In touch with the Zeitgeist?

by John Quiggin on March 25, 2012

At around 35k into the cycle leg of today’s Mooloolaba triathlon, with a strong headwind[1] and the seat feeling very hard, I was wondering “why am I doing this”. At the time, the question was more like “why did I get out of bed this morning”, but there’s also a question as to why a middle-aged academic like myself is doing something like this at all.

My own causal account is pretty simple. I gave up my old sport, karate, for a variety of reasons, then started “boot camp” style training (minus silly uniforms and other pseudo-military stuff). to keep fit. As a consequence, I found that, whereas the distance I could comfortably run had been measured in 100s of metres, it was now measured in kilometers. But I still wasn’t particularly fast and my reasoning (captured by a T-shirt I saw today) was, “why suck at one sport when you can suck at three”. And indeed, so it has turned out, but I still enjoy it and keep trying.

So, that’s the purposive agent account. But (while I was not consciously aware of this at the time) triathlons are booming and not just in Australia. So, it seems, there is some general zeitgeist which I (and thousands of others) have somehow been driven by. This is not a unique occurrence

An alternative hypothesis, at least in some cases, is that there is no zeitgeist, merely a tendency to pay more attention to social phenomena that resonate with our own experience. In my early days of fatherhood, I acquired a sudden, and shortlived interest in babies generally. Grandfatherhood hasn’t the same effect, possibly because my grandson is so much cuter than any other possible baby (or, now, toddler).

For those interested, I finished in 3:16:12, shaving three minutes of my time for last year, but, as usual, well to the back of the field (2335/2667).

fn1. Headwinds on the return cycle leg constitute an officially recognised Excuse for slow performance, along with currents, heat etc. By contrast, my PB time on the outward cycle leg is down to grit, determination and all-round athleticisim




Mijnheer 03.25.12 at 6:24 pm

Mooloolaba — great place to visit, excellent beach for anyone who’s not keen on strenuous activity. Keep an eye out for sharks.


engels 03.25.12 at 6:55 pm

Middle-aged academics make their own keep fit programmes, but they do not do so just as they please, they do not do so under circumstances of their own choosing…

Congratulations on the faster time!


Heide 03.25.12 at 8:10 pm

I haven’t attempted a triathlon since I was a grad student. Maybe it’s time to try again….


bos 03.25.12 at 8:26 pm

The growth of triathlon could well be rooted in a pre-2007 zeitgeist. The fourth discipline in triathlon is shopping. While there are some who go round on old bikes and tatty running shorts, the growth may have more more to do with the ability to spend large amounts of money on things like carbon fibre bottle cages. Triathlon grew in a time when money was cheap and egos insisted on being dressed in lycra.


PlutoniumKun 03.25.12 at 8:36 pm

One easy way to check the popularity of a sport like that is to simply ask in local bike shops what is selling at the moment. 15 years ago it was all mountain bikes. Triathlon led to a major boom in overpriced aero bikes (which are utterly useless to any but the very best, as you need to be able to maintain very high speeds to get any aero benefits). From what I know of the trade, in the US and Europe the sale of Triathlon bikes peaked several years ago. The major boom now is in expensive distance road bikes, beloved of the mamils (middle aged men in lycra), who are all into cyclesportifs, Grand Fondo’s and charity rides now.

The advantage of distance non-competitive rides over triathlons is that it is entirely respectable to stop for a coffee or a beer in the middle of one, which makes then one of the most civilized ways to stay fit and healthy.


Charlie 03.25.12 at 10:07 pm

To do with increased spending power? Not really. People have been buying fancy goods for a long, long time. What’s new with the triathlon is the format, or the rules: according to Wikipedia, the triathlon was put together in California in the 1970s. The cycling bit departs from UCI rules, apparently. People get bored, and they come up with new stuff. Sometimes it catches on.


William Timberman 03.25.12 at 10:27 pm

Danglyparts and triathlons: the mortality twins? I’m from an older generation, I guess. I’m no more a fan of strenuous exercise than I am of Big Macs or chip butties. I drink and I smoke (although like Clinton, I don’t inhale,) and otherwise I vegetate, yet somehow, I’ve lived longer than I ever thought was in the cards for me.

Which reminds me of a visit from a British friend during the height of the early Eighties Jim-Fixx-running-and-jogging craze. Arising early, he’d made himself a cup of tea, and gone out on the front stoop to drink it, and to light his first cigarette of the day. When I arrived in the kitchen an hour later, he asked me: Who are all these idiots dashing through the streets with the Angel of Death in hot pursuit?

It’s a local thing, I said, like the beer you call that poxy American fizz. Stay here long enough, and I swear to you, even you will become accustomed.


tomslee 03.26.12 at 12:14 am

Google ngrams suggests zeitgeist.


Tom Hurka 03.26.12 at 11:29 am

It sounds like a common progression: a new sport or fitness activity comes along that doesn’t require expensive equipment — that’s what they said about cross-country vs. downhill skiing in the 70s — but eventually the new sport gets commercialized and becomes the occasion for buying expensive gear. If you keep ahead of the successive waves I guess you can keep exercising in ratty shorts and scuffed sneakers.


Tim Wilkinson 03.26.12 at 1:54 pm

Charlie @6: People…come up with new stuff. Sometimes it catches on.

Which btw pretty neatly encapsulates the general form of ‘memetic’ explanation, except that it mentions one obvious disanalogy with genetic evolution, which is that the ‘mutation’ process is a matter of design and can be saltatory without limit (the selection process too is a matter of conscious decision to some extent).

Another related disanalogy being that in many cases of things described as ‘memes’, there is no unit of selection distinct from the meme itself. This means that the theory (as opposed to individual concrete hypotheses; the theory must be treated as nominalistic) is even more obviously trivial – non-explanatory – than that of genetic evolution: those memes that someone invents and allows to be communicated, and others choose to emulate, spread. (A bit like the way the forces of production mutate to resolve ‘contradictions’.)

The ‘zeitgeist’ business: general zeitgeist which I (and thousands of others) have somehow been driven by has obvious Hegelian resonances, or anyway suggests that the trend is seen as more fundamental, aetiologically ontologically or explanatorily speaking, than the individual instances of contagion that compose it. (In the case of the ‘plateau oil’ idea, this might be explained by that old Pragmatist idea of an objective or intersubjective given, or ‘reality’, on which we converge. Or to be more Piercean, an ultimate (possibly merely ideal) convergence on something that is therefore worthy of being called reality or ‘truth’*.

Anyway, multiple interdependent levels of explanation and none clearly more ontically fundamental than the others (though some may be more tractable, and observationally more compelling).

But then presumably cultural studies has had long enough to make some headway in mapping out this terrain.

(The general form of an explanandum: Why A rather than B? If A is triathlon, what is B? And Q: Why can cheetahs run at 60mph? A: What do you mean; rather than 80, or 40?)

* A bow there to that crowning glory of Theory, the quotational schema: just because p is ‘true’ doesn’t mean it is true. In fact as well as being an unjustified pose, it’s rather obviously a pointless inflate/deflate process. Truth is inaccessible or illusory, there’s only ‘truth’. But ‘truth’ is quite good enough in that case, isn’t it? Yes, it is good enough…but is it really good enough? Or maybe ‘truth’ is inaccessible too, and there’s only ” ‘truth’ “.


Jim Putnam 03.26.12 at 2:47 pm


The Winner! Easily the best use of multiple multi-syllabic words to express “Variety and cost of an activity increase as a sport becomes more popular.:


ajay 03.26.12 at 3:29 pm

The growth of triathlon could well be rooted in a pre-2007 zeitgeist.

I’m going to come out with a completely opposite economically-based explanation (because, as we all know, triathlons are simply part of the superstructure that is based on economic conditions).
Way Back When in the halcyon egalitarian days of the 1960s, people played egalitarian team sports like football with their workmates. In the dog-eat-dog 80s they played aggressive individual sports like squash and martial arts. Now that we realise that salaries haven’t moved in two decades and we are basically screwed economically, we turn to sports whose main feature is to demonstrate our ability to endure pain. Hence marathons, triathlons, Iron Man, body piercing, tattooing and listening to Coldplay.


ajay 03.26.12 at 3:37 pm

Alternative explanation! It’s all about credentialling and boasting rights. If JQ were to report that his departmental soccer team had beaten the Faculty of Science soccer team 4-1, that doesn’t mean anything at all to most people. It could be that both teams are essentially just a bunch of blokes who meet up for a kickabout one evening a week – or maybe they’re high-quality, dedicated amateur players who train hard and play high-quality football. We’ve no means of knowing. But a triathlon time is an objective measure of bragging rights – even better than a karate belt because not everyone knows what they mean, but everyone can imagine running a certain distance in a certain time.


Tedra Osell 03.26.12 at 8:57 pm

I do think that a lot of academics take up things like marathons, triathlon, etc because maybe there’s a kind of psychological benefit (or alternately, pre-existing mindset) to doing things that unfold slowly over time, if you’re someone whose work requires you to be able to tolerate that sort of thing. Maybe?


John Quiggin 03.26.12 at 9:50 pm

The expense aspect is overstated a bit I think. The cost of going to Mooloolaba (two nights accommodation in an out-of-town apartment, a couple of pasta dinners, registration, and driving cost) was more than the total I’ve spent on triathlon-specific gear since I started. (I’m not counting my bike, which I use a lot for recreational riding around town, but even if I did, it would be a small part of my total expenses). And I would have spent at least as much if I’d just gone for the weekend and done some touristy things instead.

@Tedra – that’s certainly true for me. Whenever my training calls for sprints, I just ignore it.


Ray 03.27.12 at 10:16 am

But a triathlon time is an objective measure of bragging rights – even better than a karate belt because not everyone knows what they mean, but everyone can imagine running a certain distance in a certain time.

A bit more difficult for people to imagine if you don’t tell them how long the triathlon was :)


ajay 03.27.12 at 10:21 am

Ray: I think (though I could be wrong) that triathlons are a standard length around the world. If not then my point is rather undermined.


ajay 03.27.12 at 10:22 am

I like my demonstration-of-pain-tolerance explanation better, mainly because I went for a run last night and am now suffering.


John Quiggin 03.27.12 at 10:41 am

The link gives the distances. Mooloolaba is an Olympic or ‘standard distance’ triathlon – 1.5km swim, 40k cycle and 10k run. In Australia, official competition also includes ‘sprint’ events (half standard) and long/ultra courses (aka Half and Full Ironman) which are 1.9/90/21.1 and 3.8/180/42.2 (derived I think from the origins of the sport in putting together three separate events in Hawaii).

There are also shorter local events which are held more regularly, commonly 500/20/5 or 400/15/4.

BTW, if I were to make the boast about the soccer team you could be confident I was lying. No soccer team with which I was associated, even as water boy, would stand a chance – I radiate clumsiness.


reason 03.27.12 at 4:00 pm

ajay @12 – great comment!

But my guess is it has to do with age.

When I was younger I played cricket and football (soccer). These were team games, and I went down the pub with my mates afterwards. When I started to get some committments, I concentrated on squash, which was over in an hour. Now that I the kids are more independent, and I’m more fragile – individual endurance sports make more sense. The other sports haven’t disappeared. They are all still there (except for squash, which seems to have disappeared for some reason – maybe economics as it was mostly organised in private facilities.)


Tim Wilkinson 03.27.12 at 9:32 pm

Which brings to mind the SIP I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre.


bos 03.28.12 at 8:00 am

I’m looking forward to the Garmin 910XT+Zeitgeist. In addition to the usual HR, pace, power functions, it will use GPS to measure the athlete’s positioning in relation to the zeitgeist. :)


ajay 03.28.12 at 11:10 am

Tying it in to the community colleges thread, the obvious answer to “why a middle-aged academic like myself is doing something like this at all” is that academics as a class feel compelled to do long, tedious, unpleasant things in their spare time without being paid to do them…

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