What triathletes can teach us about semantic clarity

June 1, 2006

The word “elite” is used in a hundred different ways within the running community. Some regard anyone who wins a small local 5K as elite; others reserve the word for professional runners. It’s confusing. Since marathons often make special arrangements for “elite athletes,” I’ve had to ask more than one race coordinator, with as much humility as I can feign, “So, um, when you guys say ‘elite’ … are you talking about people like me?”

The triathlon world apparently does not have this problem. A couple days ago, a triathlete told me that he had just gotten his elite license. Elite license? Yeah, he said — you just have to place among the top X finishers at Y number of sanctioned triathlons of size Z or larger, and you qualify for a license to race in the elite division.

Perhaps that system will never be applied to runners, but I like its simplicity. If you have an elite license, you’re elite; if you don’t, you’re not. Besides, wouldn’t it be cool to have an official-looking wallet-sized card attesting to your elite status? The sort of thing you could whip out at a party to make a good first impression, if necessary?

I think I want one. Too bad I can barely swim. Perhaps I’ll just have to get a fake elite athlete ID, with a photo that looks kind of like me and some bogus PRs.


  1. The way Alison is using it is kinda cool…

  2. …also, swimming lessons should be relatively affordable. Never too late to learn. And it is amazingly pleasurable. Heck, ask Beth. She must be growing gills.

  3. I think the running community has the better system for "elite", based more on your ability to be competitive in that particular race. I'd hate to have to run Y races of size Z or larger to prove my fitness. Not to mention someone has to keep track of it all, which means I would be paying for the license.I don't mind asking and I pretty much assume if they have both "elite" runners and "invited" runners that I qualify for the elite (even in my current state of fitness).With that being said, ummm, anyone ever tell you that "elite" is something different than runners like you?

  4. My friend Ben sent me an email that is worth sharing. He writes:"Why settle for a fake when you can have the real deal! After reading about your predicament I decided to act. Attached is your brand new Elite Athlete License!!!"You may perceive a spelling error on the license, but that's just so I can spot the fakes that will inevitably pop up once this catches on…."After printing and carefully cutting to wallet dimensions, I'd recommend double, maybe even triple laminating. Obviously you'll want to carry it with you on every run so that you can be Elite everywhere."While you may be the first license holder, you certainly will not be the last. The really beautiful part of Elite Athlete licenses is that there are no performance criteria required to be an Elite Athlete!!! A slower runner would simply pay more. For instance, I would pay $2,973.13 for my elite license based on a complex formula involving speed, endurance, number of races, ambition, intelligence and beauty. You would have had a $9 discount if you had a better picture. (The formula is heavily weighted towards beauty, just like real life.)"So sally forth with your head held high and your Elite license in your shorts."Please send $19.95 check or cash, today. You know the address. I will also contribute $1 to a charity of your choice for every Elite Athlete license you sell on your blog."Ben's copyright-protected product can be seen here:http://www.running-blogs.com/crowther/images/2006/elite_00001.jpg

  5. I love the license, and you're even elite athlete #1! I agree with you about the completely confusing use of the word. That's part of the reason I wanted to move the blogs, because it annoyed me when anyone commented saying anything like, "…but you're an elite athlete…" I don't know what an elite athlete is (I have my own sense of it, but I wouldn't want to try to define it), but I know that it certainly involves running much faster than 38 for 10k. It would be an insult to elite athletes everywhere to call someone like me elite.NYRR uses the term "local competitive runner." I don't think that clears things up much, but it does distinguish between someone who might be a superstar in their corner of the world vs. someone who might qualify for elite status at a major road race.

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