I fell in love my Senior year of college. And no, I’m not talking about the cute freshman from my abnormal psych class that accidentally stood me up on a date because she took too many ‘shrooms, started tripping and forgot where we were supposed to meet up. Sorry Kate. I’m actually talking about a weird little Japanese show on G4 called Ninja Warrior.
Ninja Warrior is one of those things that is uniquely Japanese. It’s basically boils down to an insanely difficult obstacle course, composed of four stages. Each stage is made up of a variety of obstacles, and to advance you have to successfully clear all the obstacles in an extremely limited amount of time (with the exception of the third stage which is untimed, but but it’s so insanely difficult that it’d be impossible if it was). Each competition starts with 100 competitors and the competition continues until either A) all 100 competitors are eliminated, or B) someone successfully completes every obstacle. In 27 competitions, there’s only been four successful completions of the course recorded by three men. That’s right, there’s a 99.85% failure rate. Oh, making things even more difficult, is that anytime someone successfully clears the entire course, the entire thing is redone and made to be even harder.
For those of you who are uninitiated, here are two of the four victory runs. Keep in mind that the current course is now exponentially more difficult than even the last video shows:
Second Ninja Warrior Makoto Nagano’s Victory:
Third Ninja Warrior Yuuji Urushihar’s Second Victory (Stages 3 & 4 Only):
I know. It’s crazy, right? Given the insane feats of strength and intense training required, the cost of traveling back and forth from Japan twice a year for competitions and the sheer difficulty of winning, you’d think that the prize for winning would have to be similarly ridiculous, right? I mean, look at that. They have to climb 75 feet straight up in under 30 seconds and that’s after finishing three other stages that require almost superhuman strength. That’s gotta worth at least a million, right? Maybe more? Nope. $40,000. And that was after it was bumped up from $20,000. While that’s still a good chunk of change, once you factor in the time these guys put into training and the cost of travel, they are still barely breaking even.
If you’ve ever watched a tournament, you know how much the serious competitors put into winning. The first man to ever achieve “total victory”, a crab fisherman named Kazuhiko Akiyama, continued to compete despite a degenerative condition that slowly stole his eye sight, rendering him effectively blind. After winning it all in the fourth ever competition, he only managed to pass the first stage four more times. You’ll see the competitors tiny apartments or backyards filled with various hand made versions of obstacles for them to practice on around the clock. You’ll frequently see a poor, under-attended-to spouse holding a newborn child standing on the sidelines watching their husband fail and fall head-first into the murky mud underneath the course. Hell, there was even a long-time competitor nicknamed “Mr. Ninja Warrior” who, after losing this job, did nothing but train for the competition which alienated his wife and children. He hasn’t passed the first stage in nearly a decade.
So then why do they do it? Pride. Honor. They do it for these intangible constructs that, to them, mean more than financial prize. They do it so they can be among the extreme few that can look at something that is by all reasonable estimates impossible and say, “yeah, I did that”. And while the financial reward for their feats doesn’t even begin to come close to what they’ve put into it, somehow a college student living half-way across the planet in Cleveland Ohio knows their name and that they were able to do something that 2,697 other men have failed at. That’s why they train everyday. That’s why they ignore their family, their job and everything else in their lives. It’s that competitive drive and the pride that comes from accomplishing the impossible and being forever known for being the man that was able to do the unthinkable.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen think that NBA players should be compensated to participate in the summer Olympics. These men, millionaires multiple times over, believe that they should be compensated to represent their country in the longest-running, most prestigious international competition in history because it comes shortly after the NBA season wraps up. They should be compensated because they’re tired and obviously money changes that completely. While there’s plenty of athletes that toil in obscurity that would jump at the chance to etch their name forever in history as an Olympic champion, hell, to even compete at that level, Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen are too tired. Unless of course, there’s a paycheck in it for them.
Then it’s different. Obviously.