The Games People Play

By Tom Roush
June 2017

It is a sultry Saturday morning in Austin, Texas, and hundreds of people have gathered at the Austin Convention Center. None, however, are wearing any sort of team jerseys or sporting giant foam fingers. There are no hot dog or beer venders in sight.

The average age of those gathered is mid-twenties, the average waist size is low thirties; this is an athletic looking bunch. They talk in low voices as they enter the convention hall and head off to the subdivided sections.

In one portion of the hall, lean, tanned bodybuilders begin to file on and off a small stage. In another, men and a few women begin to wrestle on thick mats. Across the convention hall floor, men and women lift weighted Olympic barbells over their heads. The common theme is strength, not teamwork.

By the end of the day, 8500 people will have come and gone from the exhibition hall, and most will have competed in something. This is the ‘Naturally Fit Games,’ an event built on a set of fringe sports that attracts few passive fans and a lot of hardcore fitness addicts. These people don’t like to watch; they are in it to win.

“There are others (similar competitions) and we modeled ourselves on them”, says Emily Talley, the Director of the Naturally Fit organization and herself an avid bodybuilder and Crossfitter. “There’s the LA Fit Expo, The Arnold Games, the Europa Show in Dallas… There was a template.”

Talley describes the mix of events as being “outlier” events that attract “hardcore” athletes. Few athletic activities are more hardcore than Crossfit and it is the Crossfit competition that draws the largest number of individual competitors throughout the day with 498 people entering.

Near the giant wrestling mats, Joe Dierkhising is stretching out. The 28-year old Ju Jitzu brown belt has traveled to Austin from Houston to compete in the Onnit World Open, the Brazilian Ju Jitzu portion of the Naturally Fit Games.

“I compete several times per year,” he says, “and this one being in Austin and being sponsored by Onnit, was a no brainier. I really wanted to compete in this one.”

Onnit is a supplement and equipment manufacturer based in Austin and the sponsor of this portion of the games.

The Ju Jitzu space is crowded with competitors who wear similar clothing. Most are men, most under thirty, and while there are seats, they stand along the edges of the mats to watch.

Eventually, Dierkhising takes to the mat and shakes hands with a black belt from Austin. His opponent holds a higher belt ranking but Dierkhising towers over him. Ju Jitzu has an informal way matches are set and competitors are matched as closely as possible, but according to Dierkhising, it’s impossible to set matches using only weight, as with boxing.

“There are a lot of variables that go in to Ju Jitzu,” he says.

After a couple of minutes, Dierkhising brings his competitor to the mat and secures a long forearm under the man’s neck and seals his grip with his other arm. There is a brief struggle, and then the other man taps his hand on the mat and the referee declares Dierkhising the winner.

He is ebullient.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he declares. “I’m not going to make a lot of money doing this, but the people are great and this lets me compete like I did when I was in high school.”

At the bodybuilding stage, the competitors don’t come in contact with each other, but their faces betrays the tension. They file on and off stage, and are instructed to assume certain poses so they came be compared and ranked by the judges.

It is the bodybuilding competitors who are drug tested and from this testing comes the “naturally” title for the games.

“We only test the bodybuilders for drugs,” says Talley. “They are chemically tested and put to a lie detector.”

She describes the contemporary state of bodybuilding, and the divergent camps within the sport. They can be broadly defined as those that take steroids and those that don’t. Naturally Fit comes down squarely on the side of steroid-free competitors.

“Even Arnold says bodybuilders have become freakish,” she says, referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comments about the professionals that compete in a sport he once dominated.

“I don’t need drugs,” says Maribel Burgos, the winner of the Women’s Open Bodybuilding division. “I’m as big and strong as I need to be. Now it’s about beauty and symmetry and fitness.”

Amanda Williams, the 3rd place finisher, adds “Even with the guys, once you pass a certain size, it is just unhealthy and unattractive to get any bigger.”

Each year in the United States, the Super Bowl marks the high water mark of American sports fandom. This past year, 114 million people watched Tom Brady bring the Patriots back from what looked like an insurmountable deficient to win. The 2015 Cricket World Cup between India and Pakistan is reported to have had over 1 billion viewers so surely, the majority of viewers had not played Cricket, possibly ever. Watching is the end of the thrill.

The Naturally Fit Games and others like it are at the other end of the sporting spectrum. There are few passive fans; the viewer will likely be the competitor in subsequent rounds. Their larger goal is beyond the thrill of sport; it’s the fitness that comes from doing it as well as watching it.

“It has grown each year, but last year we had a 30% jump,” says Talley when asked about participation statics year over year. “We think we’ll be up to 15,000 people through the door in a couple of more years.”