The Underappreciated Appeal of America’s . . . Ninja Warriors
If we’re offering tributes to skilled competitors in reality show clashes, allow me to tout my gradual surrender to the inescapable appeal of American Ninja Warrior. You’ve probably clicked past it on NBC, watching spunky amateur athletes struggling past elaborate obstacle courses that look like backyard jungle gyms somehow mated with construction scaffolding and the gargantuan offspring took over a city street. Leaping, climbing, and hanging by their arms for minutes at a time, the aspiring “ninjas” are very gradually eliminated round by round and episode by episode, building up to a rarely-claimed million-dollar prize for completion of the most difficult course, in the finals. (The entire course is above pools or mats, so no one gets hurt too badly from a fall.) All along, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Matt Iseman provide play-by-play announcing and commentary with a level of enthusiasm that makes Dick Vitale sound like Ben Stein. (I had no idea until I looked it up that Iseman was a licensed physician, an honors graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and did a residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Colorado.)
My sons have become obsessive fans of American Ninja Warrior, regaling me with what happened last time and asking me to sort out whether Isaac Caldiero or Geoff Britten is better. I mostly stare and contemplate what kind of shoulder, arm, and finger muscles you must have to be able to literally hang by your fingertips for several minutes while shimmying along a hanging girder.
The kind of short biographical film that quickly gets insufferable in Olympics coverage — I know, I know, this athlete had a beloved relative die recently, he survived a car accident, his dog ran away, he lost a sock in the dryer, just get to the ski jump already — actually makes up a good bit of the bread-and-butter of ANW, and here it works. Almost all of the warriors have day jobs like emergency physicians, ranchers, school teachers, or rabbis-in-training, and the short films showcase their efforts to balance pursuing some non-athletic dream or career while training to be a “ninja” in gyms and backyards and playgrounds. Britten was a freelance television cameraman who worked Orioles and Nationals games. Caldiero was a busboy. These are not athletes who have spent their entire youth in the glare of the spotlight and enjoyed the perks of fame. There are some exceptional women athletes as well, and there are no lowered standards or tilted playing field; women compete on the same course as the men.
What stands out the most after watching a few episodes is that all of the competitors’ rivalries are friendly, there’s no trash-talking, and opponents cheer each other on — a level of sportsmanship and good character that is jarring if you’ve been watching NBA players jaw at each other, fights in the NHL, or listening to sports radio. This is what sports used to be before they turned into billion-dollar businesses.