Which Olympic Sport Could You, A Normal Person, Actually Do?

Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images.
With the Tokyo Olympics underway, we aren't only watching the world's premier athletes compete for the gold in the midst of a global pandemic — we're watching them carry on despite medical issues, emotional challenges, scorching hot temperatures, and even wild bears that refuse to leave the premises. On Sunday, American gymnast Sunisa "Suni" Lee scored 15.2 points on the uneven bars, even after sustaining an injury at the height of the pandemic. On Monday, Norwegian triathlete Kristian Blummenfelt vomited, collapsed, and struggled to stand after winning gold. Several athletes have fainted from heat exhaustion.
And then there's us normal, un-Olympian, less-than-spectacular people, watching from our couches, often in an air-conditioned room, sometimes with take-out in hand, entertaining the thought: Could I do this? What kind of commitment, training, and stamina would it take really?
Well, we have some answers for you. In 2012, Forbes broke down the amount of training required for each sport, and a few seem reasonable enough (okay, just hear me out). For example, cycling can take up to 10 years to master, but it can also take only three if you're willing to train 20 hours a week. Archery can take as little as four years to master. But if you're really operating under a time crunch, handball might be your best bet. Athletes themselves say that it’s pretty easy to pick up, and as a team sport, it might be easier to just join in than, say, archery.
But if you're really committed to your illusions of grandeur, you could also gun for a few other specific roles within teams. As Splinter noted in 2016, rowing isn't exactly easy — but the coxswain, who directs the team, doesn't actually row. According to Marcus McElhenney, a coxswain who won bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, some of the best ways to train include studying and learning everything there is to know about the sport. "Once a coxswain tackles the topic of coxing, she can turn her focus to rigging, coaching styles, rowing styles, new equipment, and emerging technology," McElhenney wrote in a 2014 blog post. If you can become a student of the sport, you might be golden, so to speak.
Perhaps the easiest sport to try, though, might be cross-country skiing (again, hear me out). Just ask Paul Bragiel, the venture capitalist and self-proclaimed "chunky, out-of-shape computer nerd" who decided, in 2013, that he had to achieve his childhood goal of qualifying for the Olympics. To do this, he told NPR that he looked at every team sport to decide which had the most flexible qualification rules, and determined they were downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, bobsled, and luge. By process of elimination, he turned to cross-country skiing and even moved to Colombia to better his chances of qualifying. He didn't qualify, but he came pretty close.
Of course, there's more to take into consideration besides just training, lest we forget that Bragiel is a venture capitalist who was able to uproot his life and move to another continent to fulfill his Olympic dreams. Training is a financial commitment, and while many high-profile Olympic stars get sponsorships, newcomers — and athletes playing lesser-known sports — are left to budget for themselves. This month, sprint kayak athlete Shaye Hatchette told Vice that, since 2018, she has spent over $35,000 in travel fees alone while training as an Olympic hopeful. And remember archery, which can require just four years of training? Coaches cost approximately $100 an hour, according to statistics from Forbes, and a full set of the necessary equipment costs $2,000.
Running, meanwhile, is seen as the most affordable Olympic sport, but it's one of the hardest, too. Just ask the triathlon athletes who are notably collapsing at the finish line. And despite all the evidence telling us that, no, you'll probably never be an Olympian if you spend most of your days working from two monitors, binging Netflix shows, or just happen to have been a gymnast in middle school, we all like to dream — especially when Olympians make it look so easy so much of the time.
So, if you're really, genuinely looking to make your Olympic dreams come true, you should start training — and saving — right now. But if just reading this stressed you out, you might not be up for the herculean task of competing through pain, in intense heat, and against world champions. And that's okay! Typing is a sport, too, I think.

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