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Does The New Bear Grylls Show ‘World’s Toughest Race’ Live Up To Its Name?

“This is now officially the toughest, most extreme adventure race in human history. I do believe there is the potential that no one will finish this course. We really have set it that high.” Bear Grylls can apparently sell a show as well as he can fashion a wetsuit out of a dead seal. 

The former SAS serviceman-turned-excitable TV survivalist was, of course, talking to Red Bull about World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, Amazon’s revival of the torturous endurance competition which bounced around various networks from 1995 to 2002. 

Eco-Challenge: The Expedition Race eventually ended up being eclipsed by two far more tactical and dramatic adventure shows, The Amazing Race and Survivor, the latter ironically conceived by the same one-man reality TV powerhouse, Mark Burnett. Perhaps this explains why new host Grylls has been so keen to hype up the reboot’s element of danger. You don’t see anyone being airlifted to hospital with near-fatal blood poisoning on CBS.

The premise alone makes for exhausting reading, let alone watching: 66 teams from 30 different nations have 11 days to trek non-stop across 417 miles of treacherous Fijian terrain via mountain biking, canyoneering, whitewater rafting and pretty much every other extreme outdoor pursuit you can think of. Oh, and each of the five legs must be completed within a specified time, more than 15 minutes of shut eye is considered a luxury and asking for any form of outside assistance equals instant elimination. Furthermore, teams had to be fully proficient in everything from first aid to camel riding just to be considered for selection.  

But does this constant state of precariousness translate on screen? Well, thanks to the significant advances in technology since the last Eco-Challenge (also staged in Fiji), World’s Toughest Race can throw audiences into the thick of the action like never before. From the drones which hover above the stunning yet intimidating island landscape to the GoPros which capture every foot blister in graphic icky detail, producers have ensured that every bit of human suffering is on high definition view.

And there sure is plenty of suffering. Less than 24 hours after the race starts, one poor man in the midst of severe heat exhaustion is being literally dragged along by his teammates as they slip from pole position down to 57th. Later on, the entirety of Spain’s Team Summit are diagnosed with hypothermia, Estonia’s representatives get trapped in a canyon during a tropical storm which puts the whole contest on hold for several hours and an Irish competitor develops trench foot so severe it left him unable to walk unaided for a fortnight.

Watching such gluttons for punishment push themselves to their mental and physical limits can undoubtedly make for inspirational television. It would take a hard heart not to be moved by the sheer determination of Mark Macy, an Eco-Challenge veteran who’s transferred from his usual squad to compete with son Travis having recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Likewise, the hearing-impaired Gretchen and her band of fellow US military vets, the first ever all-African-American team to grace the competition and the sexagenarian crew proving that age ain’t nothing but a number. 

Sadly, World’s Toughest Challenge rarely makes for gripping TV, largely thanks to some poor editing choices which renders the competitive element obsolete. More than half of the 66 teams vying for the grand prize of $100,000 don’t get any screen time at all. Only a dozen are granted more than a minute – and that doesn’t include even the runners-up. And the winning team passing the finishing line, the first of 44 to do so, is essentially dismissed as an afterthought with two episodes to go.

Yes, that’s right. Two whole episodes. No other TV competition has embodied the old adage “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” so wholeheartedly. Grylls – whose role involves gung-ho narration, hanging out of helicopters and some well-meaning but ultimately pointless motivational speak at each checkpoint (“You’ve got this!”) – desperately tries to inject some tension into proceedings. But the damp squib of a finale still resembles bonus DVD footage more than a culmination of the thrill-seeking, nail-biting race promised.

Moreover, for a show that’s being distributed internationally, World’s Toughest Challenge is strangely Americanized in its focus. Although teams from India, Brazil and Down Under occasionally get a look-in, the majority of footage emerges from just a handful of the 22 crews flying the flag for Uncle Sam.  

You still have to admire the strength, courage and indomitable human spirit of everyone involved, of course. Not just the competitors, but the near-700 people who worked tirelessly to make sure everyone arrived back home in one piece. But their efforts are documented so poorly that by the time the final credits roll, the audience may feel like they’ve endured a grueling feat, too. 

Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D, The Guardian, Vinyl Me Please and Allmusic. 

Watch World’s Toughest Race on Amazon Prime

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