2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Saturday August 11, 2012 10:49AM ; Updated: Saturday August 11, 2012 3:58PM

Marathon? Boxing? Race Walking? Debating the toughest Oly. sport

Story Highlights

With Games winding down, SI writers, editors debated: What's the toughest event?

Marathon is absurd physical task but lacks team pressure of other Olympic events

Wrestling is most physical event, but cycling, water polo could make a case, too

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Race walking
Factor in ridicule, and race walking might be the most mentally taxing Olympic event.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

After two weeks of blood, sweat, tears, bike-racing crashes, head-bandaged judokas, rowers doubled over in agonized exhaustion, a German weightlifter dropping a 433-pound barbell on his neck and a British triathlon bronze medalist being wrapped in ice packs and rushed off in a wheelchair for medical care, the question remains:

Which Olympic event is the toughest?

SI.com stirred up a lively debate by posing that question to 14 of its writers and editors in London:

Rich O'Brien: The toughest is the marathon. After all, the first person to run one legendarily dropped dead upon completing it. Some 2,400 years later, future Olympic champion Frank Shorter, in his first effort at the distance, got to 17 miles, turned to a fellow runner and said, "Why couldn't Pheidippides have died here?" But, of course, Pheidippides made it all the way to 26 miles, give or take, before succumbing, and then in 1908 (in London, reportedly to accommodate the viewing position of the Queen), those perverse extra 385 yards were tacked on.

Olympic marathoners undertake an absurd physical task, one that can break even the greatest champions. (Recall that world record holder Paula Radcliffe was reduced to a sobbing wreck on the curb in Beijing.) The volume and intensity of training is so great that injury is an ever-present threat. Even when healthy, top marathoners can realistically do only two races a year -- which makes peaking for the Games that much more of a challenge

David Epstein: The marathon? That's what people do for kicks when they want to get in shape. Oprah ran the marathon. Let's see Oprah go out aerobic for 400 meters and come back anaerobic for 400 meters in the Olympics' toughest event, the 800 meters. Let's see that only if you also want to see Oprah puking her brains out. Because here's what happens when you start running the 800 seriously: All the blood that's in your intestinal lining is sucked out into your legs. The race ends in the longest anaerobic push of any event. The pumping of your muscles is enough to force blood back up to your heart and brain as your veins dilate to let more blood into the legs. As soon as you stop, the veins stay dilated but the muscle pump stops, and your blood pressure drops as blood pools in your legs. That's why 800 runners, seconds or minutes after the race, often end up low to the ground or at least leaning with their head bent, because the blood pressure drop forces them down in order to get blood back up to the brain.

Michael Farber: The 800 may effectively be the world's longest sprint, but at least the athletes are allowed to run. Consider the poor 50-kilometer race walker, who has the toughest sport in the Olympics if you total the physical and psychological costs. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. More than three and a half hours of heel, toe. If you break stride -- run, in other words -- you are escorted from the course, disqualified.

Then there is the ridicule factor. Walkers are the red-headed stepchildren of athletics. (I think at least some of them are red-headed. They all wear those funny caps.) Nobody likes race walkers. Their odd-looking craft is mocked as the sporting equivalent of the seeing who can whisper the loudest.

Ian Thomsen: I'm going to say the toughest thing is any of the equestrian competitions -- if you're the horse. The easiest is any of the equestrian competitions if you are the human. Look, I'm being provocative because it's the only way to get people to recognize the dangers of jumping and eventing. The truth is, there is nothing easy about it for the rider or horse. It's flat-out dangerous, and it takes extraordinary nerve. What happens to other athletes who suffer torn ACLs or broken legs? On behalf of horses I rest my case.

Craig Neff: No athletes in the Games -- maned or otherwise -- face a tougher test of will, nerve and athleticism than gymnasts. I know that the cartoonishly muscled men who do iron crosses and the spangly-costumed teenage girls who backflip across the balance beam aren't endurance athletes, but their sport demands astounding strength, skill, flexibility and body control. Some critics claim the physical toll on young girls is almost abusive. On top of everything else, the athletes have to be perfect in front of a panel of judges and a global TV audience. They need to deliver both style and substance.

Brian Cazeneuve: As long as we're having a row about this, I'll put in my two pence for the eights race in rowing. This is like a six-minute sprint, using arms and legs, except that you can't shut off your brain and go at the pace that your lactic acid will allow because you actually have to be in sync with seven other people. Take a stroke either too quickly or too slowly and you throw off the rhythm of the whole boat as noticeably as a knackered tuba player in an orchestra. In no other event -- even the 800 -- can you count on at least one, and usually more, of the members of each team losing their bangers and mash over the side when they're done competing.

Phil Taylor: Rowing, running, riding, race-walking -- all difficult disciplines, and I tip my hat to all who compete in them. But you know what none of those athletes ever have to do? Come in physical contact with their opponents. Which brings me to Greco-Roman wrestling. You want a sport that requires superior stamina? Wrestling. Well-planned strategy? Wrestling. A refined set of skills? Wrestling.

Now add to that the hand-to-hand physical combat that runners, rowers, riders -- I'll throw swimmers in there, too -- never have to endure. There is something primal about being face-to-face with your opponent and testing your sheer physical strength against his. Imagine non-contact athletes trying to perform while being twisted, flipped or trapped under their opponent. Sorry, Mike Farber, but a sport that includes techniques known as the body-lock and the gut-wrench has to be tougher than one known for heel-toe, heel-toe. Then there's the suplex, a throw described thusly: The offensive wrestler lifts his opponent in a high arch while falling backward ON HIS OWN NECK to a bridge in order to bring his opponent's shoulders down to the mat. On his own neck, people. If none of that convinces you, take a look at a Greco-Roman wrestler's ears sometime. After all the pawing that goes on in the matches, those things look like they've been chewed by a pit bull. Wrestling is the toughest sport. I'll go to the mat on that.

Farber: While I appreciate the physical rigors of Greco-Roman wrestling as much as the next guy (who isn't Rulon Gardner), at least America can name an actual Greco-Roman wrestler, even if it's because of Gardner's stint on the NBC reality show. In public perception, all these anonymous racewalkers are the biggest losers. Sillitoe got it wrong; his novella should have been The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker.

Taylor: Granted, being an anonymous race-walker must be tough, but watching the toughest sport in the Olympics shouldn't make you want to giggle, and race-walking kinda does. As for Brian's reference to the retching of rowers, wrestlers practically invented the losing of the lunch. And David gives an eloquent description of blood pressure drops, dilating veins and blood pooling in the legs of 800-meter runners, to which wrestlers would chuckle Beavis and Butthead-like, and say, "Huh-huh. Cool. Let's do it." Because wrestlers are crazy like that. They like pain. And that's tough.

Austin Murphy: Tell Kristin Armstrong that cyclists don't "come in physical contact with their opponents." The 38-year-old mom won her second straight time trial gold medal in London while sporting a tea-cosy-sized patch of road rash on her left thigh. She suffered that wound when she was taken out during the cycling road race by an inferior bike handler on a rain-slicked descent.

Armstrong also raced here with a metal plate in the collarbone she snapped in a crash last May. She remounted her bike that day, fracture and all, and finished the stage. That's how they roll in road racing, where the bun-hugging Lycra and spindly arms of the riders (they don't want to carry extra weight) tend to obscure how nails these people are. While suffering deeply, for insanely long periods of time, they have to stay mentally fresh, or risk missing a missing a breakaway that could cost them, or their team, the race.

Team USA's Timmy Duggan put it well the other day, explaining that road racing requires the endurance of "a marathon racer, or a Siberian husky," coupled with the tenacity of "a cage fighter."

"Cage-fighting huskies!" added teammate Taylor Phinney, helpfully.

Even if they're not the toughest -- and it says here they are -- these guys are the best quotes.

Grant Wahl: Let me chime in and make a case for soccer. I'll grant you that the 800 meters, rowing eights and the marathon may produce more acute physical pain, but there are other ways to measure the "toughness" of a sport, and one of them is this: How competitive is it? How big is the mass of humanity that's struggling tooth and nail to get to the top of that sport's pyramid? No sport in the Olympics comes remotely close to the sheer numbers game of men's soccer, which is taken seriously in every country on the planet. We marvel at Brazil's Neymar not just for his outrageous inventiveness, but also for the fact that he has risen through the hypercompetitive ranks of Brazilian soccer to become one of the top 10 players in the world. If he ever supplants Lionel Messi as the world's best player, he will have achieved a title with few peers in the international arena. Pope, certainly. President of the United States? Perhaps. If the competitive pyramid of soccer is as big as Cheops, then those of the other Olympic sports are the size of Monopoly board hotels.

Tim Layden: Then again, just about everybody on the planet runs a step or two at some point in his life and to win the gold medal in the 100 meters, you've got to do it 9.63 seconds. Try climbing to the top of THAT pyramid.

Nick Zaccardi: I can't believe we've made it this far without an argument for water polo. It's got everything. Four quarters of eight minutes (plus many stoppages of play). You don't get a break physically -- no touching the sides or bottom of the pool during a match. It takes plenty more mental awareness than the grueling individual sports, and you've got opponents playing dirty -- hair-pulling, throat-poking ... and that's just what happens ABOVE the water. The most famous water polo match of all time was a blood bath. You could slow down late in an individual distance sport or fight or wrestle defensively to a certain extent. But give it less than 100 percent in a team sport, and you let many more people down. I'm not confident I could survive to the finish of a water polo match.

Jon Wertheim: How about boxing? Pro fighters only get in the ring in earnest a few times a year. Yes, for reasons of health and safety and physical recovery. But it's also because of the psychic wear and tear. Mentally, you can't go through the ritual of a fight more than once every few months. Cutting weight. Developing a fight plan and tailoring it to the opponent. Achieving the "head space" required for a combat sport.

At the Olympics? The cycle gets accelerated to an almost absurd degree. Conferred a bye into the round of 16, seeded boxers must win four fights to take gold. Unseeded fighters must win five bouts. Never mind the bumps and bruises (mitigated by headgear and oversized gloves) and never mind the issues of stamina (mitigated by the limited rounds.) The psychological reserves required to endure this pugilistic speed dating? Far as I'm concerned the entire field is made of up mettle-ists.

Farber: Is there not one triathlon booster among us?

O'Brien: You mean the sport for those athletes not tough enough to make it in open water swimming, or cycling, or marathoning?

Layden: Olympic triathlon is a sprint. Now, if it was Ironman distances ...

Sarah Kwak: All right, fellas, while most of your arguments have been compelling (save Epstein's science paper), I'm here to set the record straight. The toughest sport at the Olympics? Easy. The open water 10K marathon swim. Now, we all know that swimming is the most taxing sport on the body, not only because you are actively using all of your limbs but also because most of the time, your face is under water. So imagine swimming for 6.2 miles, or 200 lengths of an Olympic size pool without stopping. For the world's best, that takes about two hours. For a Joe Schmoe, it would take eternity ... simply because I don't think a Joe Schmoe could do it. What about all those weekend triathletes or Ironmen/Ironwomen, you ask? Surely they could, no? Well, the swimming leg for a standard triathlon is 1.5 kilometers; for an Ironman, it's 3.86 kilometers. So yeah, combine the swimming legs of both of those events and you're a little more than halfway there.

Unlike any other endurance race, the open water also includes an element of physicality. OK, so it's not boxing or wrestling, but it'd be like a runner bumping another runner in the shoulder mid-stride over and over and over again. It'd be like tugging the shirt of the runner in front of you. Things happen underwater that you can't really see from the surface, so a lot of fouls don't get called, and some of it isn't even on purpose. A swimmer's gotta kick, doesn't he? Even disregarding the mess of people and what they're doing, there's also Mother Nature. Open water swimmers race in almost any weather (though not in extreme cold or warmth), but beyond that, some bodies of water are better kept than others. There have been world championship races through masses of jellyfish or in water that looked more like Yoohoo. One racer has recalled swimming into the floating body of a dead dog. Others who have since retired still struggle with colitis developed after swallowing too much dirty water. Now, this probably points more to FINA's desperate need to make the sport safer and more civilized, but it also proves that these swimmers are tough. Endurance, skill, physicality, mental acuity. Open water swimmers have got it all.

O'Brien: Sarah makes a very strong (and slightly nauseating) case. Racing through jellyfish? A dead dog? Hard to match that -- though the leader in the men's marathon in Athens was attacked from the crowd by a defrocked Irish priest in a kilt.

Epstein: Are you suggesting that because the swimming leg of the Ironman is shorter than the open water 10k, Ironman triathletes couldn't do it? You do know the Ironman swim is a warmup for a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, right? The English Channel is at least 20 miles wide, and a ton of people have swum that.

To compare it to the running marathon, the open water marathon has competitors from fewer countries, is completed in less time and has feeding stations, which means nobody should experience the glycogen depletion know as "the wall." Rightfully so, because they would drown if they did, but still ...

That's true about colitis, though. I hear that thousands of retired open water swimmers are filing a class action suit against the league, demanding everything they knew about colitis.

Richard Deitsch: Surviving this debate honestly might be the toughest Olympic sport of all. But you're all wrong, from Epstein's magnum opus on the 800 to the Lycra-wearing sportswriter Austin Murphy to a clearly sleep-deprived Michael Farber suggesting race-walking. The toughest sport at any Olympics is played by the publicists at NBC Sports who have to defend their network from a never-ending Vasily Alekseyev-sized stream of bashing from millions of critics. It is often defending the indefensible, a task more weighty than what Behdad Salimikordasiabi throws up daily. What David Rudisha does in the 800 meters -- and it is beautiful to watch -- is child's play compared to keeping a straight face about NBC's tape-delay strategy.

 
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