As new sports initiatives target youngsters in the UAE, Vision reports on how the growth of ‘alternative’ sports worldwide is helping combat health issues and attract new generations of sports fans
From ultramarathons to adventure races, triathlons to solo climbing, the public appetite for new and exciting pastimes is at an all time high.
In the US, triathlon participation has increased by more than 40 per cent in 10 years. More Americans go jogging and trail running than ever before: 29.4 million ran at least 50 days during 2012. In the UK Sport England data shows that indoor climbing is soon set to overtake the traditional outdoor version.
“People want to do that little bit extra, that’s what’s drawing many more participants to the likes of ultramarathons,” says Bruce Duncan, adventure racer with Team Haglöfs Silva. The reasons for the surge in participation seem to vary from convenience – unlike some team sports, there’s no reliance on other people or special facilities – through to a much deeper justification.
Sports psychologists point out that extreme sports are often individual pursuits, so the goals and the rewards are unique to the participant. Cycling is one such sport where participation levels have exploded in the US and UK. British Cycling reported an upsurge of 161,000 new cyclists in the six-month period prior to the London Olympics. At an amateur level, it remains as popular as it does professionally in mainland Europe, while in Australia the government is midway through a five-year, AUS$71m investment programme to deliver sports and healthy lifestyle projects across the nation. This includes AustCycle, a nationwide drive to get people fit through cycling more.
Many participants have taken to the roads, and increasing numbers of young men and women partake in freeride events, mountain biking and cross-country trail cycling sports too. “Freeride mountain biking is one of the most evolving action sports,” says Tarek Rasouli, Vice President of the Freeride Mountain Bike Association. “These sports are very spectator and media-friendly and people love watching riders fly through the air with their bikes.”
Traffic-free cycling events established in British cities have been gaining in popularity year on year. Partnerships with sports bodies and sponsors to host mass-participation events in major cities are one way that health authorities are looking to capture the popularity of alternative sports to help young people stay in shape.
June 2013 saw the launch of the third edition of Dubai’s two-month-long sports initiative Dubai Sports World. An indoor 28,000 sq m sports facility helps people remain active during the heat of the summer, offering activities such as football and cricket alongside ‘alternative’ sports. “This year, we have skateboarding and biking, which take place in the skate and BMX park,” explains Ahmed Alkhaja, Senior Vice President, Venues, Dubai World Trade Centre. “We’ve expanded our portfolio by adding an all-glass squash court, badminton courts, and a state-of-the-art cycling studio.”
Dubai Sports World is also hosting a new initiative designed to get people from all walks of life playing table tennis. Ping Pong Dubai was launched during the recent World Championships in Paris with the support of the Chinese National Table Tennis Team.
“Table tennis has a rich tradition of bringing people together, and the great thing about the game is that anyone – regardless of age, ability and fitness – can enjoy playing,” explains UAE’s number one player Rashid Abdul Hamid.
According to Paul Wilson, Editor of Red Bull’s magazine The Red Bulletin, there are a number of reasons why more and more people are drawn to new sports. “What people call ‘new’ and ‘alternative’ sports are not actually that new or alternative – they are on multichannel TV and online, which have been established for 20 years in the UK and which a younger audience is used to accessing,” says Wilson. “Also the barriers to entry for those sports have been lowered. It’s easier and cheaper than ever to try a sport that only a few years ago would have been hard to find and pay for.”
Tarek Rasouli concurs, “The internet has helped the sport to grow and riders to progress,” he says. “It has become easy to capture yourself on film, whether through GoPro cameras, your mobile phone or other equipment. And easy to share means it’s also easy to learn from such videos.”
However, while the popularity of less conventional sports is undoubtedly on the rise, the ability of policy makers and authorities to harness this demand and turn it into viable public health and fitness initiatives may still prove to be a challenge.
“All sports that require specialist equipment, coaching and venues are harder to introduce to new audiences than those that do not,” explains Wilson. “It’s more difficult, and more expensive, to get a group of kids to go mountain climbing than it is to play football.”
Ahmed Alkhaja believes it’s essential that the commitment is made to get young people in the Emirates into sports. “Ultimately, regular exercise is essential in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and Dubai Sports World helps us initiate this healthy trend. It doesn’t matter what your favourite sport is as long as you come out and challenge yourself.”
Paul Wilson agrees. “Any project that encourages young people to be active is to be commended. Kids who come to enjoy the active life will look for as many ways as they can to be active. Extreme sports can contribute to combating the obesity crisis.”
Adventure racer Bruce Duncan still thinks some extreme sports will always remain niche. “Having some big names competing in an adventure race would help raise the profile. But then a proper adventure race requires navigation skills and is also multisport, with running and biking a minimum and usually some kayaking. Once you add a second or third sport to any event, the numbers drop, as it adds more hassle and cost.”
“I don’t know of any governments trying get people into adventure sports. But maybe this is another reason people are getting into them: they are fed up of being mollycoddled and actually want to do something a bit risky once in a while.”