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The Definition of the Word “Athlete”


The Definition of the Word “Athlete”

By guest KIT blogger, Eletrico

bike_beerNot too long ago, while meandering through stop-go traffic on our way to a debaucherous bachelor weekend, I was faced with a most interesting question. The question couldn’t have been posed at a more inappropriate time, after all, the imminence of a booze and food overload on the next few days stared the query’s absurdity in the face. The driver (let’s call him “Dimitri”) and I go back many years and we live in a similar world: passionate, active sports folks who tread the ultra thin ice that divides the dark cold waters of our myriad-obligations and the fresh-breathing freedom that our exercise sessions provide. As married men with kids, we often define ourselves as currently-sort-of-former-but-not-quite-yet-retired racers, me as the perpetual roadie and him the triathlete. Athletic folks, in sum. Or are we?

Point blank, he asked: “Do you consider yourself an athlete?” I thought about it for a while, watching the construction trucks do their thing in a city that is never really done repairing itself. The workers needed more space, we backed up, the beep-beep warning of reverse as the “time’s up!” alarm for my reflections. “No, I do not consider myself an athlete.” I really do not. At all. And I’ll elaborate.

When one thinks of an athlete, the image that comes to mind, at least for me, is of a young-ish person standing on a podium, tears-filled eyes, mumbling the lyrics of his/her national anthem, crown of wild olive leaves, maybe a flag draped across the shoulders. That person is the celebration of athletic achievement, the iconic figure that generally conjures up on our collective imagination. And why is that? What constitutes an athlete? We can first determine the most reductive form of the idea: physical stress and adaptation that sort out the ones who do not respond well from those who do, whatever the sport may be. We think of sweat and repeated physical work. Particular skills, like throwing/kicking a ball, or shooting an arrow just right. Lifting heavy things. Running really fast, either around circles or through a pre-determined road (or dirt) course. But does the person need to be in sports? What about acrobat folks in the circus, hanging upside down while doing airborne pirouettes and landing just right? That is very physically intense, super dangerous, and definitely requires a refined set of abilities. How about Kobayashi, the famous Japanese who eats competitively for a living? Sounds trite, but he actually practices by gobbling down kilos of cabbage to distend this stomach so he can eat however many dozens of hot dogs and beat his opponents come go time. Or is it physical appearance? Do we define an athlete as someone with a chiseled physique, better yet; does one have to be lean? A Football player would easily fail that category – so would the entire “Clydesdale” field at your local tri. Does the sport have to be in the Olympics? If so, cyclo-cross, which is one of the most strenuous activities you can do to your body, is not a sport, therefore not consisted of athletes. And therein lies a panoply of micro-distinctions that are not really doing a good job at presenting compelling differences.

Which brings us back to our car ride. We had initially agreed that what we do requires athleticism. We race bikes; our rides together do require an unspoken and never mentioned “be physically well-prepared” at all times. Our workouts can be really hard, the sort that pops up temple veins, can make you heave, or feel momentarily disoriented due to huge, successive efforts. Those efforts require top level skills and constant maintenance. Am I athletic? Perhaps so. But I drink a bit too many beers and sometimes my diet can be faulty. Dimitri is even worse – folks at Dairy Queen address him on a first name basis. But those are superficial, tangible ways of identifying an athlete. From my limited experience, the intangibles are really the distinguishing actors: determination, passion, not only for the sport, but also to win, plus focus, something we refer to as “the edge”. When I’m on the bike, I am definitely an athlete. But off the bike my workouts are a patchwork with little structure outside of the “must include at least a few hard sections to be minimally fit”. Yesterday alone I ate close to 1 pound of candy corn prior to a very demanding indoor session; come to think of it, it’s a miracle my inside ride and my pre-ride insides didn’t meet each other. But seriously, real athletes carry themselves as such on and off the bike, on and off the pool, or and off the courts. Athletes take good care of their bodies, but at the same time remain athletic during sleep, while making choices at the grocery store, filling up the tank at the gas station, picking up clothes at the dry-cleaning or brushing their teeth. They offer very little in terms of excuses or disclaimers, live an ascetic life and remember the last time they had a glass of wine in terms of years, not days. The mundane doesn’t steer them away from their calling, they just do them, well, athletically. You cannot separate the athlete from the person and vice versa as they’re inextricably connected: the person is born an athlete, just like someone is born a doctor, or an actor, or a firefighter.

Our conversation eventually more or less reached a conclusion on this topic: yes, astride our bikes we’re definitely athletes. Off the bike, though, it’s a different story. Real athletes don’t fill up on candy corn, do intervals and get proud (marveled, really) of holding it down. Plus, there’s no athletic way to refer to beer as post ride beverage, not even if you swig it “athletically”.

Keep it tight,


Elétrico is a local roadie aficionado who enjoys good banter, spirited hammer sessions and awesome beers.

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  1. Eric February 25, 2013

    “Everyone is an athlete. The only difference is that some of us are in training and some are not.” -George Sheehan

    I’d say most of the people reading this blog have been more in training in the past than they are now.

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