Who is an athlete?

When is someone considered an athlete? Recently I posted a question on twitter: How do we define an athlete? This provoked quite a response.

How do we define an athlete?

Some of the responses included: if you can't run a sub 3h marathon, you are not an athlete (well that one ruled me out immediately and with me a lot of other runners). Someone suggested that you needed to be able to run 2:30 at least. That would rule out almost the entire field in a marathon apart from perhaps the top 50 at best (in a marathon with a very strong field, in an average marathon you would not even find 50 "athletes"). It appeared that some people strongly feel that whether someone can be called an athlete depends on performance. Athletes have to be able to perform better than the vast majority of people.

"If you have a body, you are an athlete."

Then there were other responses along the lines of "everyone is an athlete". The legendary University of Oregon track and field coach, and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman said, "If you have a body, you are an athlete." A quote similar to one from George Sheehan, a physician and author best known for his writings about the sport of running in the 70s. His book, "Running & Being: The Total Experience," became a New York Times best seller. Dr Sheehan said: "Everyone is an athlete. The only difference is that some of us are in training and some are not". The athletes that competed in the Olympics didn’t get there by accident. They got there with extreme dedication and intense training. With this in mind the definition of an athlete is really only dependent on how much work was put in, not the actual achievement. Nurture not nature.

The athletes that competed in the Olympics didn’t get there by accident.

Where does the word 'athlete' come from?

The origin of the word athlete comes from the Latin word Athleta and is clearly linked to games where athletes compete for a prize (athlein). So originally if you weren't in contention for the prize you were not an athlete. The definition has evolved though and we have many more athletes in todays society and it is not always about the prize anymore; there are many other reasons to participate in sport.

The original definition is probably comparable to what we call an "elite athlete" today.

Being an athlete means that there is a goal, a desire to improve and a willingness to commit.

So... how do we define an athlete?

Being an athlete means that there is a goal, a desire to improve and a willingness to commit. An athlete is someone who is serious about his or her sport. There is an end goal that involves doing something that he or she can be proud of. This could mean setting a personal record even though it may be very far off the world record. It could also mean completing a certain distance. There appears to be some consensus that the athletes needs to take the sport serious, there needs to be a plan and there needs to be some sort of systematic preparation (which may exclude people who decide on Saturday morning to participate in a 5k run that afternoon.. or maybe not?).

The definition of an athlete is dependent on context and appears to be in the eye of the beholder.


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