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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Fast makes me Furious

In the recent 70.3 world championships Tim O'Donnell, who was unbeaten at the distance this season up to this point, was given a 4 minute or so time penalty. He took it well, as all great athletes do, but ended up some 4 minutes back of the winning time & losing out on some significant income. In the women's pro race the lead bunch of men caught up to the lead women & most of that pack tagged along for a ride that turned out to be the fastest ever for women. Need I say more?

Years ago race walking reached an impasse that almost led to the demise of the sport. The technique of the top athletes had developed to such an extent that the naked eye could no longer determine if the athletes were actually competing according to the rules of the sport & the clause "apparent to the naked eye" was introduced into the rules.This meant that the athletes could now "cheat", which would be visible in slow motion video, but not to the eye of the officials.

Similarly, after much fighting about "true" triathlon, which implies that the ride is a non-drafting event & no rider may slipstream behind another rider & so gain as much as a 30% advantage in doing so, the Olympic movement decided that the Olympic triathlon event would be draft legal & a criterium style ride was instituted. There are various reasons for this, some of which may be that the event became more exciting from a spectator standpoint & much less controversial in the application of the drafting rules which have changed somewhat over the years.

Non-draft racing makes sense for the masses of age groupers because it is much safer. Though I still believe that a draft legal event should be offered to suitably qualified age-groupers. This would help the Olympic sport immeasurably. However the issue of policing the pros has become a major bone of contention over the years, as so often a good swimmer will see their hard earned position rapidly evaporate as a pack of poorer swimmers "work" together & catch the lone swimmer on the bike. So too the less effective biker may "sit in" & do less work on the bike & be able to have fresher legs for a superior run.

Most of my work is with the Olympic style of racing, where tactics, team tactics, superior bike handling skills & crit-style cycling smarts can make or break an athletes performance. My own competitive years were spent racing triathlon as the proverbial "race of truth", as the time trial on the bike has been called - a wholly solo affair. I therefore have no opinion either way as to which may be "better" or purer, each sport is unique, but where I am really biased is in the disadvantage experienced by the honest racer.

If the margin is so slim & the field so full that effective, fair, across the board draft officiating becomes impossible, as definitely seems to be the case in the pro sport of half & full Ironman races & the big money non-draft Olympic distance races, then the good name of the sport is falling into disrepute & becoming something of a farce.

I am close enough to many of these professional triathletes to know that a lot of money (relatively speaking) is at stake here. These athletes earn a meagre living relative to their stature, expertise, hard work & talent when compared to sports like football, baseball, basketball & hockey - even track & field & road running. There are not that many opportunities either - how many of these gruelling races can an athlete do at the very highest level in the course of a career? The sport has so many variables & a myriad things can go wrong on the day & dash months of careful planning & masses of hard work, without the spectre of either (unfair) disqualification or being beaten by a cheat being added to the mix.

I know that race directors & many influential individuals in the sport care, but what needs to be done is a review of each event to determine the number of participants that the specific course can handle & still be fairly marshaled. Clearly this is often NOT the case - it is hard enough to be a pro triathlete & have to decide, "Should I go with this pack as my competitors are doing, or should I play by the rules & end up with a position inferior to my true ability?"

Of all the non-pro athletes I spoke to who ran in the New York Marathon this year - the biggest marathon ever, the complaint was the same - "a magnificent experience, but I could never really run freely & ended up with a time between 10 & 40 minutes slower than I was capable of". The race was too crowded for a runner to actually run to ability.

In this case my advice is, "you have to run the great races, have an adventure & don't expect a great time, unless you get seeded in such a way as to be able to have an open run. If you want to run a PR, choose a smaller, less crowded event." But in the case of the pro triathletes, what are they to do?

My point? I dunno... maybe a cry to those in power to think of the long term health of the sport & find a way to have the best athletes win cleanly, whether that be in draft legal or non-draft races. I do NOT think that either type of event should consider changing to a different format, but clearly the policing & the problem MUST be reviewed & addressed - the current system is NOT working!

Bobby McGee


  1. good to hear an opinion on this ever popular topic.

    i was in the mens pro race in clearwater and experienced exactly what you have described here.

    Clearwater as Matty Reid put it so well.."is not the true test for swim, bike, run"

    The cycling roads are too narrow at times, and generally too flat to break up 30 men who come out of the water within 45seconds.

    The problem is only going to get worse as the sport gains more depth. It is a paradox really; as the sport gains popularity it may lead to its demise.

    A lot of thought by the WTC needs to go into this topic, and soon!

  2. Is there a lobby for this? It'd be terrible if it was having such a negative impact & the powers that be are just sticking their heads in the sand about it!

  3. I retweeted this article that suggested ideas for fixing tri drafting issues. Some interesting ideas!

    Interesting ideas RT @michaelhutto good suggestions for fixing IM drafting problems @pmccrann

  4. Jay Prashun wrote a nice article in Jan 2010 Triathlete magazine. "Pro women battle drafting rules". This addresses the age group men being a help. But it seems slowly it is being addressed. It will HAVE TO BE, it will "save" the sport; we cannot have a scenario like swimming & the suit damage our credibility.