Last week many in the triathlon community were shocked by the ITU President publicly declaring her preference for a short-distance race at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
They shouldn’t be. The diminished event at the 2020 Olympics will be the culmination of a decade of lobbying and groundwork laid in introducing the condensed format to the official WTS series.
Those in our sport’s executive positions are well versed in the ‘sport is entertainment’ doctrine and have been strategising on how to 1) create a more TV friendly product that won’t alienate the powerful voting blocs of weaker national federations and 2) securing an additional medal at the Olympics within athlete number constraints placed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Well, that’s fair enough, isn’t it? That’s what the sport needs.
No-one is in more agreement that the sport needs a shake up. The drafting situation at WTS events is boring and has seen an embarrassing decline in the standard of the bike discipline. I’ve had athletes tell me they could ‘ride a mountain bike’ and not get dropped from the packs.
But reducing the race to a ‘sprint distance’ is not a solution to the problem. It’s institutionalising it.
Triathlon started as an innovative sport designed to test the all-round swim, bike and run ability of the athlete, and to that end many of us still believe that the best all-round athlete should be called the triathlon champion!
There are multiple formats that would allow this to happen, while also showcasing the race in a more exciting way for TV. Time trial, non-drafting, Enduro heats and finals being just a few examples.
But these are not considered and never will be.
The president of an international sporting body owes their allegiance not to the sport, but to those who voted them there. And federations whose funding is tied to ‘performance’ tend not to want the race to be fair, but to have the illusion of being ‘close’. Hence the move to short course.
Shorten the swim so even the weaker swimming nations can hold on, eliminate the bike distance so that no-one can get away and then have a run shoot out that will be terribly exciting (and close!) for the TV.
A perfect solution.
A white man’s IAAF.
If you’re a 1500m or 3000m runner and can’t quite crack the big time in athletics – it’s now time to start looking for a swim coach. This is your new sport. And while many will support it, for triathlon purists it’s a sad thing.
Why don’t they keep the Olympic distance race and put on a sprint relay as the second medal?
It is highly unlikely IOC will give triathlon any more places at the Olympic village. So instead, the ITU have had to be very creative in how they present their pitch for the 2nd medal. By standardising the shorter distance, triathlon federations will be able to ‘double dip’ at the Olympics by using the same competitors for the individual event as the relay. Hence why calls for the longer distances to be included also fall on deaf ears.
I believe it is a mistake. Bastardising the quality of an individual event to secure a team one is not a good strategy for the sport.
But it would be a good strategy for the ITU President, who by securing a second medal will no doubt ensure another four years in the job and perhaps enhance claims to bigger and better things within the IOC.
The March Towards Short Course – Poachers Turned Gamekeepers
Before people write in that ‘this is another mistake by people in board positions who don’t know the sport’ I can assure you it’s not. Unlike Ironman the people behind this push know the sport very well indeed.
In fact I remember Marisol Casado arguing with a delegation that the San Sebastian World Cup was not ‘too hard’ but a true test of triathlon. That was in 1993.
She got that right. It was one of the great races.
It was also part of a successful ETU (European Triathlon Union) series that 20 years ago used to have exciting, tough formats that included Heats and Finals! In fact it was so good the ITU (International Triathlon Union) staged a coup to take it over and standardised a watered down format.
Marisol’s predecessor and mentor was also a fervent anti-drafting campaigner (a 3-time age group Kona winner) until he became president and was faced with the political realities for keeping his role. He oversaw the transition to drafting as Marisol will oversee the transition to short course.
To compound the problem (now seen at local, national and international body level) triathlon is not seen as a mainstream sport, so it is perpetually at the mercy of short-term decisions from officials looking to move up to the next rung on the ladder or horizontally to one of the other ‘real’ sports.
Where to from here?
In the audio recording ITU President Marisol Casado states that she will consult with the athletes before any changes are made. Let’s hope this is the case. Several, including Alistair (Brownlee) have already stated strong reservations, along with the observation that triathlon is respected because it is a ‘tough’ event. A draft swim and 20km draft bike is not tough and not worthy of an Olympic triathlon event.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come up to me and said it’s the toughness of the event that appeals…
Now that the cat is out of the bag, let’s see the steps the ITU takes in receiving athlete feedback and showing their arguments in a transparent way why it is good for the sport.
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