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Commentary: When the Penalty Doesn’t Fit the Crime

Sam Long and India Lee focused their seasons on the 70.3 World Championships, only to see their hopes destroyed by penalties. Is it time to change the way races are officiated?

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If you were angered by the raft of penalties handed out in Kona, then your mood won’t have been improved by the fallout from St. George. The penalty tent is not the place we wanted to tell a world championship story – again – and yet here we are.

Yes, there are plenty of uplifting tales from this weekend’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships (that you can read about here), but many of them are overshadowed by the grumbling about referee decisions that ultimately changed the races. When the individuals in question speak out post-race, it sounds like sour grapes, and sometimes it is. But there are other times where their defense is too loud to ignore, especially when – as in St George – Ironman’s improved race coverage throws the decisions further under the magnifying glass.

Is five minutes too much?

Before looking at the individual cases of two pro triathletes, India Lee and Sam Long, let’s first address the unnecessary high-stakes punishment of 70.3 racing compared to the full distance. In both distances, the penalties are the same, meaning that a blue card in a 70.3 or an Ironman results in a five-minute stand down.

Whatever you think of the rights or wrongs of individual penalty decisions, what can’t be contested is that five minutes is more punitive over 70.3 miles than it is 140.6 miles, and any deficit is more difficult to recoup. In a 70.3, five minutes might as well be five hours.

This is the crudest of math, but only Taylor Knibb could have weathered a five-minute penalty in the last two days and still finished on the podium. At half the distance of an Ironman, two and a half minutes would surely make more sense. That’s one change that could be easily implemented.

Shorter racing, tighter spacing

The penalty conversation is compounded because the risks of being caught in a drafting situation are also greater over the middle distance due to the shorter 1.2-mile swim – bringing the pro athletes on to the bike in closer proximity. As we saw in today’s men’s pro race at 70.3 Worlds, over half the field exited the swim within seconds of each other. T1 was congested, and so were the initial miles of the bike. Therefore, it’s of little surprise to see more penalties handed out earlier in the bike leg.

The athletes were told in the pro briefing that the race would be policed in the same way as Kona – and penalties would be issued without warning. The problem with that is that when the racing gets messy – as we’ll outline below – there are going to be a lot more gray areas to adjudicate. Concise communication can be everyone’s friend here.

An especially cruel ending

Before we look at the detail of the decisions, what makes the penalties seem especially harsh at this year’s 70.3 Worlds is that both Lee and Long put the focus of their season on the result of this race.

The merits of an ‘eggs in one basket’ approach can be argued, but it should be applauded that professionals are prepared to prioritize and give respect to the year’s biggest Ironman events as a far more healthy approach than racing themselves into the ground – in Long’s case, by peaking for today and avoiding the temptation to go for a Kona-St George double.

At a world championship event, we want to see the best of the best, performing at their very best. These athletes have invested their time, energy, and money into delivering the high-caliber performances this level of racing deserves – only to have it derailed by an imperfect system of race officiating.

Were the 2022 70.3 Worlds penalties fair?

As for the calls themselves, indulge us as we dig into the weeds a little as an illustration as to how subjective the application of rules can be.

Case Study 1: India Lee

Let’s start with the blocking penalty awarded to India Lee in the women’s race yesterday. The Brit was having the race of her life, and with Taylor Knibb up the road, was rolling along in third position behind Paula Findlay.

When Holly Lawrence tried to overtake Lee and Findlay on a climb, the 34-year-old Lee looked to hold the 12 meters to Findlay’s back wheel. In deciding to overtake, Lawrence was obliged to overtake the whole paceline, unless a gap opened between riders.

To underscore the predicament, Lee couldn’t have closed to 11 meters 99 centimeters, or she would have been in Findlay’s draft zone. Letting it drift out to 12 meters 1 centimeter, and Lawrence could slot in.

So Lee made the decision to hold her spot on what she thought was exactly 12 meters. Lawrence nosed past but couldn’t achieve the pass in the 25 seconds allowed, and Lee was called for blocking.

The five-minute penalty derailed Lee’s chances of finishing out what could have been a career-best Ironman race. Instead, Lee eventually finished 11th. It cost her thousands in prize money and sponsor bonuses – and likely meant the trip to St. George left her out of pocket.

Case Study 2: Sam Long

The much-maligned penalty against Sam Long during the men’s race is even more confusing. The live broadcast showed the Boulder triathlete overtaking a paceline quite comfortably when Jackson Laundry appeared at his left shoulder. To put this clearly: Laundry was overtaking Long, who was overtaking a line of riders. At three across on the road, Long found himself in an unusual and uncomfortable position. Long was unsure what to do. He had to press on to overtake the athlete to his right, but also knew he couldn’t enter Laundry’s draft zone.  He hesitated, seemed to look for guidance and was then hit with a 5-minute penalty.

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Long saw the race literally pass him by from the penalty box; eventually, the 2021 runner-up finished 19th. But after the race, there was a new development: Ironman claimed the penalty issued to Long wasn’t what was reported on the broadcast. Instead, it happened for a slotting infraction that apparently took place off-camera while Long was passing through the crowded field.

The referees are checking the athletes – but who’s checking the referees?

To be fair, the race referees at the world championship events are highly trained, and making calls like this is their job. But it’s an impossible task.

The race officials at Worlds called it as honestly as they could, but maybe they didn’t call it as well as they could. Referees need help from technology – the sooner, the better, because as we saw with Lee, we’re asking the naked eye to judge centimeters to make a call.

Both examples show how more transparency is needed in explaining why the penalties are given out, and for it to be communicated quickly. Officials need to be beyond reproach, but that will only ever be the case if – as in other professional sports – all stakeholders, including the fans, know why decisions have been made.

I have high hopes for the smart Race Ranger system that will not only help referees issue penalties, but will also assist athletes in being able to race fairly. But until that technology is deployed, there has to be leeway in officiating and a relaxation of the punishments. Otherwise, black and white directives put officials in an invidious position and athletes in a hopeless one.

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