October 3, 2006

Reminiscing on Glory of 'GUTS'

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Television has made our generation’s sports experience completely different from any other time in history. Sporting events are practically pumped into our arteries as we can now watch live football pretty much every night of the week or tune in to round the clock highlights on several different ESPN channels. But back in the day, before we cared about fantasy sports or possible suicide attempts, we only needed to look one place to satisfy our daily sports cravings. And that place was Nickelodeon, and the show was GUTS. Of course you remember.

Late Sunday night, after I had gotten my football fix for the weekend, I nostalgically turned to the Nick Games and Sports (GaS) network to rekindle an old flame and bask in the welcoming, yet intimidating, glow of the Aggro Crag — it was just as I had left it, a dormant volcano of excitement ready to explode at any minute. As soon as I heard Mike O’Malley (who later had an extremely successful career as ESPN’s “the Rick”) say, “Let’s go to Mo for the results,” it was like I had reopened the time capsule of my childhood and welcomed the comforts of a nearly forgotten friend. It was a place that felt overwhelmingly safe — if only because there were six spotters on each side and wrist guards were always mandatory.

Relying on the logic that if you take a regular sport and add bungee cords, zip lines or cargo nets it becomes extreme, GUTS continually stretched the limits of our sports perceptions and offered us innovative looks at our favorite pastimes. My personal favorite events had to be the ones that involved paddling through the fake rapids and avoiding buoys in the water. The kids were always so atrocious at that; it was definitely a make or break event. Or maybe I liked “Extreme Baseball” best, which was an obstacle course that had absolutely nothing to do with baseball except for O’Malley doing his best Joe Buck impersonation and providing nonsense commentary that related the arbitrary obstacles to ubiquitous baseball practices like stealing bases and taking HGH.

Each GUTS episode taught me a lot about life, especially concerning equal opportunity. It had to be the most unintentionally gender conscious sports competition ever invented. It found the perfect way to act out the battle of the sexes because using 12-year-olds meant that the girls had already gone through puberty while most the boys were still singing soprano. GUTS did as much for athletic gender equality as Billie Jean King. Gender ambiguity was also a major component, considering this was the era when the bull cut was the popular unisex haircut, so you couldn’t tell if “Kelly” wearing the emasculating purple was carrying a Y chromosome or not.

Because of this gender-based parity in GUTS, along with the diverse possible event choices, it was always impossible to predict who was going to win at the start of the show. Vegas would have gone insane setting the lines for this thing.

Either way, I was, as I’m sure most of you were, absolutely certain that I could have taken home the fake piece of the Crag. I used to scoff at every stumble and mishap on GUTS, convinced that I could have taken home a perfect score of 1,925 and pretty much walked my way up to the top of the medal stand. (Embarrassingly, I found myself thinking the exact same thing this weekend while critiquing one of the competitor’s technique, questioning their every decision and shaking my head at lack of hustle — yes, I am 22 years old). Of course, my appearance on the show never actually happened because I was unable to come up with an adequate nickname that would effectively strike fear in my opponents. Not many things rhyme with Blakemore.

Still, this competitive drive was empowering, I literally felt that GUTS would have been the place for me to showcase my pre-teen athletic prowess against debilitated competition that always refused to show some heart and dive through the Elastic Jungle. Can you imagine if we could still feel confident about challenging the athletes of similar age (Lebron James, Reggie Bush, etc.) we see on TV today? I doubt there is anyone at Cornell who is self-assured enough to say they could beat Lebron in one-on-one — even if you were using nerf balls with the assistance of a bungee cord.

The impression that GUTS left on our generation is still evident in the television we watch today. Aside from our infatuation with televised and other media applications of sports, it shows up elsewhere. Think about MTV’s The Gauntlet or Fresh Meat. Essentially, most of the extreme challenges they have on these shows are taken from the GUTS mold of tweaking regular athletic competition through the assistance of technology. However, MTV did realize that to satisfy our evolved (or maybe corrupted) tastes they needed to alter the show a bit with the addition of alcohol, sex and tons and tons of drama to the equation.

Unlike those shows, GUTS remained pure, and it changed my sports experience forever; it was a rite of passage, the athletic equivalent of Saved by the Bell. At the time my life long love of sports was really beginning to take shape, I was as much of fan of teal, red or purple as I was any other sports team. While SportsCenter and others have certainly taken over its place in the hierarchy of must-see sports TV, GUTS remains the predecessor of our generation’s fascination with the visual spectacle of athletics. Now or 10 years ago, every time they asked, “Do, do, do, do you have it?” we all gleamed with appreciation and emphatically responded, “Yes!”