Is American Ninja Warrior Too Focused on Adversity?

Producers focus more on backstories than the athletic competition.

What is Ninja Warrior?

I have been a fan of Ninja Warrior since before it was brought to the U.S. Japan started it as Sasuke and has run 36 “seasons.” I put that in quotes because the way they run it in Japan is one 3 to 5-hour special where 100 participants run the entirety of the competition (4 stages) in one long episode, versus the American version, where each season is broken up into city qualifiers, city finals, and national finals. ANW was originally aired on G4 and now airs on NBC in the U.S.

American athletes had participated in the Japanese version and the U.S. started airing ninja competitions and sending the winners to the formal Sasuke competition from 2006–2011. Since the fourth season, ANW has the entire competition in the U.S. with the finals in Las Vegas.

Sasuke has been spun off into international competitions in many countries, including the U.S., India, Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, United Kingdom, Bahrain, China, Indonesia, Russia and Vietnam, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, and Australia.

One of the things I love most about Ninja Warrior is that if no one finishes the final stage, there is no winner. There is no participation award. If you conquer Mount Midoriyama, you get the 1 million dollars. If not, see you next year. In the Japanese ninja warrior, total victory has been achieved 10 times by seven people — in 36 competitions. In the American version, there has been just one winner in 10 seasons (season 11 airing now).

Isaac Caldiero won in 2015, though he was one of two to actually complete all of the course, he won by beating competitor Geoff Britten by just over 3.5 seconds (it’s a controversial win, as Britten completed it first and was the first-ever American to do it; he and many fans believe he should have won.). These are the only two competitors in ANW to ever have completed the entire course since the show debuted in 2009 in the U.S.

The number of competitors has changed with time, starting at 100 total and now producers select 100 contestants from the thousands of applicants to participate in each regional qualifier plus 20 to 30 walk-ons who wait in line outside a course in each city to compete. Contestants must be at least 19 years old, legal U.S. residents, in good physical shape, and are required to fill out a 20-page questionnaire and make a 2–8 minute video about themselves.

Focusing on Adversity

In the original Japanese ninja warrior, the focus was entirely on the competition. In the many spin-offs and especially in the American version, the focus has shifted over time to the stories behind the athletes.

Some viewers have complained that the focus has shifted too much onto the backstories and less on the competition itself. Over the years, the backstories have gotten longer and the main feature has become the adversity and obstacles competitors have overcome while showing less of the actual runs of the course. There are a couple of minutes of screen time devoted to each backstory and after each commercial break, just a 5-to-10-second recap of three competitors who ran over the break.

According to Reality Blurred reporter Andy Dehnart, “Of the roughly 125 people who go through the course on a single night, more than half of those runs will be [commentated on live by hosts Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Matt Iseman.] ‘Akbar and I will call 60 to 80 of those runs, knowing you’ll see maybe 13 on camera,’ Iseman said.”

Reportedly, one of the application questions for Australian NW was “Have you overcome any life adversities?” and the American version asks a lot of personal and background questions with an entire section of the application called “Your Story.”

There have been some amazing stories on ANW.

Kenny Neimitalo raised awareness for kidney donation and one of the ANW viewers actually donated a kidney to Neimitalo’s daughter Hazel after seeing his story on the show. Since then, Neimitalo has brought attention to other kids on the donation list when he competes.

Michael Stranger’s wife was diagnosed with a rare and terminal genetic disorder and he needed to be more fit and strong to care for her, so he made ANW his goal for fitness and dedicated his run to his wife.

David Alvarez brought his story to season 11, trying to get exposure to find his little sister Wallyssa, who was put in the foster care system when he was 13 and she was 2 years old. As of now, she has not been found, but Alvarez hopes his time on ANW gets his story out and his sister is found.

For women, inspiration abounds from competitors like Kacy Catanzaro, who became is a global female inspiration in 2014 when she became the first woman ever to complete the 14ft warped wall and hit a buzzer in qualifiers and Jessie Graff, a stuntwoman who made history in the summer of 2016 when she became the first woman to complete Stage 1 in Las Vegas.

Contestants have had stories about homelessness, overcoming devastating injuries, losing parents or children, having kids with special needs, and personal health issues.

Is it too much?

One complaint from viewers is that the focus on overcoming obstacles and adversity makes competitors into mascots.

ANW is a reality show. It is an athletic competition, but it is first and foremost a reality show. NBC wants you to tune in to see the obstacle course, sure, but mostly they want you to feel an emotional connection to the contestants. That is what most formulaic reality shows do. They introduce you to people in the hopes that you’ll want to continue watching them.

This season, season 11 of ANW, has introduced us to 20-year-old Brian Burk, known as The Burkinator. Burk came on as a rookie this year, is an Aerospace Engineering student, and he has autism. Burk came in ninth with the time of 03:58.38 and advanced to the city finals.

In the Los Angeles city qualifiers, Burk’s video backstory focused on his autism and how finding ninja training two and a half years ago has helped him. His obvious enthusiasm and love for the course made fans fall in love and his story has been an inspiration for autistic kids and parents all over the world.

In the LA city finals, Burk’s backstory video was longer, showing more of his mother and her emotions in regard to her son’s autism and ninja training. In the finals, Burk fell on Leap of Faith but his time was good enough to advance him onto the national finals.

During qualifying, I felt inspired and emotional during his backstory, and so did viewers. There has been an outpouring of support on social media for the Burkinator.

However, during his second run, in the LA city finals, I couldn’t stop thinking: “Is focusing on his autism a second time so in-depth helping him or to his detriment?”

Yes, he is an inspiration to people everywhere, those with autism and those without. He is an obviously bright, fit guy with a happy, positive personality and great enthusiasm. He is raising awareness for autism globally with his appearance on ANW.

But as with any disorder or health issue, autism is not Brian Burk’s only or defining characteristic. It’s part of who he is but not anywhere near all of who he is. But that is the choice ANW producers made.

Burk will forever be known as the autistic ANW competitor. Not as one of the only LA city qualifying finishers or only as the incredible athlete he clearly is. He will carry the label forward.

By focusing on only the obstacles or adversity of each contestant, is ANW making it too much about the adversity and not enough about the actual challenging obstacles in front of them?

I am left wondering if putting so much focus on the sad things or obstacles the contestants have overcome in life is simply taking away from focusing on the athleticism and strength of the individual competitors.

I enjoy seeing the backstories for the most part, but are they just too much overall? And to the potential detriment of the competitors?

What are your thoughts?

Entrepreneur, writer, editor, book coach, cat lover, weirdo, optimist. Author of “Write. Get Paid. Repeat.” & “Concept to Conclusion.”

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