Is Camaraderie Slowing Down Competition?

Kevin Helliker, senior sports editor for The Wall Street Journal, argues that young runners have lost the competitive spirit in running, making them the "slowest generation." He tells host Arun Rath that many young people value camaraderie more than finish times, and some competitions, like the "Tough Mudder" race, explicitly avoid the focus on finish times.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Tom Brokaw famously described the generation of Americans that fought in World War II as the greatest generation. Well, in the estimation of Kevin Helliker, this current cup of 20-somethings might be called the slowest generation.

Helliker is the senior sports editor at The Wall Street Journal, and he wrote in that paper that young Americans simply aren't competing at the highest level in major competitive running events. He says young people these days are less interested in finished times and more interested in having fun. Kevin Helliker joins us from NPR New York. Thanks for joining us.

KEVIN HELLIKER: Thanks, Arun.

RATH: So where did you get the idea for this story about Americans slowing down?

HELLIKER: After a couple of years off of triathlon, I went to Chicago last month to do the sprint distance at the Chicago triathlon with the express goal of beating Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff for President Obama, who had kind of made a big deal the last couple of years about finishing high in the 50- to 54-year-old age group. He didn't run this year, but I was super excited about beating his best time in that event.

And I mentioned it to my son, I said: Gee, I - Luke, I finished in the top 15 percent of the 50- to 54-year-old men. And he said: Way to go, Dad. But how'd you finish overall? And I was really kind of scared to look, but I was shocked when I did to realize that I actually finished higher than overall. I finished in the top 11 percent.

RATH: So as a group, the 50- to 54-year-olds did better than most of the younger people that were in the race.

HELLIKER: The 50- to 54-year-old men did better than the field overall. Now, let me say that if you have any concerns that the millennial generation is apathetic, I'd recommend calling them slow.

(LAUGHTER)

HELLIKER: I have heard from I think all of them in the past week.

RATH: Sounds like - am I hearing you right - some angry reaction from 20-somethings who didn't appreciate you pointing out the fact that they are slower?

HELLIKER: Absolutely. And I said in the piece that, of course, there are super fast 20-somethings in America. And I guarantee I've heard from every one of them. What I was surprised by was the enormous number of emails I received from young people who said, you're right. We're not particularly competitive and your generation is why. Baby boomers and their ruthless competitiveness ruined this country. And we are out there to support each other, and your generation showed us the downside of competitiveness.

RATH: And I don't want to take it too far, but I noticed things, like, my son did his first science fair recently just in - in grade school, but everybody gets a ribbon now.

HELLIKER: Well, I heard from a cross country coach, who requested anonymity because he - for obvious reasons, but he said that in his school district now, everybody gets a medal for finishing and that - he says, I have some students who are super competitive and who try hard. But he said, I have heard from more than one of them: Why should I try harder? I'm going to get a medal no matter what.

But I also heard from those who were pointing their finger at my generation that your generation is the one that told us we're special, we're great and that gave us a medal for everything that we did. And let's face it, if they're raised that way, that's not their fault.

RATH: That's Kevin Helliker. He's a senior sports editor for The Wall Street Journal. Kevin, thank you so much.

HELLIKER: Thank you, Arun.

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