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Ironman Head Ref: “I Don’t Believe the Penalties Were Excessive”

Our five-minute stand down (see what we did there?) with Ironman’s head referee to find out why the pro penalty box was overflowing in the Ironman World Championships with race-changing violations - and why he believes that's a good thing.

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With 14 penalties handed out in the professional races at last week’s Ironman World Championship and several triathletes seething as to the perceived injustice of it all, we felt it was time to get the inside track.

To make sense of how the race was officiated, whether the penalties were fair and whether Ironman should look to change its processes in the future, we sat down with Ironman’s global director of rules and officiating, Jimmy Riccitello, to get some answers.

We also spoke to two of the leading pros busted for drafting in the race, Germany’s Laura Philipp and Denmark’s Magnus Ditlev, for their take. You can read their thoughts after Jimmy’s.

RELATED: Triathletes’ Kona Central Hub

Ironman Head Referee Jimmy Riccitello on Penalties at Ironman World Championship 2022

Triathlete: Why do you think so many penalties were handed out in the pro race over the two days of racing?  

Jimmy Riccitello: I don’t believe that an excessive number of penalties were handed out. Six penalties were issued on Thursday and eight penalties on Saturday.

That said, a few factors contributed to the increase in penalties this year. With respect to the women, there were 15-20 more women in the field.

In addition, the trend of greater parity in both the men’s field and the women’s field continues, which results in fields that are more clustered than in previous years.

We also had relatively mild winds, so mother nature didn’t break up the fields. Finally, we were able to dedicate more referees to each pro field because we had the separation of both professional races.

While I don’t believe the penalties were excessive, I would also point out that increased enforcement is not necessarily a bad thing.

Although penalties are becoming more visible due to the live coverage and vocal penalized athletes, I believe the level of officiating resulted in a fairer race.

Is there a list of who has been penalized, for how long and for what, that can be made public – ideally in real time? 

Since I started with Ironman in 2005, we have never published a list of penalized athletes. This was to give the athlete the choice whether to publicly talk about the penalty or not.

Things are different now that most races are covered live – so perhaps this is something we will re-evaluate for the future.

In that same vein,  is there a list clearly outlining what yellow and blue card penalties are issued for? 

Yes. The Ironman Competition Rules clearly explain what constitutes a 5-minute Blue Card violation and what constitutes a 1-minute Yellow Card violation.

In short, drafting and intentional littering are 5-minute Blue Card violations, and everything else is a 1-minute Yellow Card violation. You can find these on Ironman’s website.

Was anything briefed differently to officials ahead of this year’s races? 

No. All of the referees working this year’s Ironman World Championships have worked at previous Ironman World Championship events, and the instructions were the same.

In addition, instructions in the Pro Athlete Briefing were clear: Experienced referees would be present, the quality of the field would make for tight racing, and extra care should be taken to respect the rules.

Has the standalone women’s pro race meant that penalties were issued that wouldn’t have been previously due to being mixed up with fast age-group men and lagging pro men?

I don’t think so. As explained above, the primary reasons had to do with a larger Pro Women’s field, a higher level of parity, mild winds, and a greater level of examination due to more referees being able to focus on one professional race each day.

I think it’s great that we had the time to provide a standalone race for the women, which prevented age-group athletes—whose drafting rules are slightly different to the pros—from (inadvertently) interfering with the Pro Women’s race.

Where are race officials at Kona commissioned from, and what training are they given? 

Their training was provided by USA Triathlon and/or through years of experience officiating Ironman events.

Every referee working in the pro field had experience officiating at past Ironman World Championship events and has served as an Ironman Head Referee.

We’ve had feedback from the pros that penalties were unfair – particularly that they weren’t issued warnings or didn’t know what they were for. What’s your take on this? 

Generally speaking, athletes want the rules to be strictly enforced. But at the same time, and especially when getting a penalty, some will change what they say when the rules are strictly enforced.

The nature of officiating requires discretion and the referees in Kona are as good as it gets when determining when issuing a rule violation to an athlete is warranted.

I encourage the referees to be vocal in order to discourage or prevent drafting when warranted, but to avoid giving warnings.

It is the Ironman World Championships and as previously mentioned, a stern warning was provided at the Pro Athlete Briefing. Athletes determined to be in violation of the competition rules are notified by a referee that they have a penalty and what it’s for. “Athlete {name}, blue card, drafting,” for example.

But primarily conversation is kept to a minimum for safety reasons.  If an athlete wants an explanation as to why they were penalized or the specifics – the event’s Head Referee will always provide those details immediately post-race.

It’s been alleged by several pro athletes that the majority of penalties were handed out by the same official. Can you confirm, and do you see this as an issue? 

This allegation is wrong. On Thursday, four referees issued six pro penalties, and on Saturday, six referees issued eight pro penalties.

When calls are made with the naked eye, does a five-minute penalty fit the crime here? 

In my view, a five-minute penalty strikes a good balance. You want the penalty to be severe enough to discourage drafting, but not so severe as to take the athlete completely out of the race.

That said, I hear from many athletes who tell me that the penalty for drafting should be longer than five minutes to prevent “drafters” from finishing in the money and to serve as a greater deterrent.

Is it time for technology such as Race Ranger to be introduced? If so, when might that be? 

While I’m in favor of developing technology that helps make the draft zone more objective – we’re not there yet.

I am, however, encouraged by some of the technology I’ve seen and feel we’re close to having technology that will make determining the draft zone more objective and consistent from race to race.

Having said that, the reflectors on the white line on the Ironman World Championship bike course in Kona are 40ft/~12 meters apart – the same distance as the draft zone, and serve as a guide for both the referees and the athletes.

In addition, because the course runs north and south, the athletes’ shadows appear perpendicular to the athlete on the white line, which makes determining the draft zone more objective than on other courses.

Ironman Kona Bike Count 2022
(Photo: Brad Kaminski/Triathlete)

Penalties at Ironman World Championship 2022: What the pros had to say

“I never received a penalty my whole life and it’s definitely not my racing style,” said Germany’s Laura Philipp, a pre-race favorite who was handed a 5-minute stand down on the bike before battling her way up to fourth-place.

“In my case, I don’t accept it and I really feel like it was intentional. She [the technical official] didn’t explain why I got it.

“I was leading that group for most of the time and think she should watch how athletes are riding and acting in a group. If something is too close for 2 seconds you can give a warning and not a 5-minute penalty.”

Philipp, who without the penalty would have had the day’s second fastest bike split behind Daniela Ryf, said she generally backed the stance of tough officiating.

“I think it’s good to hand out penalties and I’m also not a fan of referees not handing out penalties if they should,” she explained. “But I definitely feel like it was unfair. It would be better to have shorter penalties or a warning if I do something and if I do it again get a 5-minute penalty.

“That’s deserved and that’s ok, but just handing it out without any explanation is too much, especially in the World Championship where everything costs so much to come over here.”

How did it affect the rest of her race? “To be honest, it definitely took away the chance of making it onto the podium here,” she said. “I was really excited about the position I was in in the race and was preparing to take off with Daniela [on the bike].

“But after that break [penalty] it’s not like you feel amazing and can ride double the watts. It’s really tough to get back into it and it was very lonely.

“I thought I might be able to bridge back up but soon realized it wasn’t going to happen.

“I was just focusing on my own power and was proud I kept on going and didn’t give up.”

The 35-year-old also backed the call for more tech to make decisions more objective.

“I think first a referee should maybe have a GoPro filming things, or we need RaceRanger, that would also help. I’d love that to be implemented, I think it’s about time.”

On the men’s side, Denmark’s Magnus Ditlev was equally fuming he’d received a 5-minute penalty. “That was tough mentally and I can’t understand anything of it. If I get a penalty then there are a lot of other guys who should get a penalty. I hadn’t even caught the group before I got the penalty.”

The 24-year-old who battled on to finish eighth was proud of the way he fought back. “I ran with Sebi [Kienle] and the first part felt really good. Out of the energy lab the wheels fell off completely.

“I also think it was a mental battle after all the things that happened. The main takeaway is I got to the finish line. Hats off to them [the Norwegians], I wish I could have joined them for a little longer.”

RELATED: Video: Magnus Ditlev: “I Don’t Believe the Penalty Was the Right Call”