Fitness Over 40

Post by:Phil Sabin

Saturday, August 18th, 2007 at 7:37 am  |  8 Comments »


What is an Athlete?

I have been talking to many people lately about whether or not they think of themselves as athletes.  It is amazing to me how many people don’t think they are an athlete.  They think of themselves as “fitness enthusiasts”, or “active” - but not an “athlete”.   These include people who regularly compete in running races and triathlons.

Many people think an athlete is a paid professional.  Others see athletes as someone who is competing against others.  For others still, an athlete is simply someone else, but not them. 

When I look it up in the dictionary, this is what I see:

 - a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength;

 - a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

When I read this definition, I can’t help but think everyone who is active is an athlete.   For those who are not active, they can aspire to be an athlete.  There isn’t an elitism associated with being an athlete. 

Being an athlete boils down to two questions:

  1.  Are you trained?
  2. Are you a participant?

 If you can answer yes to either of those questions, then you are an athlete.  This includes people who compete in events.  This also includes the yoga enthusiast, who is both trained to do something most can’t and is most certainly a participant.

Here is another test.  Common to both definitions is the word “exercise”.  Anyone who exercises regularly by definition is an athlete.   Looked at this way, there are a lot more of us athletes running around than we think.

 Being “gifted” does make you an athlete.  But it’s not the only way.  I love Nike, but I hated the commercial they ran a few years back that said  “Second place is just the first loser” - or something to that effect.  What a horrible message to send to people.  It perpetuates the notion that only the truly gifted (or genetic freaks) are considered athletes.  It discourages the less gifted from embracing the athlete within them.  The message is just plain wrong!

Being an athlete is available to everyone.  There are many who are not active, and in their minds have no hope of ever being an athlete.  But that’s not true.  All that is required to become an athlete is to make the commitment to move from a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle.  Take up walking, take up bicycling, take up running.  You may or may not ever compete.  But guess what, you will be an athlete.

So - do you consider yourself to be an athlete. . .

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What is an Athlete?

August 18th, 2007 8:39 am

gardenmentor says:

Thanks for this post. I’ve never thought of myself as an athelete. I’ve had times when I’ve been very active & times when I’ve been very inactive. You’re right about the thoughts that come to mind for some of us when we don’t have an exercise program & are contemplating starting one — thoughts like, “I’ll never be able to do that!”

Now that I can do more & more of that, I still don’t think of myself as an athelete. I think its just a state of mind. I do think of myself as a yoga junkie (one who is feeling the need to ramp up her practice after a week visiting with mom, doing too little yoga & too much eating!). But, I’ve never really thought that makes me an athelete. Too, by the definition above, I guess just my gardening makes me an athelete — it truly is an “…exercise… requiring physical skill.”

The really curious thing about these definitions is what is lacking in them. By that, I mean no reference to the mental aspect of being an athelete. The words “trained”, “gifted”, and “participant” make the status of athelete sound almost like happenstance or a god-like blessing or the result of education given by another. It doesn’t sound like the mental blood, sweat & tears is much considered. Personally, I believe there is a lot of brain exercise involved in any athletic program. There’s $.02 for ya’! :)

August 18th, 2007 9:05 am

Fitness Over Forty says:

Interesting. I agree that there is a mental aspect to being an athlete. Yet both definitions are only directed at the physical aspect. Maybe it’s because physical motion is required for any athletic endevour.

The reason I wrote the post, however, is because of the mental aspect. I think people would be more engaged (and feel better about their engagement) if they could accept that they are in fact an athlete - just like the “gifted” few.

Life is a participation sport. We might as well get our minds aligned…

August 19th, 2007 5:49 am

Darth Triathlete says:

I disagree - the root of the word ‘athlete’ is the Greek, athleo, meaning to contend for a prize. And I think this is still true today - you’re not a runner, a cyclist, a rower, a whatever, unless you take part in competitions If you don’t race, but do the activity, then you get different titles - a jogger, a bike rider, someone who rows, etc.

That’s not to belittle what non-competing-but-fit people do though. And it also doesn’t imply that Nike’s “first loser” is in any way a healthy way to look at staying healthy & fit. Whenever you enter a competition, you are contending for a prize - whether it’s the gold medal, or the finishers’ medal. Doing the training, turning up on the day, and lasting the distance means you earned it. That, for me, is the definition of an athlete.

August 19th, 2007 7:44 am

Fitness Over Forty says:

So Darth - Do you think I’m interpreting the definition of an athlete incorrectly, or do you just happen to disagree with the definition.

BTW - I got the definition from if you want to check.

August 20th, 2007 12:00 am

Darth Triathlete says:

Both! ;-)

I disagree with the definition - got mine from our copy of the OED. Your principal is correct, but applying the term ‘athlete’ outside of your own head, where it’s a great motivational word, is wrong.

When someone applies effort to make themselves a fitter, more resilient person, they’re worthy of being on The Long List Of People Worth Looking Up To (there are also many other ways of getting onto this list though). Applying the word ‘athlete’ is a label, which in society has come to mean ‘the people we see on TV’ - so whether we like it or not, when you’re chatting in the bar and just happen to mention that you’re an athlete, you will get some raised eyebrows!

Using these kind of labels which have been misappropriated means that the scale and effort if what you do is likely to be misunderstood by your audience. Explaining that you’re a keen peddler, and spend ten hours a week in the saddle, and that this year you’re going to climb the equivalent of from sea level to the edge of space on your bike puts it in terms that people will understand. They might think you’re crazy, but from that understanding will tend to come more interest, and possibly a desire to find out more . . . about how you got started, and “Gee, could I do that too?”.

August 20th, 2007 12:40 am

What’s Next? » Blog Archive » Bicycle Race / Fat Bottomed Girls says:

[...] And the “Fat Bottomed Girl”? When I was just over a mile from home, I passed a woman out jogging. She was a ‘big girl’ - I mean almost as wide as she was tall, moving along at a snail’s pace, and sweating like a . . . a . . .  sweaty thing. My initial thought was really dismissive - “Why on earth is someone like that out jogging”. But then, as I’d been thinking about Phil’s post about what it means to be an ‘Athlete’, several things struck me: [...]

August 21st, 2007 3:42 pm

runningkate says:

After reading your post… I have to say I am starting to truly believe I am an athlete, plain and simple.
On one hand, I want it to be something difficult to attain, so not so many people can be in the same league as me. On the other hand, I’m glad I’m welcome in the club and like to welcome as many others as possible!

Thanks again… this brought up interesting conversation between Chris & I too!

August 21st, 2007 4:01 pm

Runner’s High with Running Kate » To be or not to be? says:

[...] After reading Phil’s post I have to finally just give myself the credit I deserve: [...]


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