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Why Does A 10-Second Penalty Make So Much Of A Difference In World Triathlon Races?

You’d think a few seconds here and there wouldn’t make much difference in triathlon. But when it comes to World Triathlon races you couldn’t be further from the truth.

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When Lionel Sanders and Rudy von Berg went hell for leather towards the finish arch at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in May they had to be separated by a photo finish. Except it wasn’t state-of-the-art technology that was able to break down the stills to the near thousandth of a second to see whose torso broke the line first; it was actually from a handily (and fortunately) placed cameraman, who wasn’t quite level with the finish line, but more or less in the right spot. Sanders got the nod, just about, for second place.

It’s an illustration, if one were needed, that these nip-and-tuck finishes don’t occur often in long-distance triathlon races. In Oceanside, that under-preparation stretched to not only not having a finish line camera, but not even a definable finish line itself. (It might be something the M-Dot crew want to rectify by the time we reach Hawaii.)

Most of the time, we get to see these long-course triathletes enjoy the finish chute. The battle is usually won (or lost) by the time they step onto the red carpet, and it’s a safe space for high fives and soaking up the cheers.

But not in the other half of the sport.

On the blue carpet world of World Triathlon (formerly ITU) such a luxurious saunter to the tape is a rare privilege. Virtually every race is an exciting sprint for the line. And photo finishes are something officials don’t just prepare for, but expect. You see, seconds matter in this draft-legal game—even milliseconds at times.

Perhaps the best example remains the women’s Olympic race of 2012, where Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig defeated Sweden’s Lisa Norden in a photo finish so close that it’s still debated in Scandinavia to this day.

In this context, it’s easy to see how a few extra seconds wrestling to be free of a wetsuit or fumbling with a helmet strap in transition can be the difference between a smiling podium picture or an also-ran.

Just this weekend we looked set for a near-repeat of that epic contest in the Commonwealth Games men’s triathlon in Birmingham, England, where Tokyo Olympic silver and bronze medal winners, Britain’s Alex Yee and New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde, approached the final sweeping turn stride for stride.

Except it was at that moment that Wilde slowed, extended a brief handshake to his rival and peeled off to stand under a small gazebo and serve a 10-second penalty. What should have been a sprint finish for the ages was ruined. Yee jogged to gold, Wilde emerged to run it in for silver. We’ll never know who would have been the rightful victor.

And the Kiwi’s heinous crime? Allegedly unbuckling his helmet strap before the bike was properly racked in transition.

It was a tough call by any measure, tougher still when video evidence for the supposed misdemeanor remains inconclusive. The New Zealand team have an ongoing appeal, leaning on World Triathlon, as the sport’s governing body, to upgrade Wilde to joint gold. It could take up to 30 days.

All in all, it’s a bit of a mess, and it shows that when seconds matter this much in this sport, so too do the calls of the technical officials.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Wilde’s penalty call was that it was all so predictable, so in keeping with World Triathlon’s every-infraction-counts style.

If we wind the clock way back to the mid-’90s, one of the reasons short-course triathlon turned draft-legal was to take out the guesswork from a race referee over who was drafting and when. If triathlon was to become an Olympic sport, there needed to be minimal chance of a disqualification for some technicality the watching public wouldn’t understand. Allowing drafting—however unpopular it was at the time—was part of the solution to ensure athletes’ performances decided race outcomes, not decisions by race officials.

Fast-forward to the 2012 Olympics, and we saw eventual bronze medalist Jonny Brownlee receive a 15-second penalty for having one foot on the mount line as he hopped on his bike out of transition—penalized for an infringement that was a matter of inches and made no material difference to his performance. Yet it could have cost him a medal.

The following year, again on the London course, another Brit, Non Stanford, was penalized for not putting her wetsuit completely in her kit box during T1. Fortunately, for Stanford she was able to weather the caution and hold on to win the race—and the world title. Something we saw again in Flora Duffy’s penalty for goggles falling outside her box a few weeks ago—and her subsequent come-from-behind win. It’s hard to win, as Wilde proved, when races can come down to seconds and you’ve just lost 10 of them, but it’s not impossible.

In recent times, it appears we’ve seen more and more of these penalties creeping into the sport—the dismount line, and wetsuit or goggles out of the box are two of the most common; the helmet strap is more rare—but are they really serving the purpose they were set out for, or has it gone beyond a point where overly judicious officials are just looking to punish anything they set their eagle-eyes on?

As coach and commentator Barry Shepley remarked on the Wilde incident, the rules are put in place for the “safety and fairness” of the sport. While sticklers for the letter of the law would say Wilde was foolish to even touch his helmet while he had the other hand on his bike (albeit with the wheel racked), what the Kiwi did was neither unsafe nor gained him an advantage.

Yes, had he removed his helmet and slung it across the transition area on the run through, or had Stanford chucked her wetsuit on top of another triathlete’s run shoes, then we could argue penalties were justified and competitors’ races were affected, but these are minor infractions leading to maximum impact on the race results.

The irony to this is that it comes against a backdrop of the Leeds World Championship Series race in early June where Wilde admitted responsibility for a horrible looking crash that put Brownlee out of contention for the Commonwealth Games with a broken elbow and wrist. Wilde went on to take the tape in Leeds and wasn’t penalized—other than a few choice words from the sidelines from Brownlee—for the incident.

That might be taking the whataboutery too far, but it does illustrate how triathlon can be a dangerous sport and there are mistakes that can made that impact the races of others. Deliberate rough-house tactics in the swim and on the bike are the times for penalties, pettiness for trivial transition lapses are not.

Seconds matter in triathlon, even more so in World Triathlon racing, so when and how you dish out penalties matters too.

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