Three years after the The Real World created modern reality TV, and about six weeks before the first competitive reality series, Road Rules, premiered, MTV aired premiered Eco-Challenge, a 90-minute special following an adventure race in Utah. Later that year, Outside magazine reported that “adventure racing has generated as much anger as mirth, thanks mainly to controversies surrounding its chief stateside promoter, a British expatriate named Mark Burnett.”
Burnett didn’t invent adventure racing, just as he didn’t invent Survivor‘s format. He just made it compelling television. Back then, the complaints were environmental and ethical, with one racer saying, “It’s too bad the guy has such questionable ethics, because it’s such a great sport.”
Burnett told the magazine, “I don’t care what anyone says about me, because it all blows over in six weeks. The adventure-racing genie is out of the bottle, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it now.”
It went strong for years, airing in various forms on ESPN, Discovery, and USA Network, but Eco-Challenge did stop, in 2002. What it gave birth to—outdoor adventure reality TV, competitive and otherwise—certainly did not, fueled by Survivor’s wild success in 2000.
Now, 17 years later, Eco-Challenge is back, rebranded for its Amazon debut as World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
This is reality TV at incredible scale—the start line has 66 boats with 264 contestants lined up along the shore of a river—and yet it manages to capture and follow individual human stories exceptionally well, producing uplifting and electrifying television along the way.
All 10 episodes are on Amazon now; I’ve seen the first three so far. From open wounds to projectile vomiting, it’s more graphic than I expected, but also far more engaging than what I expected from such a sprawling, not-quite-competitive race.
The course takes the teams through Fiji, where Survivor and other reality shows have filmed thanks to its generous tax rebate, but this is part of Fiji that Survivor rarely shows. It was filmed mostly on the island of Viti Levu, while Survivor uses the Mamanuca Islands, though it seems like Eco-Challenge may end its race somewhere in those islands.
The cinematography is gorgeous, whether a camera attached to a drone is sweeping through a canyon, or an embedded camera operator filming the faces of people attempting to traverse a dangerous, rapidly rising river. And, of course, there’s a sweeping score underneath.
The Fiji that Survivor presents is one without any human beings except the Americans playing a game on beautiful, empty beaches. Eco-Challenge’s course and international teams move through populated areas, and the show doesn’t ignore the fact that people live there—people who are generous and encouraging and helpful, offering advice and assistance and conversation. One team rafting down a river gets advice and pays for assistance from a machete that turns their bamboo sticks into oars.
The Fijians are, of course, not the central focus, and seeing them, it’s hard to notice that the show has turned people’s communities and homes into a playground and television set. Their generosity softens that, as does the show’s focus, in episode three, on two Fijian teams who are racing and feel a sense of pride of representing their country, while also inspiring emotion in their fellow Fijians who they pass by.
Executive producer Lisa Hennessy told RealScreen that producers “went through 120 different remote villages on the island of Vanua Levu and we had to get permission from all the chiefs in order to go through these villages,” though the way she phrases it makes it sound like a burden: “We had a local team of people who went to each of the villages, meeting with the village chiefs, having a kava ceremony to make sure that they would welcome us to their land, their village. That takes time.”
With 66 teams of four, that’s 264 cast members, or roughly 14 seasons of Survivor. And if you count the fifth team member, a support person who meets the team at periodic checkpoints, that’s 330 people to follow, or 18 seasons of Survivor.
That’s an impossible amount of people to follow over 10 episodes, but the editing does a good job of focusing our attention. It introduces some teams and individuals without showing us much of their racing, while other teams—especially those that struggle—get more attention and a narrative arc in each episode.
Among the teams is the first African-American team to ever compete in Eco-Challenge, Team Onyx. (Yes, there’s never been a team of all Black people before, which tells you something about this sport.) One of Team Onyx’s members, Corree Aussem-Woltering, says, “Our team captain Clifton [Lyles], his goal was to basically put together a team of black explorers, and just really try to diversify the sport a little bit. I also kind of want to be a role model for other children of color, and LGBTQ community, and go out and show them: Hey, there are other people out there like you doing events like this.”
Corree later tells us that he brought a different speedo for every day of the race. “What would not make someone smile other than some random black dude running around in the woods in a speedo?” he laughs.
Significant attention is given to why, exactly, teams are doing this, and their reasons are varied. “I also love the thought of losing track of time and space,” says Veronica Bravo, a member of Team Costa Rica. “And that can only happen through adventure racing.”
Also racing are a veteran who lost her hearing while serving in the military, Gretchen Evans, and Mark Macy, a former Eco-Challenge racer who competed in the last race, which also took place in Fiji in 2002.
Macy was going to reunite with his old team—and hearing from one of those members of Team Stray Dogs is one of the many surprisingly emotional moments that crop up early on—but a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease meant Macy couldn’t do that. Now he’s racing with his son, Travis Macy, and while he struggles to zip his jacket or eat, but can dart up a mountain trail faster than the rest of his team.
While stories like this fuel Eco-Challenge, they don’t seem tacked on, like the stories packaged into bios that introduce contestants on America’s Got Talent or American Ninja Warrior. Here, contestants’ backgrounds emerge as we watch them, not the other way around.
Early on, at least, the actual race part fades away almost immediately. It’s almost beside the point, and team placements seem relatively useless. A team goes from 58th to 47th, and it seems like an impressive recovery yet it’s hard to imagine what a standing of 47th in the first day or two means.
There is very quickly a division between elite teams and amateur teams, which makes for an interesting race. There are people who’re Eco-Challenge veterans, and people who have no chance of winning but are doing it anyway. By the second episode, teams are spread out over 100 kilometers.
There is, however, a cut-off time after three days, and by episode two, teams are dropping out. A tropical storm puts people in danger, and the race is even stopped. In that moment and others, the show breaks the fourth wall seamlessly; the logistics of putting on the race and supporting the teams are, after all, a key part of the race.
Not a key part of the race: a host. Yet now we have one anyway: Bear Grylls.
Bear Grylls is here to perform and grandstand in slow motion, to make us pay attention to him before he grabs us and shakes us and make sure we know how tough it is. “No matter what, all of them are going to suffer,” he says in his opening narration. “This is the world’s toughest race.”
At least those sentences make sense. Far too much of his narration bounds between imperious declarations and nonsensical babble. He tells us teams have had “almost no sleep and even fewer calories,” and at the start line, puts together this metaphor: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy. The enemy here is the wild, the terrain, the river, and each other—and also those nerves that make you shaky.” So, literally everything then? What about unnecessary hosts?
I’m completely over hosts who pretend that they’re running the production, and Grylls does that here, taking us to the race’s headquarters—where there’s a team of people monitoring all aspects of the race, and somehow doing that without the benefit of slow motion or rides on the sides of helicopters— and says, “I’m able to closely monitor the race course, the weather conditions, as well as the position of all 66 teams.” He also wanders up to teams, backpack on, like he’s right there with them.
Bear Grylls’ hosting is like the show’s new title: unnecessary and unnecessarily expository. (I’ve already seen references to the new season calling the show only “World’s Toughest Race,” which separates it from its history and legacy.) His insistence on explaining what we’re seeing is grating because The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji has already done an excellent job of illustrating this for us.
Teams experiences are everything from treacherous to humorous, and the editing really makes us feel like we’re with them, even as we’re bounding from team to team. And it finds terrific moments that connect us instantly to the people who’ve chosen to spend 11 days with little sleep and food traversing beautiful and dangerous terrain.
“I’m too old,” Emma Roca, the captain of Team Summit, says while checking in. Later, in an interview, she says, “No more races. Adventure racing is too hard. I have three kids, I am finishing my PhD in biochemistry, I have three businesses, I am a professional firefighter. Don’t put me in such stuff!”
Yet there she is, racing for 11 days. “But then you realize: Why not?” she adds. “It’s life, and you have to roll like this.”