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How Technology Is Changing On The Race Course

Rapidly-evolving technology is causing race directors to rethink how they're enforcing safe and fair racing.

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Twenty years ago, a race was considered to be high-tech if it had a microphone, an amplifier, and a singular timing mat at the finish line. At the turn of the century, the majority of races—especially small, local events—were still using bullhorns to make announcements and volunteers to record splits and overall times.

If it seems like running and triathlon races have come a long way since then, that’s because they have—in only 20 years, technology has evolved rapidly to the benefit of athletes, spectators, and race officials. Disposable timing chips have replaced the large, cumbersome, and expensive tracking tags of yore; multiple timing mats can be found on even the smallest local mom-and-pop race, and crossing one can fire off an update to an athlete’s cheering squad via smartphone app; live GPS tracking of pro athletes at some races now includes biometric and power data for an enhanced spectator experience.

Such growth is best described by the law of accelerating returns, a term coined by engineer Ray Kurzweil to describe how technological progress speeds up exponentially. The capabilities of technology—be it a computer, smartphone, or even a timing chip—increase by thousands, millions, and billions each year, while cost decreases in kind. That’s a boon for triathlon, said Richard Belderok, Chief Technology Officer for Challenge Family:

“With the Internet of Things, where hardware is becoming smaller, cheaper, and better connected, there will certainly be technologic advances. As triathlon has always been a sport of early adapters and open for change, together we can take a leading role in this.”

Races are constantly seeking out and developing ways to harness technology for a better race experience, said Dag Oliver, General Manager of Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. “Making for safer races has been a key factor. In addition, as our race has evolved, paving the road for fair play has become increasingly important.”

Many race officials see technology as the cornerstone of safe and fair racing. But what, exactly, does that look like for triathlon—today and in the future? 

Speedy and Reliable Communication Between Officials

When it comes to communication between race officials, ham radios and walkie-talkies have been replaced by smartphone apps. “The main point of improvement we’ve seen is in the speed of communication between officials,” explained Belderok. “With text messaging and apps, officials can communicate penalties from the course to penalty boxes and finish-line officials. It’s given them the tools to act more quickly on penalties assigned.”

One Central Information Hub

A seamless race day requires the coordination of multiple teams, including race staff, officials, volunteers, traffic control, and medical support spread out over many miles. Four years ago, Norseman set up a Venue Control Center, or VCC, to serve as a central information hub for all involved with the race. “With a point-to-point race covering large parts of southern Norway, with fjords, multiple mountain passes, and a mountaintop finish, control and communication had been a major challenge. The VCC was our game changer. That let us have a full overview of incidents and their status as they were reported.”

Most races today have something similar to Norseman’s VCC. This web-based dashboard is responsible for liaising everything happening on the course, allowing teams to track and solve incidents as they are reported: ambulances are dispatched to medical emergencies, aid stations are restocked with essential supplies, and race officials are directed to assist in areas where violations are taking place.

No Escaping (or Debating) Penalties

Currently, enforcing the rules on the course requires an official to be physically present when a rule is broken—a drafting penalty can’t be assigned by hearsay alone. That’s why races are seeking out ways to beef up their human officiating teams with virtual officials. In Belgium, researchers have developed a camera-based system for detecting drafting while cycling. A Dutch team has conceptualized an alert system which lights if an athlete enters the drafting zone. Drones, too, may be an option for spotting penalties like drafting or course-cutting. “With the filming capabilities and extended battery times of drones there is a possibility to collect video evidence of penalties. Integration of exact (GPS) positioning of people and bikes can help with regulations,” said Belderok.

Cheaters, Begone!

Race officials are keenly aware that just as technology can be used to enforce the rules, it can be used to skirt them. In 2016, Ironman announced it would be following UCI’s (Union Cyclist Internationale, cycling’s governing body) lead in screening bikes for hidden motors in bike frames or wheels. UCI’s practices for mechanical fraud, or “motor doping,” include mobile x-ray machines, magnetic scanning tablets, and trackers to catch manipulation to a bike or wheels during a race.

Technology is also ever-evolving for physiological doping, both to catch novel methods of cheating as well as make testing simpler and less expensive to implement on a large scale. Recent innovations in anti-doping technologies include the development of breath and saliva testing, which may be an easier and more affordable alternative to blood and urine collection for in- and out-of-competition samples. 

Drones to the Rescue

“We dream about drones [at Norseman],” said Oliver. “We use them extensively already, but that is mainly for our media team. But for us, having drones feeding to a solution, like identifying erratic behavior during the swim, would save us many headaches.”

Many event directors see drones as the next frontier in race safety. In addition to providing an eagle-eye view for spotting medical emergencies, drones can catch potential hazards on the course, like a vehicle that ignores traffic barricades and enters the race course. By sending an alert to the central information hub of a race, drones can dispatch first responders immediately, rather than waiting for a bystander with a phone to report an adverse event.

Pinpoint Precision

GPS trackers aren’t only for athletes–at an increasing number of races, marshals and safety personnel wear trackers, too. This allows systems to dispatch not only the best responder for the incident, but the closest one–if an athlete is injured, the race can notify the closest medic. If there is an area with congestion and drafting, the nearest course marshals can redirect to aid with referee duties.

More Timing Points Along The Course

Depending on the length of the race and the resources available, athletes may find themselves crossing as many as 60 timing checkpoints between start and finish. Belderok says races work closely with timers to quickly identify timing anomalies, such as missed timing mats or inconsistent splits, to detect cheating.

Some speculate the evolution of timing will move away from mats and toward GPS–though that’s certainly possible, it’s not likely in the near future. The infrastructure simply isn’t there yet, and the cost of equipping thousands of athletes with GPS trackers is less than appealing when timing mats and chips are simple, affordable, and effective.

Real-Time Physiological Data

Triathletes are notorious for pushing through their discomfort–sometimes, to great detriment. Technology can help medical officials keep tabs on the physiological status of athletes, which can help in addressing a medical crisis. Heart rate monitors, for example, can unveil cardiac irregularities. Sweat patches worn on the skin can measure sweat rate and sodium concentration to fend off dehydration. At Norseman, researchers collect core body temperature data from a portion of the athletes by having them ingest “pills” containing temperature-measuring technology. In addition to providing health data on each individual athlete, such equipment can contribute to a better collective understanding of the physiological effects of endurance sport.

Debriefing with Data

In addition to real-time data for more efficient in-race response, Oliver said technology allows for a more informed debriefing post-race: “Our VCC generates great reports, giving a very good overview of the race from the organizational and safety side. Also, because all warnings and penalties are logged as well, we can review the ‘fair play’ aspect easily.” Oliver said this allows the race to address concerns and inefficiencies for an improved race experience each year.

Will Tech Replace Human Officials?

Though race-related technology is evolving rapidly, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing robots pull up alongside a draft pack to dole out penalties. Humans are still a critical part of creating a safe and fair race, especially as technology is still developing. A 2019 study of drones on the swim course at Ironman Mont-Tremblant, for example, stated that even though drones did help with spotting swimmers in distress, the overwhelming majority of identification came from human lifeguards and volunteers.

There’s also the ability of humans to see more just black or white, said Belderok. “For instance, on littering. In some cases, a nutrition wrapper would accidentally fall out of a pocket. A human would easier see the difference to littering on purpose.”

There’s also the simple fact that technology isn’t foolproof. Batteries die, drones lose contact, camera lenses fog up, and glitches happen. “We still have to be prepared for technology to fail,” said Oliver. “Usually it will do so when it’s the worst possible time. Having manual backup processes in place as a fall back is–and should always be–part of race planning.”