Ninja Warrior joins obstacle course racing to set sights on Olympics

Pro competitor Cameron Baumgartner warms up on the devil steps obstacle in anticipation of his course run at the Windy City Ninjas AWG competition. (Junie Burns/Medill)

By Junie Burns
Medill Reports

Acclaimed athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. But behind the scenes, Ian Adamson and Bob Clark are hard at work to introduce a new sport to the Olympics: obstacle course racing joined by Ninja Warrior athletics.

Every season of Olympic Games provides an opportunity for new sports to be showcased as demonstration sports, and each of those sports hopes to be selected as an official Olympic event. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will welcome back baseball and softball as Olympic sports while also debuting Rock Climbing.

Ninja Warrior became a phenomenon as a youth recreational sport following the success of the NBC hit series American Ninja Warrior, launched in 2006. The televised Ninja Warrior competition has spread to more than 18 countries, and local gyms are popping up in the Chicago area and all over the world, providing ample opportunities for local competitions.

Clark, the CEO of Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association (UNAA) was a fan of American Ninja Warrior, and he was among the first ninja athletes who built his own obstacles in his yard to practice. Now he travels the world to establish international UNAA leagues.

For Clark, his hobby quickly transformed into a passion-fueled business to keep the sport growing. He initially created UNAA in the hopes of helping the top athletes qualify for the NBC competition series, but in the four years since the inception of UNAA, the competition has quickly found success overseas.

“My original goal was to have a gym in every part of the country within a couple hundred miles,” Clark said. “I wanted to go nationwide from day one, and now worldwide, that’s just exploded.”

That was when Clark decided to track down more information on the process of turning a sport into an Olympic event.

“I always wanted to make this a true sport and one day be in the Olympics,” Clark said. “To me, it seems like the perfect Olympic sport.”

Ultimate Ninjas Gym
Ninja Warrior training gyms like Ultimate Ninjas Chicago are popping up all over the world. Athletes train to perfect grip, balance and agility obstacle course. (Junie Burns/Medill)

The Midwest is a powerhouse in terms of producing some of the strongest competitors. Top American Ninja Warrior athletes like Ethan Swanson, Michael Torres, Michelle Warnky and Jesse Labreck are based out of the Midwest, and many of the sport’s young rising stars who will be future Olympic hopefuls are coached by these athletes.

“Six years ago, there was maybe one [local ninja] competition a summer and only one gym and one league,” said Patrick Losch, co-founder of Chicago-based ninja competition league Athlete Warrior Games. “Now the kids pretty much dominate Ninja Warrior.”

Ninja Warrior training gyms like Ultimate Ninjas Chicago are popping up all over the world.

Torres, a coach at the gym and American Ninja Warrior season 11 finalist, expressed similar excitement about the growth of the sport.

“The kids are doing things that we can’t do,” Torres said. “The ninja world is blowing up. We’ve got masters competitions, pro competitions, amateur competitions. Everybody can compete in Ninja.”

Clark reached out to the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) to learn more about this process. GAISF is the umbrella organization for all international sports federations including the Olympics.

After filling out the 45-page application, Clark was advised to combine forces with Adamson of World Obstacle Course Racing, who had been working on the Olympic process since 2014 and was making headway towards turning World OCR into an officially recognized sport. By combining the two increasingly popular and similar sports, Clark and Adamson hoped to build a recognizable sports federation.

Obstacle course racing is most famously associated with the internationally acclaimed Spartan Race and Ninja Warrior competitions. There will be over 60 Spartan races in the United States alone in 2020, where over one million professional and amateur competitors a year compete in a variety of races that are infused with obstacles.

Adamson is the president of World OCR, the international federation for Obstacle sports. As the popularity for obstacle course racing continues to rise, Adamson is hopeful that his hard work will come to light and the federation can continue its journey towards Olympic representation.

Adamson says that the Ninja OCR provides a familiarity that is cherished among Ninja Warrior fans while also challenging the top Ninja Warrior athletes.

“It’s the same look, same feel, same athletes coming in,” Adamson said. “But [the Ninja Warrior competitors] get a little surprised because they’re not about speed – they’re more about technical ability and the speed athletes is somewhat different. It’s really cool because you’re not quite sure who’s going to win.”

In order to qualify for Olympic recognition, a sport must be official in at least five continents and 40 countries, and each of those countries must hold a championship. World OCR currently has 88 countries that hold regular competitions and more than 60 countries with national championships and which compete in international championships.

World OCR has six medal events in the SEA Games, a regional Games for 11 countries in South East Asia under regulation of the International Olympic Committee. Race distances in these Games include 100m (10 obstacles), 400m (12 obstacles) and 5 km (20 obstacles.)

The 2nd Ninja OCR World Championships will be in Russia in 2020. This is a head to head race format, similar to the Ninja versus Ninja television show, on a 160 m long course with 12 Ninja obstacles.

The International Olympic Committee declined an interview request, but provided more information regarding the process of integrating new sports into the Olympic Games.

Olympic sports are categorized as “disciplines” such as athletics, football or aquatics. Within each discipline there can be multiple medal events. The number of events may vary at every Olympic Games because the games is structured around the number of participating athletes, rather than the number of disciplines or events.

For example, the Winter Olympics have fewer disciplines than the Summer Olympics, allowing more space for additional events that can meet the Olympic athlete participant quota.

Obstacle course racing is currently pending GAISF approval to become recognized as an official sports federation that is eligible for the Olympics. If World OCR gains approval from GAISF, they will need to receive a final vote of recognition from the International Olympic Committee. Once this step is taken, Adamson’s efforts will be dedicated towards getting events into the Olympic Games.

World OCR is on an extremely fast trajectory to gain recognition. GAISF advises federations that it may take 30 years or more to become officially recognized and begin the Olympic campaign. If approved, OCR will have achieved the miraculous feat of accomplishing this in approximately five years.

Even making it to the application deliberation is a big accomplishment for obstacle course racing. If the sport is not picked up, there is still an opportunity to continue to adapt and grow and try again.

If approved, World OCR is in a promising position for Olympic selection, especially with the 2028 games taking place in Los Angeles. The selection process relies on the IOC and the host city determining the event lineup. This is the opportunity for federations to come together and for new sports to make their case for why their discipline’s events would be a strong addition and why it is a smart move replace an already-existing event.

With the international success of American Ninja Warrior and the local following of Spartan and Obstacle Course Racing in the United States, the sport carries a lot of fan traction with its proven success in the United States. Adamson and Clark hope that the popularity of World OCR combined with the solid gender inclusivity and equality will provide a compelling argument for introducing the sport to the Olympic Games.

The Modern Olympics began in 1886 with tennis, athletics and gymnastics among the first sports in the Olympics.  While all three of these sports have been present in all of the Summer Olympic Games, others like baseball, softball and boxing have come and go as the sports popularity wavered over the years.

For both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a priority for the selection committee is equality and diverse representation. Many of the sports added in recent games have leveled the playing field by evening out the number of women’s Olympic events.

Photo at Top: Pro competitor Cameron Baumgartner warms up on the devil steps obstacle in anticipation of his course run at the Windy City Ninjas AWG competition. (Junie Burns/Medill)