Ask A Triathlon Ref: Accepting Help From A Fellow Competitor

Unauthorized Assistance is a rule that is often misunderstood and could cause a well-meaning athlete to unwittingly be penalized.

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Dear Ref: Can I really get a penalty for accepting a spare tube or gel from a fellow competitor? — Honest Abe

Honest Abe,

Unauthorized Assistance is a rule that is often misunderstood and could cause a well-meaning athlete to unwittingly be penalized.

Here is the rule as written in the USA Triathlon (USAT) Rule Book:

USAT Rule 3.4(d):
Unauthorized Assistance

No participant shall accept from any person (other than a race official) physical assistance in any form, including food, drink, equipment, support, pacing, a replacement bicycle or bicycle parts, unless an express exception has been granted and approved, in writing, by USA Triathlon. The receipt of information regarding the progress, split times, or location of other competitors on the race course shall not be considered the acceptance of unauthorized assistance. Any violation of this Section shall result in a variable time penalty.

A literal reading may cause an honest athlete to believe that if he or she receives a gel or cup of water from a fellow athlete at an aid station, a spare tube from a passing athlete, a pat on the back and “looking good!” from a fellow competitor, he or she is in violation of the rule.

I believe the primary intent of the Unauthorized Assistance rule is to prohibit assistance from persons who are not participating in the race. I do not think the rule, in general, is intended to prohibit any and all assistance and good deeds from fellow athletes—but it is confusing. The line gets blurry when a participant receives assistance from an athlete whose main purpose (as opposed to a spontaneous act of kindness) is to aid another athlete. In other words, triathlon is an individual sport and an athlete is not allowed to receive help from someone who has subordinated his or her race goals in order to enable another athlete to perform better.

For example, if I were to compete alongside my wife with the sole purpose of supporting her by providing a wheel from my bike should she get a flat tire, or a push up a hill, that’s Unauthorized Assistance. Or if I’m NOT entered in the race, and I run beside my wife for a significant portion of the run, passing her cold beverages, uttering terms of endearment and words of encouragement, and making promises related to household chores that are contingent on her impending PR, my wife received Unauthorized Assistance.

If I receive a beverage, food item, spare tube, from a person not associated with the event, I received Unauthorized Assistance. But if I suffered a flat tire in a race and I’m out of flat fixing supplies, and a passing athlete has mercy on me and gives me a spare tube and a canister of CO2, that is not Unauthorized Assistance.

To take it a step further, what if a crazed triathlon fan dressed up in a gorilla suit, or heaven forbid, as Borat in skimpy swimwear, runs beside you for a couple hundred yards fanatically screaming words of encouragement? Is that Unauthorized Assistance?

The bottom line is, to minimize the chance of being penalized for Unauthorized Assistance, ask yourself if the assistance you are receiving is something that is only available to you. If the answer to that question is no, you will most likely not be penalized for Unauthorized Assistance.

However, as mentioned earlier, on the odd chance that you find a gorilla (or anyone else, for that matter) running next to you, and the gorilla is not entered in the race, to avoid the chance of being penalized for Unauthorized Assistance, politely ask the gorilla to buzz off.

The global governing body of triathlon, the International Triathlon Union, has a slightly different version of the rule.  The ITU’s version of the Unauthorized Assistance rule is (in my opinion, more appropriately) titled “Outside Assistance” and states that athletes must “compete without receiving assistance other than from event personnel and officials.”

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ITU Rule 2.2 (a. and b.):
Outside Assistance

a.  The assistance provided by event personnel or Technical Officials is allowed but is limited to drinks, nutrition, mechanical and medical assistance, upon the approval of the Technical Delegate or Race Referee.  Athletes competing in the same race may assist each other with incidental items such as nutrition and drinks after a water station and pumps, tubular tires, inner tubes and puncture repair kits.

b.  Athletes may not provide any item of equipment to an athlete competing in the same race which results in the donor athlete being unable to continue with their own race.  This includes but is not restricted to shoes, complete bicycle, wheel and helmet. The penalty for this will be disqualification of both athletes.

I prefer the ITU’s version of the rule, as it better conveys what should be the intent of the Unauthorized Assistance Rule—prohibiting an athlete from receiving an unfair advantage—rather than prohibiting spontaneous acts of sportsmanship and kindness among athletes.

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