“Physical 100” — The Korean Reality Show That Will Make You Rethink Athleticism

Over the last few years, the Koreans have quietly pulled ahead of the United States media-wise, in concept and vigor. Between K-Pop bands topping our charts, feature film Parasite taking the Best Picture Oscar, and the phenomenon that was Squid Game, we never know what’s coming down the pipe.

Last month, Netflix dropped South Korea’s latest and most unusual reality contest called Physical 100. The idea is simple yet engrossing. One hundred of the top athletes in the country are gathered under one roof and compete in physical challenges, which eliminate half or more of the contestants after each conclusion. The goal is to find out whose body type and physical training has prepared them to be the nation’s ultimate athlete and outperform the others.

The competitors are of ages ranging from early 20s to late 40s, all sizes, male and female. Men compete against women and vice versa. Heavyweights against flyweights, Olympians against amateurs, and there are both team and individual components. There is no voting people off the show, a hardly mentionable cash prize, and no worse fate than not performing to the best of one’s ability.

The spectrum of physical talent covers special forces, military, crossfitters, fitness influencers, bodybuilders, dancers, powerlifters, martial artists, gymnasts, rock climbers, and Olympic athletes of various specialties. It’s a diverse field and each of the Physical 100 is represented by a plain white cast of their chiseled torso, which must be shattered in shame if they do not continue to the next round.

The feel of the show has a Squid Game energy, as many of the same Netflix voiceover talent is used for English dubbing (if you don’t prefer subtitles), and the scope of the games is broad and intense with that same supervillain, billionaire methodology. The interesting thing about the Korean show is the unbridled respect and encouragement that the participants lavish upon each other. There’s no smack talk or gamesmanship by American standards. They’re on site to compete and win or go home, not plug their Instagram or TikTok page.

They each fanboy/fangirl out over one another and marvel at their capabilities. The two standouts that the collective fawn for are renowned MMA fighter Choo Sung-hoon, dubbed “Sexyama”, and gold medal Olympian Yun Sung-bin. They are celebrities, battle-tested veterans, and the favorites to go far, if not win the entire competition. They’re also both physical specimens, especially Yun Sung-bin, who effortlessly shows off his 5+ ft vertical jump to the other competitors.

The challenges of Physical 100 are varied and unpredictable. Whether outlasting others while holding a 200-kilo boulder on one’s shoulders, moving a 2-ton wooden ship as a group, wrestling for medicine balls in the mud, or building a suspension bridge to move sandbags, the show will keep you guessing. This is the fun factor that beckons American TV for its own version.

Don’t we as a country deserve to see our overpaid and overpublicized athletes do the same? Sure, our version of the show could never afford LeBron James or Dwayne Johnson unless they show up pro bono and with their own insurance, but we could still have a deep roster.

Just to throw out a few names, Olympic icon Michael Phelps, MMA legend killer Julianna Pena, baller Zion Williamson, reality staple Johnny Bananas, bodybuilder Phil Heath, soccer player Megan Rapinoe, or a slew of roided-out fitness influencers like Liver King, and whomever the flavor of the month is, would all be great entertainment.

Most of Physical 100’s challenges are non-contact, so there’s a low risk of injury, and we could finally see who has “show muscles” and who has “go muscles.” Inevitably, the Americans would engage in verbal sparring, and that’s fine, but it’s hard to play by the usual reality TV rules when you either win or go home.

It’s the same principle that makes The Ultimate Fighter such a fantastic premise. Personalities and politicking be damned on Physical 100. Show up and perform, or smash your papier-mâché bust and take a slow walk home.

Whether we imitate it or not, it’s a fine show with a pure message to convey. Work hard, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and big muscles don’t always equal strength. Catch Physical 100 now on Netflix, and hopefully, we can get a second season soon.