Man v. Beast Redux, Ad Nauseum

Posted by Aaron Taylor on

This Sunday, if you aren't prepping for Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks by re-watching the episodes from last week, you can witness the ultimate spectacle on the Discovery Channel at 8 pm: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps will be "racing" against a great white shark in South Africa. As absurd as it sounds (or is?) testing man's prowess against an animal obviously much more suited to a particular physical action has long been a fascination of humankind. (Remember that awful nonsense show Man v. Beast on network TV somewhere around 2003? Not to mention gladiators, circuses, sideshows and innumerable other historic methods of pitting humans and critters.)

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these athletic exercises in futility have involved trying to outrun our favorite quadruped, the horse. Jesse Owens is perhaps the most notable such example. The epic sprinter showed everyone (including Hitler) who was boss at the 1936 Olympics when he won a load of gold medals in track and field. Despite that success and a legacy as one of the greatest North American athletes of all time, Jesse hit financial trouble and agreed to a series of publicity stunt sprints, including several versus mediocre Thoroughbreds. He would win at times, mostly because (by design) the sound of the starting gun would send the equine racer into a few seconds of panic during which Owens could get a head start. Luckily, Jesse eventually landed a job at Ford Motor Company and could discontinue this activity.

What spurs the fascination with testing human performance against animals with much better adaptations? Is it simply a need to show that we're in control and at the top of the food chain no matter what? And don't weapons generally serve to enforce that superiority without much further discussion? What are your thoughts?

For more silliness on man v. beast: The Guardian has a piece the subject, including a recap of bad tv moments and an account of a South African rugby player attempting to outpace a cheetah. Horsenetwork also put together a slideshow of clips showing people attempting to outrun horses. One of them is called "Drunken Idiot vs. The Field." Enough said.

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