While most are content to accept the heavily corporatised product served up to us by the Ironman brand, a for-profit entity, the Olympic ringed ITU should be a different story.
I went to the WTS Hamburg race last weekend and was 20 metres from 2 of the multiple crashes during the women’s and men’s races. These crashes were horrific and seeing the faces of athletes knowing they were going to come down is haunting.
Races are now described as ‘the product’, and athletes as ‘the assets’. These obnoxious terms are used publicly. At Hamburg the assets would be better named ‘the cannon fodder’, in what the ITU call the jewel in the crown of their WTS Series. But the cannon fodder happens now to be the super champs – Murray, Schoeman, Yee, Brownlee, Zaferes. All crashed during the bike course. Even on the run they were falling, Nicola Spirig went down, as did others on the tiny tight turns. This was not bad luck, or bad riding, this was total negligence by the governing body.
On every level (except for hefty license fee paid to the ITU from the local government and the size of crowds), this is the worst race for ‘the assets’ that has ever been devised.
Let me take you through it – – it has to be a sprint race because of the course itself – 6 laps of 3.5km per lap for 21km – do I need to show you the turns…
As you can see each 3.5km lap has two 180 degree stop dead turns, and 8 turns of ~90 degrees, most a maximum of 3m wide, with over 60 athletes trying to squeeze around.
There are cobblestones and pavement bricks in some turns. The course has painted pedestrian lines and painted traffic lines all over it. All of you know how fun it is to negotiate painted lines on the road in the wet! Ever attempted it in a pack of 60 during a race? The only thing missing was tram lines.
The arrogance of the ITU officials didn’t help, as I saw one walk straight into Taylor Knibb – but that can happen…
Being a professional coach and wanting to understand the course to be able to relay details and race tactics to my athletes, I walked the course on the morning of the race. To say I was horrified is an understatement. As well as the already mentioned issues with corners, cobbles, and lines painted on the road; the lake and trees that surrounded the course looked beautiful for the cameras, but only added to the hazards of the bike course. There were 100’s of leaves on the road, on the very corners where the horrific crashes in both men and women’s races occurred.
After 30 minutes picking up leaves from the corners, the rain came and I really got worried. I stopped and left to talk to an official about the danger this would create only to be told ‘this is not my job’. Total apathy and indifference to the danger. I asked one to use their walkie talkie to contact the race referees to explain the danger and request a crew or a street sweep vehicle to sweep the corners. To my horror I was told, ‘that’s the city’s job not ours’.
Thus all the audience was treated to not only a triathlon but a smash up derby that saw at least two athletes leave in ambulances with career threatening injuries. If one remembers back to WTS Dubai in 2016, nobody has learned anything from the horrendous crash that nearly ended the then current Olympic Champion’s career (Down but not Out). Fortunate to escape with a broken hand after hitting concrete ‘street furniture’ only several feet from the course. Since then there have been no course changes, no greater thought to the safety of the athletes, pardon me, the ‘assets’.
After the Women’s race in Hamburg, when one attempted to point out the absolute danger before the Men’s race, they were not so politely told – ‘if you and your athletes feel it’s too dangerous for their skills then they shouldn’t race!’.
This course should never have more than 25 to 30 athletes on it. Simple as that – if they are going to race on it at all.
‘Sutto, you are full of criticisms but short on solutions.’ Just like Ironman racing, I’m full of solutions, for those who will listen. This could be accommodated by heats and finals as it is a two day closed circuit race. So there could have been two races of 30 or even 3 races of 20 athletes, with the best 10 athletes going through to the final to be held on the next day. Then the crowd we so clamour for could see some fantastic racing over a weekend.
I’m pleading with people to start and put athletes first. We as a society of Triathletes need to make the organisations accountable for their actions. Olympic funded sport should not make money the first and only priority. The first priority should always be the athletes and their safety should always be the first consideration.
I have received many congratulatory notes, and wish to say thank you from Daniela and myself.
While people want a race report, I find it difficult to write one, so for now I’d just like to tell the inside story that our athletes at camp see every day. I will let Dave Scott, one of the greatest Ironman athletes of all time, tell you his observations first:
Add to this the fact that in the last 10 World Championships of both Ironman and 70.3 Daniela has won 8.
There is little more to say. However there is so much more from the inside. I have been restrained up to now in calling Daniela the best Ironwoman of all time. I want to clarify why from my personal view of sport.
Winning in any sport when one is just totally superior does not automatically get you the super champion card in the world of Sutto. To receive that from me, one has to show me how they can find a way to win when their superiority is taken away. When their skills are impaired, in short when they shouldn’t win – but they do.
Up until last year I had said Daniela is the fastest Ironwoman of all time, but not the greatest. Unlike most experts I have the facts in front of me, training great athletes like Chrissie Wellington, Caroline Steffen in the long course, and Jodie Swallow and Mary Beth Ellis in the 70.3. I watched the numbers being put down at training every day.
In 2017 Daniela had a very seriously disrupted year. Her race season came down to a single meeting where we discussed that we can’t train for Kona because of her back injury; so instead to get ready for the 70.3 World Champs and we can still win – but only if we keep the training to 5150 (Olympic distance) level. If Daniela had wanted to pull out of Ironman and concentrate on 70.3 Worlds, I was more than happy.
It was decided, we would train for Chattanooga. If the back was then ok and we got medical confirmation we couldn’t do any long term damage, we would start Kona and see if we could do a decent job of hiding our lack of Ironman fitness; try to let her status of being ‘the champ’ fudge the title defence. However, Lucy Charles was having none of it, stood up and tested the wounded bird like never before. We witnessed the bird overcome Lucy’s challenge, but also her lack of preparation for the longer race. It was a step closer to getting coach to say, this is a super champ.
I tell you this because those inside our camp were told, Dani was 25 minutes slower than she can be. Most were skeptical. Only one agreed with me, and it was the only one that needed to be, ‘the bird’ herself. The win was bitter sweet for her. She smiled but on the inside she burned. I said we will take an extended break wether you like it or not. Complete rest for 3 months. Well I got 2 months and 1 week as Dani was going nuts. I insisted we fully reset, and then we will come back and have 3 more years to show how great she can be. It was, and still is my estimation that in 2019 the world will see ‘the bird’ at her very best. 2018 was the reset.
The 70.3 worlds were not on our calendar at all this year. But a bird with no wing damage just got better and better as the season went along. The big break had Dani come back looking stronger than ever. So we didn’t stop training or taper, went to Port Elizebeth and was fantastic. On to Kona with another incident free 6 weeks of training. So we were ready for a very good performance.
However Dani so easily could have not started. But somehow she did. Stung by jellyfish under both arm pits 2 minutes before the race start, both arms went numb and the pain excruciating. Watching the online broadcast, as the athletes strung out early in the swim there was no Dani in the first 15, she was not in the first 20, somethings wrong!
Those who know how Dani is at training, understand ‘very good’ is not near good enough to make her happy. After last years Kona race, every swim session was just was not good enough, no matter how well she swam. Her 5 minutes 30 seconds down out of the water in 2017, what an embarrassment never again, was her mantra. ‘You’re not training me hard enough in the swim’, whether a 6k or 7k swim session. Just not hard enough coach ‘you have gone soft’ on more than one or ten occasions. Countered with ‘you could do backstroke in the swim and still win’.
So when Dani started the bike on race day, I received a few messages from smart arse squad members, asking if she had decided to test out the theory, exiting the water over 10 minutes down. To their credit, they also added that, if she doesn’t have a reaction to the stings we think she can still do it, as no female rides like her.
So it was to be, and for those saying ‘its impossible for a women to ride that fast’, I don’t disagree, if we all didn’t see it every fast workout on the bike in training camp. The most terrifying thing for all the ITU boys is to hear was ‘you ride with the bird today’. The iron men didn’t cry, but they knew the solid day would be race pace all the way, no matter what the distance. Getting chicked by Dani is not dishonourable in our squad. Is she as fast as the top 20 men in a time trial? You bet she is, and any man in our squad will be more than pleased to tell you.
To then run sub 3 hours after such an incredible lone ride is a good achievement. Why only good? Because here is the scary thing, Dani’s race while unbelievable to most, still isn’t her best. She has more improvement. She can swim 7 minutes faster, we would all agree. But I think she can run 7 minutes faster in 2019. Yes I know that sounds crazy but I believe the bird has not peaked yet.
However, last Saturday makes her happy not just for the win but because she again erased any doubts from herself and of lesser importance me, that she is a true super champ. One who overcomes adversity and finds a way to win when others could not. Thus gets my vote as the greatest female long course athlete ever!
As the countdown to Kona begins, the build up is reaching fever pitch. The Triathlon community is immersed in debate, insider tidbits on social media, and as a whole can’t wait for Saturday week. In stark contrast, the ITU in their wisdom, still cling to the theory that making the last race of the convoluted World Triathlon Series a double points race, is what makes the Triathlon communities knees tremble in expectation.
I’m afraid that the ITU executive is now so detached from the reality on the ground, that it’s hard to understand how to even communicate with them. If the ITU didn’t have the Olympics to prop it up, they would sink without a trace. For 9 years now, there has not been a World Championship race.
Here is a simple 1, 2, 3 to explain:
1 – If the best athletes decide not to follow the series, then we don’t have the best of the best racing in the final.
2 – We have in the final race, athletes vying for points, not for victory, to make sure their ranking is not risked.
3 – Outside of the most ardent supporters, the parents and associates of the competitors, nobody knows what is going on at all.
We have the World Series (WTS), World Cups (if you are in Europe), European cup races, and let’s not forget the Continental Cup races.
How do we understand the different stepping stones to the World Series when it is not defined, marketed, or explained to even its own constituency?
If that isn’t a clear enough conflict let’s go a step further. How do you gather new followers, when if you want to watch a race on free to air TV, YouTube, social media, the ITU charges you for the privilege? Nothing more than gouging it’s own supporters for extra revenue. Simultaneously, making very sure that anyone that has ever tuned in to sports on TV on a lazy Sunday won’t discover this brand of Triathlon.
One would think the ITU executive would really know they have an image problem when I know multiple high performance athletes, coaches and past champions who do not subscribe to the pay to view ITU channel. They have zero interest.
So another year has passed. Another year the ITU has no clue who is their best athlete on any given day.
The upside for them of course is they don’t have to market their best athletes, as their greatest opportunity over the last 10 years has passed. Brothers Brownlee were the greatest billboard to carry the sport to a new level. While they are household names in Yorkshire, and known throughout England (great tea advert boys), if you are not a triathlete, it’s a zero. Gwen was allowed to move on without a word being said to her; when the grind of the circuit wore her down. I know for a fact after Nicola Spirig’s Olympic Gold medal win in 2012, that the only word she was sent was ‘you have one day left before you miss the deadline to the next race’. I kid you not!
As all get excited to see the clash of the Ironman titans at Kona, one genuinely hopes that not all on the ITU executive board have gone to sleep, as it is tiring following the circuit they put together – even if you are not racing! I say to them, watch the Triathlon worlds reaction when you give them a World Championship race.
The experiment of who has the most points at the end of a series has failed. Hanging on to it is only making this part of the sport more irrelevant by the season. It’s now time to bring back a World Championship race for Olympic distance Triathlon.
Following an article a couple of weeks ago regarding the WTS Relays, I’ve been challenged a few times as to what I’d do differently.
I’m happy if it’s opened up some constructive debate within our group and at the grassroots level and always happy to provide some context some of the issues we face in the shorter distances as well as my thoughts on ways to improve.
There are not enough places on the start line for WTS races. This creates political chaos in choosing the athletes who race at each event. It also breeds a culture of Federations trying to play fantasy triathlon manager – deciding (completely subjectively) which athletes may be suited to which course or relay event. Never a good idea.
At the same time WTS have to consider that having more athletes on the start line would make the swim unfair and is a safety issue both in the swim and on the bike.
The ETU actually had a working solution back in 1997 where because of so many entries they introduced Heats and Finals. They continue to do the same thing now in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary. An event that is actually one of the great race experiences on the circuit for both participants and spectators.
This would be my preferred format for Championship racing. Heats on Saturday with a sprint distance of up to 40 participants. The first 10 of each heat moving to a Olympic distance final the next day. This would allow 120 men and women to attend each World Series race, but with a final with no more than 30 very competitive athletes on the start line. This would be a very exciting format and ensure the very best athletes could be seen at their best.
Nightmare Travel Schedule
For all the contrasting views regarding the relay, I don’t think one person has disagreed on my position about the destructive impact of the WTS travel schedule. While a circuit of 8 races may not seem too arduous from the outside – jumping continent to continent without end or plan is athletically devastating. We’re seeing churn and burn of many of our best athletes – with no consideration to their long term careers or health.
There should at least be a public discussion, with the views and inputs from athletes and coaches publicly acknowledged by the ITU, around a Regional Race calendar. A calendar where athletes can train in their own countries and then travel to a region for designated time and number of races. This would allow them to return home and live somewhat of a normal existence, keeping travel fatigue for the athletes to a minimum.
For example; in the Asia Pacific region. Two races to be held in the Pacific – Australia / New Zealand followed by two races in Asia such as Japan / South Korea / China. Once complete, all athletes could return to their home bases for at least a month to train and recuperate before moving to the next regional races. It would have the benefit of WTS marketing each region individually – establishing a fixed time for races in different regions. It would coincide with the best weather conditions for the regions and would also allow athletes and countries to keep travel and housing movements to a minimum – saving each federation a lot of wasted money.
But what if we can secure money from a big city but they want their race outside of the designated time window for that region?! That my friends is where it all falls down. As what they should says is ‘Thank you, but no thank you. The health of our athletes is paramount.’ But they don’t, and based off their responses to current and past athlete complaints are unlikely to either.
The Olympics and the Relay
The Olympics like the World Series has a dirty little secret that the general triathlon public don’t really know about or understand. That is the extent of influence of ‘domestics’ in these races. Athletes selected to do ‘a job’ for competing athletes with renumeration if success is achieved. This practice is totally against all principles triathlon was built on.
Not only that, it is also encourages negative and boring racing, where you have athletes whose sole job is stop others from being able to break away. How is this related to the relay, you ask?
Well, it’s a problem that the ITU knew about before entering into the Olympics and looked at ways of solving back in the 90s. There already was a pilot for a Team Medal. A model that instead of using the same athletes for completely different race formats and events as we have now with the relay, a team event that combined the collective splits of three representative athletes to decide who is fastest.
Each athlete would have to race at 100% effort to make sure that the third over the line’s time counted for the medal. The outcome would have been no more domestics and no more officials meddling in individual athletes races. The best three athletes in the country would be selected.
Not like now where a Federation will often leave out a faster athlete to put an inferior ones who may work to produce a result for another individual athlete (or the relay). It is crushingly unfair to the many now athletes who have seen been ranked 2 or 3 in their country and had their Olympic dream gifted to someone else with worse results.
The relay now exacerbates this problem tenfold. ‘If our best athlete doesn’t have much chance for the individual medal. Instead let’s select a couple of sprinters and hope for the relay.’
People misunderstand. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a relay. But I’m saying it should have been brought in as a totally seperate medal and not contingent on those selected for the main Olympic distance event. I believe that has been a catastrophic mistake and that we should discuss measures to deal with it and avoid such errors in the future.
Instead, when you say anything negative about it you get a depressingly short term narrow view on the subject. ‘Oh, get over it Sutto. It’s a second medal. Who cares how they got it. It’s more exciting.’ Well, I do. There should be 5 Olympic medals for triathlon (sprint + long distance) and they should all mean something. Instead we have two hybrid medals. With the second one now actively undermining the long term performance base of the first.
What’s ironic to me is that the current ITU President, Marisol Casado, was not only present but in the sport’s early days oversaw great innovations in the ETU and ITU. So spare me the living in the past rubbish. This is now. They have the vision but have allowed short term owners and finance to compromise the whole direction they had set for themselves.
So if it is back to the future to make the World Series a better spectacle to make races safer for our athletes, to develop a race schedule that is not so punishing that our champions leave early and to make federations select the very best athletes to go to the Olympics and race for themselves as well as their countries – then I personally don’t think that’s a backward step.
Ashleigh Gentle (Aus) and Julie Derron (Sui) drive the chase pack at ITU Hamburg. Photo Credit: ITU Media
How exciting is the new Relay format! And how great is it for triathlon!?
Please. It’s a Frankenstein that’s turning on its creator. In a format entirely contrived to fit IOC rules, budgets and political agenda – the ITU, by not ensuring that any additional athlete spaces for this specialist event, has sold out its core for an extra medal.
The consequence is a growing trend towards this:
I was having a bad day at WTS Hamburg but I was ok, so under normal circumstances I would NEVER usually “just DNF”. Under instruction from @triaustralia, I pulled out near the start of the run to save myself for the mixed relay World Championships today. In the moment I was ashamed and upset to be standing on the sideline watching the race continue, but I wasn’t going to be able to run up to a position I came here to achieve.. it was time to put my pride aside and think of the team which I am representing today. I’ll be giving it my all.
Does this celebrate what triathlon stands for? Does it show the courage and the soul that our sport is built on? Yet, it is perfect window into what’s to come. Here we have Australia’s number 1 athlete, Ashleigh Gentle, being told to DNF for the benefit of the ‘team’. We now have federations deciding athletes should sacrifice the main race so they can save themselves for the sideshow. It’s the thin edge of the wedge. Triathlon up until now, whether from sprint to iron distance has been about personal pride. About endurance. About finishing at any cost. It’s why a DNF to her, like most champions, is a slur on their character. That’s why they’re champions.
For Ashleigh’s future racing the correct call would have been: ‘Get after them girl! See how many you can take down on the run! Hit the podium run split. Make a statement. Let ’em know you’ve still got what it takes and that when you’re in the pack next time – they’re gone.’
Instead, all her opposition has seen ‘Ash had a bad swim and pulled the plug.’ And then she’s been left herself to write to the triathlon public to shield her dignity. Something for Triathlon Australia to consider while they delude themselves they made the right call because they snuck a 2nd the next day. At what cost?
We too had a junior athlete in that group, in fact she rode toe to toe with Ashleigh in driving the chase pack. She wasn’t asked to save herself for the relay – as what message does it send to athletes in their development?
I do not enjoy my role as a canary in the coal mine. But the slide into the shorter, more trivial events is not the foundation for the development of the sport for the next 30 years. If you place mickey mouse formats backed with the authority of the sport’s governing body ahead of the Olympic event, you won’t produce the genuine all round triathlon champions like the Brownlees in the future. Triathlon’s identity is built on toughness. Take it away and what do you have?
Unfortunately, this forms part of a larger trend where the ITU in partnership with their Ironman race owners – as opposed to viewing themselves as being long term custodians of the sport seek to exploit what has been built over the last 40 years for the highest possible returns in the shortest possible time.
The upcoming race schedule being a case in point. To the exasperation of the top athletes who have consistently raised concerns about the schedule, it just gets more and more ridiculous. Next up, two WTS races in Canada. So do we put them close together so there is only one trip to the continent – a one stop layover for athletes? No, a four week gap between them so if you’re not Canadian you can double up on a season crippling travel schedule that already includes multiple flights to every continent. You don’t like it? Well that’s too bad. Do it our way or there’s no Olympics for you, no matter how good you are.
If I’m wrong, prove it. But as of now I don’t see any strategic vision, engagement or planning with the stakeholders – whether pros, age groupers or fans for the long term sustainability of the sport. It’s rip and run. And the consequences have just started to be felt and will be exploited sooner than one thinks.
‘Have a bad swim?’ Save yourself for tomorrow.
‘Not in the first pack off the bike?’ Wait for the relay.
The floodgates are open and they’ll be hard to shut.