Triathlon – Sport or Catwalk?

With the Commonwealth Games in full swing now, I’m reminded of the caplet relationship between sport and fashion. From a motivational perspective, the evolutionary origins of most sports are quite easy to explain, of course. Neo-Darwinian accounts of sport typically focus on the the survival advantages of physical fitness, which is kind of obvious, but also the signalling value of training  and public participation.

These latter aspects are associated more with reproductive success. Whether male or female, the need to actually signal fitness via a display of “healthy genes” is a universal human drive; this can be thought of as one of our hard-wired deep-rooted drivers (DVDs) of behaviour, the attractionDRD. Yet, other forms of behaviour also satiate this particular drive, fashion being one notable instance of this. From designer trainers to swimwear, sport has evolved an intimate connection to fashion all of its own. So, what is the exact relationship here and what key take-aways might there be for both sports and fashion marketing?

The best way to illustrate this deep connection is to pick an event, the triathlon being a particularly helpful example here. Triathlons are three-sport events that in many ways symbolise the epitome of human physical strength, typically combining events such as cycling, running and swimming. Historically, they are thought to have developed in France during the 1920s, slowly spreading around the globe as a recognised sporting event. Clearly, for athletes, they represent a very effective way of signalling. In terms of their place in popular consumption, however, the relationship with fashion proved crucial in establishing the triathlon as an amateur mass-participation event.

Although there were slightly early examples to be found (e.g. in San Diego in 1974), perhaps the most prominent triathlon in this story was the establishment of the Ironman Triathlon brand, holding its first event in Hawaii in 1977. This was a particularly gruelling challenge for competitors, involving a 112-mile cycle race, a 26-mile marathon and a 2.4-mile swim. I’m worn out just thinking about all that! From the outset though, the Ironman event was as much about fashion as it was about sport. The competitors trained for over six months to reach the peak of physical fitness, but they also consumed and displayed the very best equipment and sportswear with a number of designer brands jumping on the bandwagon. So, in addition to the trusty attractionDRD in operation, we can also see what I would argue is a closely-related driver involved in signalling for reproductive success; the display of clothing and fashion accessories as indicators of wealth and access to resources. Fashion is as old as the human species, with its use as a wealth and status signal being universal. Where these ‘costumes’ are used in a public consumption context, we might think of this – formally or informally – as a catwalkDRD. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we love to show off the latest designer goods and this is so true of the sports arena.

Ironman came at exactly the right moment in terms of its potential for mass consumer appeal is concerned, a fact that I am sure was not lost on brand-owners WTC (World Triathlon Corporation). At this point in time, consumers had embraced the jogging craze and the more enthusiastic participant would move on to the marathon craze, although it was not until 1981 that the London Marathon would appear to capitalise on this; some 11 years after New York. From a signalling point of view, however, jogging as a pastime has very limited signalling value, marathon running slightly more so. From a physical display point of view, satisfaction of the attractionDRD is limited; jogging doesn’t make you particularly fit, nor does the resultant physical shape do much for your sex appeal. Marathons score slightly better on this, but not much. Similarly, in terms of the catwalkDRD, jogging provides very few opportunities for fashion displays given, aside from perhaps a vest and pair of shorts, all a jogger actually needs is a cheap pair of trainers!

Jogging had become a mass craze and a very inexpensive one at that. For those wanting to display both physical prowess and fashion-consciousness, the Triathlon was the ideal opportunity to stand out from the crowd and a new consumption movement was born.  And of course right down to the choice of Hawaii as a launch location and the glamorous imagery used throughout the marketing campaign, WTC skilfully blended appeals to our two most profitable signalling drives, the attractionDRD and the catwalkDRD – an approach used by high-end sportswear brands to this day.

Categories: Motivation