Are finishing times or finishing positions more important in triathlon?

Debate over whether Kristian Blummenfelt’s Ironman debut should stand as a world record underlines why triathlon is better when it’s just about who crosses the line first

complicating finishes

If ever there was a reminder needed that professional triathlon was not really about times but finishing positions, then the latest brouhaha over Kristian Blummenfelt’s 7:21:12 finish in Ironman Cozumel in November was it.

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Which record did Kristian Blummenfelt break?

For those unaware, The Norwegian’s phenomenal debut was not just the fastest Ironman of all time, but the fastest iron-distance triathlon ever too – beating both Jan Frodeno’s marks from Challenge Roth in 2016 and, if you acknowledge it, last summer’s Tri Battle Royale.

Rumbles were afoot when Ironman’s media channels dragged their feet over acknowledging the historic feat. The 39min swim certainly raised a few eyebrows.

As the Olympic champion, Blummenfelt is no slouch in the water, but swimming 62secs per 100m for 3.8km looked a little out of his comfort zone.

Eventually, Ironman credited it, and all seemed well, until an eagle-eyed Kevin Mackinnon from Triathlon Canada, spotted that the Professional Triathletes Organisation had removed Blummenfelt’s mark from its ‘fastest times’ page.

Why was Kristian Blummenfelt’s record removed?

The swim was, as most appreciated at the time, current-assisted, but the ensuing backlash on social media pointed out that plenty of other iron distance times are questionable – typically for short courses – and who were the PTO to play judge and jury over what should stand anyway?

Given the PTO’s mission is all about furthering the profile of the pros, it also wasn’t great optics that they appeared to be deriding the performance of one of their greatest assets.

So, the PTO responded by putting out a lengthy press release saying that, to quote, “this sport is too bloody difficult and our PTO Professionals race too bloody hard to have any performance diminished by quibbling over distance discrepancies or arguments over currents.”

And then it scrapped its fastest times page altogether.

Are finishing times or finishing positions more important in triathlon?

In its defence, the PTO stated its fastest times page was purely informational and Blummenfelt’s wasn’t the first performance they’d left off due to course discrepancies.

But it’s also hard to think they’ve not made a rod for their own backs here because the entire PTO rankings system – of which rests $3.5million a year if you include Collins Cup qualification and year-end payout – is based entirely on finishing times NOT finishing positions.

The PTO has used the debate to push the cause that races shouldn’t be compared by finish times but by their own system, which grades performances against Adjusted Ideal Times through a proprietary algorithm that takes into account course conditions on the day.

Who is the fastest iron-distance athlete? 

As such, for the record, it has Jan Frodeno occupying the top four spots with Blummenfelt’s Cozumel performance in ninth. For the women, Chrissie Wellington’s Roth victory in 2010 (not her 2011 world record) tops the list.

The PTO system is innovative, but convincing fans that slower times on the same course are better performances won’t wash. It’s time they accepted that you can’t rank triathletes by tinkering with adjusted ideal times.

If you want people to buy into the sport, it needs to be simpler. It needs to be about that novel concept of who takes the tape first.

Illustration: Daniel Seex

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