It’s a fair bet that the vast majority of those crossing the Ironman Austria finish line at the start of the month were in joyous spirits and thankful to the organisers, World Triathlon Corporation, for providing a rewarding – possibly life-changing – experience.
Albeit unashamedly for-profit, as decreed by Wanda Group, its Chinese conglomerate owners, the brand consistently deliver world-class endurance events across the world, and for two decades Klagenfurt has been a particularly popular destination given its picturesque course, and potential for fast times and Kona qualification.
It’s provided some seminal moments in professional racing too, such as in 2011 when Marino Vanhoenacker won his sixth title in 7:45:58, a time that stood as an Ironman-brand record for five years.
So what’s this gripe of a column for?
Well, nothing, if you’re counting the Ironman coffers or deservedly admiring your bling while sipping a post-race Stiegl.
Yet for those at the sharp end of the race and trying to make a living from the relatively trifling prize money on offer, or for those devotedly - or perhaps deludedly - following Ironman racing and trying to believe in its viability as professional sport, there was quite a bit that went wonky.
Unfortunately, in a week in which cycling was mired in a debacle over whether Chris Froome would race the Tour de France, Austria delivered a podium half-filled with triathletes who can be linked to the stench of doping. They comprise men’s winner Michael Weiss, runner-up Ivan Tutukin, and women’s runner-up Lisa Huetthaler. Each sorry tale has its vagaries, and a quick web-search will send you down those rabbit holes if you choose, but it underlines how triathlon is not free of the stigma that blights so many sports.
However, the focus for this column – and an area that could be more easily rectified (if there’s a will) – was highlighted by a “Statement Regarding Drafting and Moto-pacing at Ironman Austria” released by fourth-placed British professional, Susie Cheetham, shortly after the race.
*Statement Regarding Drafting and Moto-pacing at Ironman Austria* Many people may have been disappointed be scenes of drafting and moto-pacing at Ironman Austria. I felt that unfair racing and officiating took place at the front of the women’s race, and that it affected the results on the day. I presented video and photo evidence this morning in an appeal against one of the top 3 girls for unfair drafting, and against the race officials for inadequate marshalling and providing an unfair advantage due to inadequate Moto-discipline. I’m pleased to say that after reviewing my evidence, and race footage, my appeal has been upheld. It has been agreed that the front 3 women received an unfair advantage. Although I have been told that retrospective penalties cannot be applied under the race rules; action will be taken to ADVANCE ALL WOMEN PROS BY 5 MIN FROM 4TH PLACE. The official results will be amended. I’m happy with this outcome as it vindicates my concerns that the front of the women’s race was not raced fairly. Unfortunately this will not change the positions and I believe that the advantage gained was a lot more than 5 min. I would also have raced differently if I had known I was 9 min back off the bike, rather than 14 min. I really appreciate the genuine concern and interest that I have been shown by the race organisers, officials and Ironman management. I think the matter has been handled swiftly and as well as possible, and I hope this can be used to learn and make this beautiful race better. Susie 📷 @rcruzworld #imaustria #ironmantri #ironmanaustria
There are a few takeaways:
1. The result of advancing the field five minutes from fourth position down has zero impact on the finishing positions.
2. There’s a sense of déja vu over allegations of drafting and moto-pacing in Ironman racing.
3. Despite the clear frustration, Susie is admirably polite and professional with her words – refusing to publicly name the culprit she cited with video evidence.
But this is not as clear-cut as the organisers paying lip-service to placate a seemingly justifiably disgruntled pro. For starters, there is no provision in the rules to submit video evidence post-race. Section 3.06 (b) of the 2018 Ironman competition rules even states that “No person may file a protest which requires a judgment call” and then specifically references drafting violations as an example.
Professional athletes had also been advised that the use of video cameras would result in disqualification, according to Robbie Hayward, a coach who works under Brett Sutton. Cheetham’s response being that the footage was obtained from the Facebook Live feed and spectators’ cameras.
But is it easy to put it right?
It’s important to note that organising and policing fair play in long-distance endurance events is not straightforward, and neither is it a challenge restricted purely to Ironman.
If it were then we wouldn’t see numerous complaints of drafting, moto-pacing, course-cutting, short courses or other infractions across all races. In recent months, Ironman Texas and Challenge Rome have both been pilloried for varying organisational deficiencies.
And as I write this, Ironman UK in Bolton is facing the possibility of switching to a long- distance duathlon with a 95-mile bike leg due to local fires affecting the original bike course and blue-green algae in Pennington Flash.
But unlike forest fires, drafting and moto-pacing are not isolated incidents out of the organisers’ control. Nor are they incredibly rare, such as the altercation with triathletes and a horse in Windsor. And, as such, it shows Ironman that something is systemically remiss in the way it runs events, and should be a catalyst to put more robust processes in place.
Except little changes. The governance on the pro racing remains looking slapdash and made up on the hoof. At Ironman Texas – a race that spawned numerous Ironman-branded records – it was initially announced all times would be voided for record purposes because of the short bike course. This was soon retracted on the realisation that many Ironman bike courses have been under-distance for years.
In Austria, we have a competing triathlete allowed to retrospectively submit footage despite it directly contravening the rule book. The subsequent award of a five-minute bonus – not a penalty for the offending triathlete(s) – then seems both entirely arbitrary, and in terms of impact, completely ineffectual.
If you’re bamboozled by all of this, then who could blame you? Because it not only smacks of incompetence, but more simply, of not being a priority. And this really is the nub of it for Ironman professionals. While long-distance triathlon is almost unique in amateurs being able to race – on the same course, at the same time – with the world’s elite, the pros themselves are not deemed enough of an asset to the Ironman brand to consider worth investing in.
If they were then prize money would be higher, fewer athletes would be crammed on courses, start-times would be more generously spaced, moto-pacing from media or safety bikes wouldn’t happen, drafting would be policed, confounding rulings would not be imposed retrospectively, and – perhaps most importantly of all – when mistakes were made, a human face would step forward publically to take responsibility and practical solutions would be put in place to make racing fairer.
Ironman were – as always – approached for comment in this article.