Commentary – Ironman Is Taking Baby Steps on Pro Penalties

Pre-race discussion and transparency around centerline penalties at the men’s Ironman World Championship in Nice was a good start, but with so much on the line for pros, there’s more to be done.

Photo: Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images for IRONMAN

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When Ironman took the decision to open up the inner sanctum of the pro briefing ahead of the men’s 2023 Ironman World Championship, Andrew Messick was making a smart play.

The organization’s president and chief executive didn’t want a repeat of what happened to Lionel Sanders at the Lahti 70.3 World Championships: the Canadian disqualified, confused, and emotional after crossing an imaginary centerline in the road during the race.

Cue social media meltdown and obligatory Ironman pile-on.

Instead, with a view to transparency and to cut any post-race “he said, we said” disputes off at the pass, Ironman decided to fling open its doors to wider parties than just the athletes, including select media.

It wasn’t exactly pure theater, but a bucket of popcorn wouldn’t have been out of place. After head referee Daniel Palladino had run through the familiar mandatories, the ante was upped when Messick himself chimed in with the first question: “Can you clarify the centerline rule?!”

From the wise-cracking Cameron Wurf at the front to those pros genuinely concerned about how exactly they were being asked to tackle tricky corners on the sweeping descents in the daunting Maritime Alps, it didn’t take a genius to spot the “plant” in the room.

But Messick’s modus operandi was a clever one: As he admitted to Triathlete upon leaving the room, better to slug it out beforehand than after the race.

The centerline rule took focus in Nice, but in the future it might be another issue where a course or conditions make flashpoints more likely – think Sam Long’s contentious drafting penalty in 70.3 Worlds in St. George last year with a similar result/aftermath to the Sanders debacle in Finland.

The broader point is that Ironman’s tactic of getting ahead of the game is one they’d do well to repeat.

It wasn’t perfect. We started with a definition of the centerline – “the midpoint of two lanes” and a clear “do not cross” message, followed by, “but if you do, you might get a yellow card (1-minute penalty), be disqualified or get nothing at all”; the determination would be made by an official based on safety or whether they believe the athlete is trying to obtain an unfair competitive advantage.

To some it was as clear as mud – Wurf chuckled along at the front, throwing back the occasional heckle saying the rules hadn’t changed.

Both sides had a valid point, but what the Aussie understood – and what doesn’t translate well written down in a rulebook – is that while we all want clarity, like a triathlon tourist deciding whose right of way it is to cross the road in Nice (try it sometime!), it’s open to interpretation.

It can be analyzed to the nth degree. And it was. In the days before the race, video was dredged up of Rudy Von Berg overtaking Alistair Brownlee at 70.3 Worlds in Nice in 2019 on the descent. Von Berg, brought up on these those roads and knowing them like the back of his hand, crossed the centerline as he flew by.

Reliving it play-by-play with Von Berg in the pro briefing, Messick argued that rightly no penalty was given, that Brownlee took a racing line through the corner, and Von Berg had to cross the centerline to make the safe pass.

Is Brownlee allowed to drift to the left of the right hand side of the road? Should Von Berg should sit up until there is clear road to pass? Messick argued it was a racing incident and was fine. You can dig into the weeds, if you like. The point being, it is always going to be a judgment call: Cross the centerline and you’re in the hands of the officials.

If it seems unsatisfactory, it’s also the only way. If it wasn’t, the debate wouldn’t have rumbled on.

But the officials do need to be equipped with the tools to make the right decisions more often, and this is where the pro briefing showed Ironman needs to raise its game – especially for a World Championship where $375k is on the line, athlete bonuses may add up to even more than the prize money, and a queue of potential sponsors are waiting, ready to open their checkbooks.

One top-finishing French pro suggested body camera footage from an official should be submitted as part of any protest. At one point during the week another asked if the pros themselves could wear body cams – playing the role of the evidence-gathering dash cam in the event of a bad call. Ironman said the former request was something they were looking into, but it’s not the first time it’s been brought up.

Ironman World Championship Referee Rules Penalty
(Photo: Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

And in Nice it could have helped, because in the final reckoning, while there was almost no mention post-race of centerline issues, there was an intentional littering call made on Braden Currie (NZL), which video footage could have negated more quickly and resulted in the Kiwi’s race staying on track in the moment.

Currie received a five-minute blue card for not discarding a water bottle quickly enough in the designated zone as he cycled through an aid station. Choosing not to serve the penalty (at risk of disqualification), he raced on to the finish without stopping, and ran a comparatively conservative 2:58:01 marathon to finish 16th overall. Currie later admitted on social media that the penalty call took his head out of the game.

And in this case, Currie was able to successfully challenge the decision after the race – arguing that he’d prepared to throw the bottle while in the zone, but a volunteer was in the way. Had the official who made that call been able to submit video evidence, it could either have been reviewed in-race or would have at least given Currie confidence in his protest while he kept racing onward.

Similarly, there has been clamoring for the introduction of Race Ranger technology to assist referees while officiating drafting. Race Ranger has already been used by the Professional Triathletes Organization and World Triathlon in high-profile races this year. Addressing this point specifically with Ironman’s communications team, Triathlete was told Ironman doesn’t believe the technology is yet robust enough to deploy – even as a lights-only indication system, as the other organizations currently use it.

There were other points of contention at the pro meeting in Nice – including one pro who had valid safety concerns over knowing how many motorbikes would be on the course around the pro race. It was a query Ironman wasn’t ready for, but they may be next time.

As you would expect, there were disagreements, but it was useful to thrash it out in the open. As sports become more professionalized and the financial stakes rise, the officials come under more scrutiny and those Corinthian ideals of amateurism tend to be lost.

We see it all over the sporting world. To counter it, the onus is on the organizations to invest – whether in technology or training. Volunteers are essential, but they cannot do everything, and they’re put in an impossible position if, as referees, their calls are affecting athletes’ livelihood. Ironman is heading in the right direction in many respects. Opening the pro briefing was a welcome way of showing a change for the better that should lead to better changes.

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