturday and kept hearing the same phrase used over and over again, “he’s an incredible athlete.” Sports announcers have always used colorful references and analogies to help paint an entertaining picture for sports fans. If you you can jump out of the gym and dunk you’re the next Michael Jordan. If you can run like the speed of light and jump like a gazelle you’re the next Jesse Owens. There will forever be inflated comparisons and expectations in sports, but one phrase I would like to see used sparingly is the term athlete.
As a marathoner, I can appreciate the time, dedication, and perseverance it takes to be a world class runner. Steve Prefontaine is a living legend here in Oregon, and if you go to the University of Oregon or Coos Bay you might as well call it Steve’s Shrine. I think one of the greatest signs of Prefontaine’s athletic ability was his VO2 max, a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. It is a measurable level of exercise intensity that an athlete’s consumption of oxygen reaches causing a plateau that cannot be increased. Prefontaine’s VO2 max was 84.4 while another world class athlete, Lance Armstrong, has a VO2 max of 84.0.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an athlete as:
a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina
I wont get into the debate of what is considered a sport or not, to determine who’s an athlete, but I will debate that we take this term too far.
Maybe it’s because I’m an avid College Football fan, but weekend in and weekend out we have sports announcers tagging players with the term athlete. An offensive lineman who gets burned time after time is an athlete, but he’s just going up against better competition. A linebacker who has a 100 yard interception for a touchdown needs oxygen to resuscitate themselves, but is an athlete. A quarterback who couldn’t run three yards for a first down to save his life is an athlete because he can fling the ball 50 yards for a touchdown.
I’ll probably never be able to bench 300 pounds, run a sub 4:00 mile, or jump 40 inches, but I still consider myself an athlete. The problem I have with the term athelte is we’re lumping a 6’8” 350 lbs lineman and a 5’8” 150 lbs runner together.
Another factor in the definition of athlete, or athletic movement, is age. 40 years old in basketball, football, or baseball is considered old and over the hill while in golf we put them in the ‘Senior Tour’. If you go to any local running events you’ll find the over 40 categories some of the most competitive at the event. I read about marathoners in their 90’s all the time and just pray that I can walk at that age. I think it’s a disservice to the ‘Masters’ division of sports to say they are not an athlete like a 20 year old.
If it’s not fair to say over 40 can’t be an athlete, it’s not fair to say someone overweight can’t be an athlete, and it’s not fair to say someone who can’t run isn’t an athlete then what is the true politically correct definition of an athlete? Age, flexibility, and VO2 Max are only factors in the degree of athlete you can become. The gray area has become too dark and I believe it’s time someone clear things up.