Should Triathlon be in the Olympics?

The short answer is yes.  The long answer is that the impostor currently masquerading as triathlon in the Olympics needs to go.

I’ve got a pretty highly developed cynical sense (I know, you’ll all be shocked by that).  But there is a part of me–a surprisingly large part of me, if I’m honest–that still believes in the Olympic ideals.  That beyond all the doping scandals (brace yourself, people, they are coming), the political machinations to get the games, the political machinations to get your population behind the games, the political machinations to pay for the inevitable debt incurred by the host countries, the completely bogus patriotic claptrap. . .that beyond all this there is something in sports at this level of competition that can represent some of the best aspects of human striving and which can inspire us.  One of the most powerful aspects of the games for me is that it isn’t all about the medal counts or even the winners, but the spirit of fair competition.  That is why the sporting gestures in the games–like James swapping numbers with Pistorious–are so important (and arguably become more so as the political and commercial pressures on athletes to win become more all-consuming every year).  And why frat-boy behavior like that of Lochte, alternately strutting and sulking, is so obnoxious.

A big part of the Olympic ideal, its appeal to ordinary mortals like you and I, is that the sports exist as a purified, but still recognizable version of activities that real people, rather than the expensively maintained machines on display, could find themselves doing.  Few of us can afford a $15,000 track bike.  But in those places where kids are still able to/allowed to ride bikes, you can see them racing each other side-by-side.  We can’t run a sub-2:20 marathon, but we can go for long runs through parks, along rivers, through out neighbourhoods.  Even some of the stranger sports (trampolining, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics) capture elements of pure play that perhaps only appear strange to us because we lost touch with them when we became adults.

This, then, is the problem with what currently passes for triathlon in the Olympics.   Now I’ll acknowledge that the finish of this year’s women’s Olympic triathlon was one of the most thrilling I have ever seen.  But it was a thrilling finish to something that wasn’t real triathlon.

[Sidebar: Dear NBC, is it too much to ask that you hire commentators who can actually pronounce the name of the sport upon which they are commenting?  Get a fucking clue, Schlanger.]

Olympic triathlon is raced according to International Triathlon Rules.  ITU tris, often referred to as draft-legal triathlon, is the format for the majority of professional triathlon events.  These are the rules that govern points allocations, rankings, and the Olympic qualification process (a process that is, compared with other sports, a byzantine and drawn out one that can significantly disadvantage some athletes and benefit others: some athletes know they have an Olympic berth months in advance of others).

Here’s the thing, though: ITU triathlon is almost solely a professional entity.  It is in fact an elite entity.  The ITU describes itself as “the official governing sport of Olympic triathlon.”  Triathlon is an extremely popular sport and its popularity continues to grow at a fantastic rate compared with other sports, particularly among women. But I think we can agree that most of those triathletes have no Olympic aspirations.  Now it is possible that things are radically different in other countries.  But in the US, most triathlons are not raced according to ITU rules.   I have never raced in one.  I think I can vaguely remember seeing a local ITU event advertised somewhere.  Once.  Out of all the many triathletes I have known, I can think of maybe two whom I know have raced a draft-legal race.

So ITU triathlon is not triathlon as most everyday triathletes experience it.  So what?  You might justifiably argue that it as similar to the triathlon of  everyday triathletes as Olympic target-shooting (with their cyborg weapons and body armor) is to the kind of shooting practiced by everyday people on rifle-ranges everywhere.  Isn’t this just the purified, distilled essence of triathlon?

No.  In fact, ITU triathlon is, I would argue, antithetical to the spirit of the real triathlon enjoyed by ordinary triathletes.  The essence of triathlon, strange to say, is not that it is simply three sports strung together.  It is that these three sports are undertaken as an individual challenge.  With the exception of the possibility of catching the occasional draft in the swim portion (quite difficult to do unless you are a damn good swimmer, let me tell you!) the essence of the kind of triathlon that I and pretty much everyone I know race all the time is that you are reliant on your own efforts, resources, and adaptability to face whatever the day throws at you.

Now, what do we have with ITU triathlon?  First of all, the whole draft-legal thing.   One of the cardinal rules in USAT and WTC is “no outside assistance.”  What this means is that you can’t get any form of assistance that isn’t available in principle to all athletes.  Drafting is effectively massive outside assistance.  It is also highly variable outside assistance depending on who you end up behind, which group, how competent your cycling group is (and the evidence from ITU competition has to be “not very;” more on that in a moment).  But watching the Olympics I discovered something else (and I don’t know if this is new or has always been a part of ITU): you can have domestiques.  In other words, you can select athletes for the Olympics who have no chance of winning but are there solely to pace your top athletes in the swim, bike, etc.  That is just complete bullshit and violates everything that triathlon should be about.

As a result, ITU races all tend to have a very similar structure.  They are, in effect, a duathlon of swimming and running where the bike is a completely irrelevant transition stage.  Your chances in the race are critically dependent upon your swimming abilities.  If you don’t come up in or near the lead swim pack, you are essentially racing only for the glory of sport.  The ability to draft on the bike means that even a marginally competent leading group can maintain that lead.  A group that is only a few seconds behind will eventually catch up.  But then essentially it is a big group of cyclists riding around a circuit, more or less aimlessly, filling in time until the run when they can sort out the placing.  Really, ITU races would be a lot more honest if they just pre-selected people based on their swim prowess, and then let a few people run a 10K.  In ITU you will almost never see the kind of situation that is routine in real triathlon: someone isn’t the strongest swimmer, comes out of the water behind the lead group but then uses their cycling strength to come back.  In ITU your cycling strength is irrelevant, because you can just hang out at the back of a group while some other poor sap pulls you all the way to the run.

The crushing thing about watching ITU tris is that even the athletes seem to realize how bogus all this is and how unnecessary the cycle leg is.  Remember, drafting is legit in this form of triathlon (and heavily penalized in other forms because you are not reliant on your own effort).  Given that, then, wouldn’t you expect athletes to take advantage of that?  Remember also that these are by and large professional athletes racing for prize money, world rankings and Olympic berths.  So you would expect them to do everything in their power to use the available rule set to their advantage to maximize pace and save energy for the run.

But you watch ITU triathletes on the cycle leg and it is as if they are completely unfamiliar with the idea of drafting, unless it is the idea of simply riding behind someone.  I’m guessing that at some point in their lives some of these athletes must have seen coverage of a crit or a road race on TV and noticed that they rotate the lead on a regular basis.  Some of them may even have been road cyclists at some point (although the visible evidence strongly argues against it).  Yet they don’t seem to have absorbed any of those lessons.  You might even think that a professional, racing as part of their livelihood, remember, might even spend time riding with some professional roadies to practice these drafting skills.  Again, no evidence that happens.

And this is not, I’m sure, because these athletes are incompetent.  It is quite simply because the bike leg doesn’t matter.  Hence you can have the bike leg in the women’s Olympic triathlon which unfortunately did nothing to dispel the prevailing stereotype that triathletes are poor bike handlers.  Yes, the conditions were slick, but then compare that with TDF cyclists hurling themselves down slick mountainsides at 50mph and trying to navigate a corner in central London doesn’t look that much of a challenge.  The irony is that the most exciting ITU run finish I’ve seen in some time was preceded by a bike leg where the women rode leisurely and unhurriedly around the course.

Because ITU athletes don’t seem to be able to take advantage of the draft-legal nature of the cycling leg, because this “triathlon” is basically a duathlon, and because the entire set-up (bullshit domestiques, even allowing a team dynamic in the first place) violates what I hold to be the core value of triathlon–self-reliance–ITU triathlon has no place in the Olympics.

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7 responses to “Should Triathlon be in the Olympics?

  1. I kinda disagree here, actually, at least about some things.

    For one thing, I don’t think that drafting can be outside assistance, as the athletes one’s drafting are participating in the race. For that reason, anyone can draft anyone, and no one is uniquely advantaged. Drafting can be drafting, but if it’s draft-legal, that’s obviously not a sin. Put another way, if drafting were outside assistance, there would be no need in our races for a separate penalty called “drafting.”

    As a practical matter, I don’t think races like this really could be draft-illegal. The swim will always be draft-legal, so if 20 guys emerge together and start the ride, you immediately have a huge problem — that is, how to get 20 guys to space out 4 bike lengths. Even if you managed it, pity the poor sod in 20th place who wants to pass the guy in 19th, because as soon as he does, he’s in the draft zone of the guy in 18th, and must pass him too. It quickly becomes a “pass one, pass all” proposition. It works in Ironman after a fashion, but there the swim is 3x as long, which breaks people up, and even in Kona, you get packs of athletes at the front. In a top-level draft-illegal oly, I think most of the race analysis would be spent debating and disputing penalty calls (or non-calls).

    I also disagree that the bike leg is irrelevant, and that people just sit in. In this morning’s men’s race, there was a 5- or 6-man break at the front out of T1, and those guys were rotating strictly every 15 seconds, like clockwork. They eventually got swallowed by the peloton, but even then, the Brownlees and their compatriot (Hayes) were pushing the pace the whole time. You could see it in their gestures, and Gomez commented on it after the race. It’s what makes them different from, and in some ways superior to, the ITU athletes who would prefer to sit in.

    To be sure, not everyone was taking pulls at the front. But that’s because the Brownlees run better on tired legs than anyone else, so the non-Brownlees would prefer an easy ride — it would make no sense for them to pull hard.

    Perhaps triathlon is fundamentally an individual endeavor, but I’m not really sure. It is when it’s non-draft-legal, but that sort of begs the question of whether a draft-legal triathlon violates some unwritten spirit. I could just as easily assert that cycling is fundamentally individual, so the entire TDF should be draft-illegal. It’s not, but I could say that it should be. In many ways, having ITU races be draft-legal imports a measure of tactics and strategy that doesn’t exist in the sort of races we do, and there’s something to be said for that.

    I guess the real question is, why not have draft-legal triathlons for everyday wannabes like us? I think the answer is that we’d all wind up dead because the fields are too big and triathletes can’t handle bikes, and aerobars would be illegal (insert whining here).

    Bottom line, I agreed with you completely until a year or so ago, but I’ve come around to the idea that it’s not an inferior version of the sport, just a different one. Our version wouldn’t work well at the Olympics, and the Olympics version wouldn’t work well for us.

    • What a difference a year makes! A year ago, I think I would, on balance, have come down where you are now. After seeing the Olympics (and I note you didn’t address the “domestique” issue, which is what I think really tipped me over and made me realize how far this has strayed from what I think of as real triathlon. I’m not sure whether or not other variety of triathlons would work in an Olympic setting. There are a lot of sports in the Olympics that I never thought would work and somehow seem to. Part of the problem is that no one seems to have really figured out how to make it compelling for television, especially for non-participants. Ironman races, even condensed to an hour, is some of the most boring TV out there (hence the never-ending quest for heart-wrenching but, after a while, utterly stereotypical, triumph stories to help frame the event).

      I think we might have watched different races; I didn’t see those guys rotating expect sporadically, and then it was a rather clunky change of lead with no particular rhythm or circulation to it. And yes, there was a breakaway group for a short time, but they never had much of a lead. And if they had actually worked together in any organized biking fashion they might have been able to hold off the peleton which was even more disorganized (and that showed because after they came together it reverted to the “let’s suck Brownlee’s wheel” mode). As I said, you pretty much could have taken the first bunch of swimmers out of the water, plunked them down at the start of the run, and the race would have been substantially the same.

      In a more generous mode I would agree that these are two different modes of triathlon, with about the same relationship to one another as track cycling and road cycling. Both breeds of cycling,however, make it into the Olympics, however. Instead, we only have this one (increasingly cheapened (the “ringers” issue again) version standing in for “Triathlon.”

  2. Simple solution. If we can agree that the ITU draft-legal version of triathlons are different, let’s just call it something different. I propose “Tri-Athelons”.

  3. Reblogged this on the5krunner and commented:
    Interesting article. Here is my one on a similar vein http://the5krunner.com/2012/08/23/the-possible-future-of-olympic-triathlon-duathlon/. Your point about the Olympic triathlon being effectively an aquathlon is interesting. I sort of agree but there were certainly team order for team GB where Hays was the lead cyclist getting Brownlees to the run in the front. There’s also the ‘fact’ that the first out of the water ‘never’ wins (drafting?? in swim a factor). Maybe you should argue that it should just be a 10k race….but then Mo Farah would win. The drafting line is also interesting; if it were made like an AG event ie a time trial then it would be a fair reflection of multisport ability…but it would make rubbish TV viewing AND women’s final aside it’s fairly boring to watch anyway 🙂 great article tho, liked it and very thought provoking…excuse my not fully thought through response

  4. I propose mixed relay triathlons and non-drafting TT-style triathlons.

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