In our original call for papers we included a quote from US President Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech. The credit, Roosevelt said, belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly. We agree. It is the participant who matters, and not the spectator or critic.
Major marathons such as those in New York City, London, Berlin and Paris draw tens of thousands of male and female competitors and participants. For those wanting to run even further, the Comrades Marathon (89km) in South Africa caps entries now at 18,000. Ironman, the ultra-distance length triathlon, has 22 events in 13 countries and draws more than 2,000 people for some events, with entry fees exceeding US$600. The International Cycling Union (UCI) Golden Bike Series has six events in six different countries, allowing the recreational rider to cover distances ranging from 40 to several hundred kilometres in large fields. Finally, here in New Zealand, over the past several years we have witnessed the creation and development of the national Ocean Swim Series, with some events seeing 2,000 swimmers compete. Modern sports events are not just characterised by small numbers of highly paid individuals watched by millions: there are also the millions of people who participate.
We do wish to emphasise, however, that mass participation not only means large numbers but also open to all. Within the US, the State Games multisport festivals, following the Olympic Games format, draw several thousand competitors on a state-by-state basis, with events ranging from arm wrestling and ballroom dancing to football and water polo. These festivals are not limited to the US - the World Masters Games, Gay Games and Special Olympics operate at international level. In each case the opportunity to compete or participate allows individuals to engage in their own dreams and aspirations, be they grounded in reality or Walter Mitty-like in nature.
For many of these sports, and possibly for most sports created before the 20th century, the participants were the focus, not the spectator. James Naismith invented basketball as a means of providing an athletic distraction. Webb Ellis’s healthy disregard for the rules of football was an athlete’s effort to make a game more interesting to play, not to watch. Sports were designed for athletes, not spectators. It just so happened that some sports were also spectator and television friendly.
With such vast numbers of participants, and some willing to spend thousands of dollars in entry fees and travel expenses, it remains somewhat surprising that existing research on events is dominated by studies of spectators at elite sports events (e.g. the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Cups in rugby and football, Super Bowl) or spectators of annual recurring seasons (e.g. NFL, English Premier League). The purpose of this special edition is to promote research on participants in non-elite events, what Roosevelt might have referred to as the athletes in the arena, had he lived in today’s society. Our specific concern is that sports marketing researchers are seduced both by the mediated glitter of elite sporting events and the convenience factor of these sporting spectacles and thereby neglect events that are all about bums in the event, rather than bums on seats or bums on living room sofas. The five articles in this special edition offer a preliminary glimpse into non-elite events from a variety of perspectives. We encourage both academics and practitioners to further explore these types of events and activities. Professor Michel Desbordes, Editor