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How Pro Triathletes Are Now Being Ranked—And Not Everyone’s Happy About It

Tim Heming breaks down the new pro ranking system, the pros, the cons, and why you should care.

Today’s hot topic for discussion: Rankings.

Wait. Before most of you power down and the rest only hang about to pick holes in what comes next, give us a minute to explain why you should care.

In this sport, in 2021, rankings matter like never before. Not just for triathletes gunning for Olympic selection, but for that other bunch of professionals, those lone wolves who aren’t reliant on federation funding, the long-course athletes. Because rankings now equal their livelihood, or at least a decent chunk of it.

But why do rankings matter to you? Well, if you’re a fan, they’ll determine who you’ll be watching in what is calling itself the world’s most spectacular triathlon broadcast ever shown this August in Slovakia. The gripping beat ‘em up, drag ‘em out contest that is the Collins Cup—a race that is promising to give you a ‘Do you remember where you were when…?’ moment as USA’s very own Skye Moench opens a can of whoop-ass on Daniela Ryf. Or something.

RELATED: What is the Collins Cup?

OK, that’s the sales pitch done. If you still don’t care, then here’s a piece on swim training tools to immerse yourself in.

Still here? Good. Stay with us.

How the Pro Triathlete Rankings Work

So, the new rankings system. Evolution or revolution? Well, given what the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO) have produced, it’s probably both. It’s an evolution in the sport and it might spark revolution because of how it’s being received. (More to come on that, because what the rankings have in complexity, they more than match in controversy.)

But here’s a bit of necessary background first.

As stated, rankings chiefly matter because there’s money pegged to them. And when we say money, we mean a truck load. Since it launched in early 2020, the PTO has been pumping money into events all around the globe, especially during the pandemic—notably Challenge Daytona last December—but its biggest paychecks are being dished out in relation to the organization’s rankings.

The year-end rankings pot of $2.5 million was paid early last year. This summer the PTO will out $1.5 million in appearance fees at the inaugural rankings-based Collins Cup, a US v. Europe v. International team event. Then there’s $2 million more for the 2021 year-end rankings.

There’s also the knock-on effect of sponsors wanting to back the best in the world. After all, being the US #1 has a lot more cachet than being #101. And sponsors will likely start looking at rankings along with things like social media following.

So, with this amount of cash and potential endorsements on the line, it’s understandable that triathletes want the rankings to be as fair as possible. (Actually, they probably just want to be ranked as high as possible, but as commentators let’s try and stick with some objectivity.)

OK, how does it work?

Like many rankings systems in sports, the new ranking system developed by the PTO is kind of complicated and, although it’s not actually as confusing as it might first seem, it’s certainly opaque in places. To make it digestible, we’ve distilled it to two key points. It’s a little more nuanced, but this is the gist:

  1. Rankings are based on triathletes TWO best non-drafting performances since December. Or one since December, plus an average of how they’ve gotten on in three races before that.
  2. It’s not based on where the athletes finish, but on how fast they go. In short, bust a gut from gun to tape if you want ranking points—even if you are ten minutes clear of the field!

That’s it. Not that hard. You can see the full PTO rankings system and go down deep deep statistical holes on their comprehensive stats website: stats.protriathletes.org. If triathlon had fantasy leagues, this would be where it was at.

But now you’re probably pointing out the flaws. “Ah, but eight hours in Tulsa isn’t the same as eight hours in Florida, or Coeur d’Alene, or Hawaii, or New Zealand…”

No, but this is where the PTO’s “propriety algorithms” kick in, sucking up all relevant details like historic times, rivals’ finish times, terrain, and weather to provide a formula for its AIT—or Adjusted Ideal Time. At this point, in theory, any race over any distance anywhere in the globe can be measured now against another using the proprietary AIT. In theory. But in practice? Hmmm.

Before we get into the pros and cons, one other noteworthy point is that the qualification focus right now is on the Collins Cup and the four automatic qualification spots per region, which you can see here. Once this is out of the way, the system pivots to the end-of-season rankings (but let’s not go there for now).

Got it so far? Clearly there are issues, but there is also some logic to all this too. Let’s go through the pros and cons, and then you can make your own mind up.

The Pros of the New Ranking System

  • This is NOT a nil sum gain. Before the PTO came along with billionaire Mike Moritz’s millions, triathletes fed primarily off Ironman prize money and scavenged sponsorship. The PTO arrived and is raising the bar. And guess what? Ironman is still there too, still offering races with pro prize purses—and it might even have to raise its game to compete when the PTO start rolling out more events. A win. Maybe even a win-win.
  • It’s fit for a pandemic. Triathletes can not travel as much as they did before COVID. Put on a championship race and load them up with points, but when half the world and the Aussies can’t get there to compete it won’t seem very fair either. The PTO needed a system where athletes could race locally and still be measured against one another. This is the least worst option.
  • It’s a simple message. Turn up. Go hard. And keep going hard, all the way to the tape. Or go home.
  • It’s fairly accurate. At least it is if you take a really quick glance. European women: 1. Daniela Ryf, 2. Anne Haug, 3. Lucy Charles-Barclay, 4. Holly Lawrence. Looks about right.
  • It’s a good start! The PTO is a new organization and is doing its best to up the stakes for the pros. At least we now have a fully fledged rankings system, and it’s arrived with a funky new stats website that is going to make every tri writer’s job about ten times easier.

The Cons of the New Ranking System

  • The algorithm is flawed. However ingenious the propriety algorithm, it’s only as good as the data it has to work with. Courses change year-on-year, new races crop up, field sizes are different, with triathletes at different levels of ability and fitness. The result? Triathletes are dominating races then finding out that same race has dragged their average down. For example, Great Britain’s Kat Matthews is ranked fifth in Europe, one place outside of an automatic Collins Cup qualifying spot, but the race result that is dragging down her average is from Outlaw X in the UK last fall—a race she won by a country mile! Rightly or wrongly, anomalies like this means it’s really, really hard to persuade pro triathletes that this system works. And as the name Professional Triathletes Organization suggests, this is an audience they really, really want onboard.
  • It’s applied retrospectively. When a triathlete starts the race, they have no idea what time they need to stop the clock in order to prosper. In fact, they only find out later once the algorithms have worked their magic. It’s byzantine.
  • Burning all the matches all the time. The concept of shutting a race down because you’ve left the opposition in the dust is out the window. No more meandering down the finish chute blowing kisses to the crowd (when a crowd returns). For triathletes racing multiple times a season and used to racing for wins not times, this is anathema—but the system doesn’t reward easing back no matter how far ahead you are.
  • Full distance isn’t middle distance. Triathletes like Patrick Lange and Joe Skipper boosted their rankings with great performances at Ironman Tulsa. But it’s set them up to qualify for the Collins Cup—a 62-mile (100K) race – and while Tulsa-winner Lange is also a two-time Ironman world champion, the German has DNFd and finished 30th and 22nd in his three Ironman 70.3 world champs appearances. Is he really better than Javier Gomez over 100K?
  • It’s too complicated. Finally, if you’re still with us, then well done. In fact, really well done—you’ve shot up 50 places in the loyal reader rankings. But these past 1,000+ words really do underline the challenge for the ranking system. The PTO is all about spinning narratives to boost profiles, and a chunk of that is the evolving ‘who will/who won’t make the Collins Cup.’ But if the ranking system isn’t transparent enough to understand quickly, then you have a hard job holding your audience.

Our verdict: Everything about long-course triathlon feels like a huge learning curve at present, and the PTO rankings are no different. It’s hard to think of a fair system during a pandemic that doesn’t penalize those who can’t travel. But while the method of proprietary algorithms and AITs may have derived from a place of trying to be fair to all, equating local events with world championships based retrospectively on time rather than results just feels wrong. Triathlon has never really been about times, it’s always been about taking the tape.

Yet the bigger picture now is how this evolves. If the world can move past COVID, then here’s hoping the system can be adjusted based on the best competing head-to-head in an established calendar of events to decide who is rightfully #1.