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Why the Top-Ranked Blind American Triathlete Isn’t Racing in Tokyo

It's complicated.

Selection for the Paralympic and Olympic teams can get messy, sometimes even ugly—and it isn’t always clear where simple decisions were made, and where old grudges and new politics instead play a role. When it’s left in the hands of discretionary committees and choices, it can be particularly hard for athletes, who don’t have control then of the outcome. Just ask anyone who was left at home this summer.

Aaron Scheidies is a visually impaired athlete currently ranked fifth in the world and the top American in the PTVI category (which covers a range of visual impairments). He is not in Tokyo and will not be racing in the Paralympic race later today. Why?

It’s complicated.

First, selection for any U.S. team comes from USA Triathlon. Unlike the Olympics, the Paralympic selection criteria weren’t spelled out in specific auto-qualification fashion: In Olympic selection, a top eight or a top three at a certain race earned an athlete an automatic spot on the team, as we saw with Summer Rappaport, Taylor Knibb, and Morgan Pearson. That’s not how it works for paratri. The U.S. Paralympic triathlon selection criteria instead lists, in priority order, objective considerations that would be considered.

First, there were three specific selection races that would be given top consideration. At two of those selection races, held in 2019, Scheidies was the top American, placing second at the Tokyo Paratriathlon World Cup and third at the world championships. But then the pandemic happened.

At the final selection event held in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin earlier this year, Scheidies was third and was beaten by two of his U.S. teammates.

The USAT Paralympic selection criteria has a clause that says they will utilize discretion in “unusual situations” (e.g., global pandemics). The selection committee used this discretion and selected the other two athletes for the U.S. team in the men’s visually impaired category.

“I don’t agree with that decision, but I understand it,” said Schiedies, who congratulated his teammates in a public statement as well.

RELATED: U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team Announced for Tokyo

OK, that’s it, right? Too bad for Schiedies, but sometimes the dice doesn’t roll your way.

But wait. In the Paralympics, World Triathlon also awards what is called a “bipartite” spot. This is a spot in each classification category given to an athlete who otherwise wasn’t selected for their country’s team. And this is where Schiedes believes things should have gone his way.

When the bipartite spots were announced, in every other category the top-ranked athlete who wasn’t otherwise named to their country’s team was picked for the extra spot. In Schiedies’ category (PTVI), it went to the 13th-ranked athlete. Why?

USAT CEO Rocky Harris wrote to World Triathlon to ask, listing out the reasons he believed Schiedies met World Triathlon’s criteria and why the decision was inconsistent. In an email following the bipartite announcements, Harris requested clarification and wrote: “Excluding one of the preeminent VI athletes and vocal leaders in the world from the sport’s biggest stage will negatively impact the sport as a whole…”

According to Schiedies, the issue comes down to, in essence, this: World Triathlon doesn’t like him and he’s a rabble-rouser. Back in 2012, World Triathlon attempted to enforce a rule that required all visually impaired athletes to wear blackout glasses in order to create a level playing field. However, this eliminated the small amount of vision some of them had and caused dangerous situations for those athletes who were otherwise used to light and shapes suddenly having them blacked out for a race. Schiedies led a protest against the blackout glasses and, ultimately, filed a lawsuit against the rule. (Today, the visually impaired athletes don’t race with blackout glasses, but instead use a headstart system to even up the advantage some athletes have over others.)

The counsel for World Triathlon on that blackout glasses lawsuit was Antonio Arimany. Now the Secretary General for World Triathlon, Arimany sat on the three-person committee that made the bipartite selections for Tokyo.

Schiedies says he should have recused himself for conflict of interest. World Triathlon says that’s simply not the case.

“The World Triathlon Secretary General sits on invitation panels throughout the year without any conflict of interest,” said World Triathlon spokesperson Olalla Cernuda, noting that an bipartite spot was also requested and denied for a French athlete, where the French had also selected two other lower-ranked athletes for their team spots, but that World Triathlon doesn’t get involved in national governing body’s decisions about who to send to the Olympics or Paralympics.

World Triathlon’s bipartite selection process also list a number of criteria—among them the consideration that multiple countries should be represented. In this visually impaired category, they say, the U.S. already had two athletes, so World Triathlon wasn’t going to select a third.

Confused yet? Just wait.

The issue, for Schiedies and part of the inquiry from USAT’s Harris, however, is that in the PTS2 category World Triathlon did select a third American athlete for the bipartite spot: Melissa Stockwell. Doesn’t that prove Schiedies’ point about discrimination against him specifically?

No, said Cernuda. In the PTS2 category, there simply weren’t enough athletes meeting the overall criteria to be on the start line. They had to select Stockwell, knowing that another athlete also wasn’t going to be selected by their national team, in order to have the goal of ten qualified athletes at the start.

Schiedies hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). World Triathlon did not fast-track the case so that it could be heard in time for the Tokyo Games—a common practice when a major event, like the Olympics or Paralympics, is coming up. World Triathlon says the case has no merit and CAS doesn’t oversee the Paralympics, that in fact the Paralympics are overseen by the International Paralympic Committee.

That is neither here nor there. There are instances of the International Paralympic Committee abiding by CAS decisions, but it is also true that most para-sports are not governed by the same governing body as athletes without disabilities. Triathlon is one of the few sports where the international governing body (World Triathlon) oversees both sides of the sport. So, yes, in most instances the para side of the sport would be overseen by the International Paralympic Committee, not by CAS. In triathlon, it’s less clear. Certainly, the case could have been heard by CAS, but it wasn’t—at least not in time for Tokyo.

And so this is where we are.

In 2016, after years of work, paratriathlon was added to the Paralympics and made its debut in Rio. Missing from that start line too? Aaron Schiedies.

RELATED: Aaron Schiedies’ Insane Road to Rio

Not every para-triathlon category is selected for every Paralympics. The men’s visually impaired was not contested in Rio, “despite being among the most competitive classification in the sport,” according to Schiedies. World Triathlon makes that decision too, about which categories will be contested, and it’s hard for him not to feel like it all adds up to something.

A seven-time paratriathlon world champion and eight-time national champion, Schiedies is 39 now. Tokyo was finally going to be his chance in the sport he’s fought for years for. But selection can get messy and complicated and hard for athletes when it’s left to people and committees not in their control. Instead, he’ll be cheering on his sport from home.

RELATED: How to Watch Paralympics Triathlon