I once thought it was inevitable that Orienteering USA (OUSA) would turn their gaze towards Adventure Racing (AR).

With past (and possibly present) budget shortfalls, no traction with developing a single membership option with local clubs, and new membership numbers flatten out, OUSA is on the hunt to redefine itself as the champion of American orienteering.

How will OUSA move forward in 2020 and beyond?

Their first challenge was stopping hemorrhaging money.

This led the OUSA Board of Directors to cut costs and raise rates.

Step one complete.

But this hasn’t solved the bigger problem: flat membership growth.

Since sport organizations live and die by how many members they have, OUSA needs a pool of athletes that would be interested in orienteering, but may not already be connected to an orienteering club (or OUSA itself).

Enter Adventure Racing: an endurance sport that at its core is based on orienteering.

It has everything OUSA could want to solve their membership woes — a devoted audience, growing popularity, and need for better standards — all things OUSA could leverage to its advantage.

However, is it the right move for OUSA?

Historical Advantage

To understand where OUSA could go to find new members, you have to know where it has been.

Unlike any of the competing Adventure Racing associations in the United States, Orienteering USA (formerly United States Orienteering Federation) has been around since the 1970’s, and can trace its roots back as far back as 1940’s.

In contrast, the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) was founded in 1998.

Granted that the sport of adventure racing has only been around since the 1990’s, the core discipline within AR — orienteering — has been organized and officiated by members of OUSA for almost 30 years before adventure racing even existed.

Because of this, many AR maps are obtained from OUSA club resources, many AR controls and punches come from OUSA club vendors, and many AR courses are set by OUSA club members.

If you were to ask any adventure race promoter about where they came from before adventure racing, you would find that a large number are historically connected to OUSA in one way or another.

In fact, every single adventure racing promoter in Northern Virginia — EX2 Adventures, Adrenaline Addicts Racing, Reckoneer, REV3 Adventures — are or were once members of the Quantico Orienteering Club (QOC); one of the largest orienteering clubs in the United States.

In many ways, OUSA is the grandfather of adventure racing.

And just like a grandfather, OUSA has the experience and resources to school the adventure racers in what real national organizations are capable of.

Because lets face it, adventure racing has a ton of growing to do before it will ever have its hands around true national control of the sport in the United States.

This means that the hard part of introducing OUSA to the adventure racing community has already taken place.

Cultural Disadvantage

It would appear that all OUSA would have to do is capitalize on the relationship it already has with adventure racers.

With its national presents, it could easily offer AR enthusiast a true national home.

OUSA could even leverage its existing benefits by lowering insurance rates, providing event resources (e.g. maps), and better officiating.

But not so fast!

OUSA has one problem that it cannot ignore: it’s culture.

The 500-pound Gorilla in OUSA’s room is that huge cultural obstacle that they put in their own way.

What is that obstacle?

It is their own membership-base — their own foot orienteering communities — irrational dislike for other orienteering disciplines.

Members throughout OUSA show minimal interest in mountain bike orienteering (MTBO), ski orienteering (SKIO), or canoe/kayak orienteering (CKO).

They seldom participate in night or Rogaine Orienteering with the same numbers that classic foot orienteering enjoys, and if you were to show a mainstream foot orienteer a ropes course, they would walk away in a huff saying, “That’s not orienteering!”

The truth that many in the orienteering community does not want to face is that their main demographic — the one that dominates classic foot orienteering — is an aging, single-disciplined, stubborn group of individuals that are not interested in sharing trails, time, or club resources with wacky, flash-in-the-pan, off-shoots disciplines like mountain bike orienteering, or those crazy adventure racers!

The whole reason organizations like USARA,NAARA, or ARC exist is due to the hostility some classic orienteers show to other orienteering disciplines.

As mentioned above, most adventure racers have had some experience with OUSA, or an OUSA club, at some point.

Unfortunately, not all these experience are positive with some adventure racers referring to classic foot orienteers as, “stuck-up”, “elitist”, “rude”, or “unfriendly”.

While this perspective comes from only polling a few dozen adventure racers (and admittedly represents only anecdotal evidence at best), it does not take away from the challenge OUSA has in winning over athletes that may not welcome their meddling in adventure racing.

This is especially true when compared to how long OUSA snubbed mountain bike and ski orienteering before it begrudgingly started to support their existence.

Now that SKIO are gaining popularity, OUSA is now starting to see how “other orienteering disciplines” can be a money maker for the organization.

Unfortunately, without a strong cultural change among its core members to embrace adventure racers as their own, OUSA will be met with suspicion at best, outright resistance at worst.

No one wants to be a member of an organization that does not support their interests.

Meet in the Middle

OUSA has the historical leverage, organizational fortitude, and national recognition to make adventure racing better.

All efforts to standardize and support adventure racing and racers has resulted in mediocre organizations that seem to be more focused on promoting their own championships over improving the sport.

OUSA could easily move into the adventure racing community and become a great alternative to smaller adventuring racing organizations.

It could even consider absorbing those AR organizations at some point to strengthen its position and reputation.

But whatever it does, it needs to walk softly, and drink from its own Camelbak for a while, before bumbling into embracing the complex world of adventure racing without getting its own house in order first.

Adventure racing is literally the wild, wild west of endurance sports.

And wild things don’t like boxes.

AR is a sport that attracts teams of wild people, not individuals, who enjoy racing mountain bikes and canoes/kayaks, and spending their free time trail running and orienteering (among other outdoor disciplines).

OUSA could do a lot of good within the adventure racing by supporting AR licenses that provide benefits such as discounts at sanctioned event, event insurance for promoters, standardized rules, better map development, and building youth interest.

However, if OUSA is to be successful, it needs to create an environment within its own clubs that adventure racers will see as inviting.

Without that environment, adventure racers will just move on to the next control – most likely on their mountain bikes!

How this helps you

Having separate tribes come together under a common ideal is good for the sport of orienteering.

If you’re for seeing OUSA make this kind of move, then you’re ahead of the game.

However, if you missed it, here is the fine print: The more an organization works to bring in different kinds of people, the better that organization’s cultural environment will become.

Adventure racers love to volunteer, they are very outdoors, and love challenges.

Just imagine the race directors, course designs, and map creators that OUSA could cultivate out of these new members!

In turn, OUSA could be a strong advocate for finally bridging the fractures that exist in current AR culture.

Who knows, maybe by 2020 we will see one national organization support ALL orienteering to include Foot-O, Trail-O, SKIO, MTBO, CKO, Rogaining, and even Adventure Racing!

All for “O” and One “O” for All.

Posted by Kyle Bondo

Kyle started Reckoneer with the simple mission of helping those who want to become race directors and learn the mechanics of outdoor recreation engineering. Kyle demystifies outdoor racing with over 20 years of endurance and outdoor industry business knowledge. Combined with his top-rated podcast Merchants of Dirt, dozens of articles, lessons, and infographics, Kyle has made Reckoneer the premier educator in outdoor event management. Build better races today!