Frayed denim skirts, stetsons and warbling. Bussing back to Edmonton’s Westin hotel from a brief sojourn to the Canadian Rockies and so much has changed. Just a few days before this was a thriving hub for the Australian, USA, and Great British triathlon teams; elites jostling with age-groupers to cram carbon into creaking lifts; free morning Starbucks and afternoon ice tea lapped up in seconds.
But the travelling circus of the ITU has departed to make way for Canadian Music Awards clientele and a ‘knees-up’ no longer reflects on improved run technique. The vibe has changed, if not the music (one of the oddities of the World Series finale was hearing Garth Brooks bellowed out while a 65-year-old waving a Mexican flag trundled down the blue finish chute) And breakfast? Well, that’s now pushed back four hours and the fry-ups and grits are aplenty once more.
I’ve decided I’ve got a soft spot for Edmonton. Not that I’ll ever come back, unless it’s for triathlon, of course, but the US triathlete overheard on the metro system stating: ‘If I’d wanted to have gone to an oil town, I’d have driven to Houston,’ now seems a harsh critic. Granted, as John Ruskin said of Sheffield, it’s an ugly picture in a beautiful frame, yet the Alberta capital with around 1,000,000 inhabitants, depending on where you draw the city limits, threw down such a warm welcome for the 3,500 multisport athletes and support crews it would melt the icy peaks of the Rockies.
THE IDEAL HOST
Admittedly, the omens were always good. Edmonton has been putting on world-level triathlon since 2001 and when San Diego pulled out as hosts last autumn it stepped up and sunk in $5million, almost a quarter of which was used to bring the man-made lake up to ITU standards (ie. turn it into a swimming pool). The drive from the airport, lined with flags proclaiming This Is Going To Be Epic saw a welcome change from London last year, where the greeting signage was yellow and warned of road closures around Hyde Park.
A cynic might argue that if you disregard the sprawling West Edmonton Mall, the largest in North American and a worthy homage to capitalism (even the performing sea lions are on commission), there isn’t much, really, to do. But it loves being a host, and triathlon should be thankful that to complement the Eskimos (American football) and Oilers (ice hockey) that there is proud and loyal investment in multisport.
Edmonton has set its sights on beating back Durban to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games – where you suspect triathlon, although an ‘optional’ sport, would confidently retaining its spot – and it passes the baton for the triathlon ITU showpiece to Chicago for 2015 and gracefully accepts its role as the penultimate makeweight in the ever-increasing series of races (currently scheduled for nine with a possible 10th).
As for 2014, what the city really craved was a local hero, and how they’d have loved it to be Paula Findlay, the Edmontonian, who in a 12-month spell from June 2010, won five of six World Series races and looked the lady to beat as Olympic year approached. Injury upon injury put paid to that, and pretty much everything since, so it was one of the highlights to see her edging gently towards a top level return here.
Fifteenth wasn’t bad considering it was her first Series finish since trailing in a teary last competitor at London 2012, but although still just 25, seeing her run down in a few effortless strides by Gwen Jorgensen suggests the sport has moved on. And some.
While the throngs congregated to grab selfies with Findlay, the real hard graft was being done by Simon Whitfield. The retired double-Olympic medallist and Canadian hero, who maximised his talent on the biggest stage like no other, must have employed a doppelganger, such was his ubiquitous ambassadorial presence.
He was joined by an impressive array of legends as the ITU celebrated its 25th year by launching a Hall Of Fame. Triathlon names don’t come bigger than Mark Allen and Simon Lessing, Greg Welch managed to temporarily lay down the mike from commentary duties, and Michellie Jones, the Olympic silver medallist, two-time ITU world champ and Ironman winner, even rolled back the years to post the fastest overall time for the women’s age-group sprint racing before donning her frock for Sunday night’s induction.
So on to the racing, and triathletes who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the above lined up to contest a prize that was not even triathlon’s biggest pay cheque of the weekend. While Javier Gomez departed with $96,000 for his troubles, Hunter Kemper picked up $4,000 more for winning a 5150 non-drafting race in Des Moines, Iowa, over the same distance. It’s not to begrudge either Kemper’s achievement or the ITU (who put up $2.2million over the Series), but this scheduling needs rewiring – triathlon is not big enough to cannibalise its opportunity for media exposure in this manner.
The World Series organisers might also reflect there needs to be some simplification of the points system to make viewing sense for the public. How many of those tuning in knew Alistair Brownlee’s job was to work for his brother because he couldn’t win the title? Or that his breakaway was not chased down because Gomez only needed to shadow Jonny. It was virtuoso Alistair, of course, which should be a cherished sight given his physiological frailties, but it meant Gomez in third, came first, Mario Mola in second, came second, and Jonny, in fourth, rounded out the overall podium.
At least on the women’s side it was easier to fathom, Gwen Jorgensen needed to stay upright on the bike, and with the sun shining, unlike last year in London, she was more than capable. There may be no perfect solution to all this. After all, Gomez and Jorgensen deserved their buffers after dominant seasons; the Spaniard won four of eight races; the American her last five. The format worked well for both and they are too media-polished to offer any criticism anyway.
There’s more to this jamboree, though, including, by my quick count, 113 other world titles on the line in one-off competition. Among them is elite aquathlon, whose future must be in jeopardy after seven men and four women lined up. Whilst the swim-run combo served as a useful warm-up for many of the age-group athletes, the elite clearly see it as an unnecessary distraction. A revamp if not culling is in order.
On a more positive footing, paratriathlon is establishing its niche as fierce competition rather than a token gesture. Some unpopular decisions still have to be made over classification before Rio and while the more comprehensible wheelchair (T1) and visually impaired (T5) divisions look set fair, those in between, notably the T2 and T3 classes where limb loss and neurological dysfunction apply, may see the road to Brazil end next month. More on paratriathlon in my column in issue 305.
Then too, there are the legions of age-groupers, the teams of hundreds from Britain, USA, Australia and Canada, with Mexicans and Kiwis, Irish and Japanese, Brazilians, an array of other nationalities and Shirin Gerami a London-based Iranian who after becoming the first female to represent her country in London last year finished in a respectable 2:37hrs.
No other sport delivers age-group racing quite like triathlon, and given many seemed to sleep in their team tracksuits, the empowering quality of representative honours is a real boon. Of course there are criticisms: The high cost, from initial race entry to qualify, to kit, travel, and all the ancillaries, is too steep for many to entertain and the five-year grouping is probably unnecessary between youth and veteran status.
The qualifiers from tri strongholds should also be capped at a lower number, firstly because it starts to diminish the value of qualification and reek of profiteering by the organisers, and secondly, because with all the races stating within minutes of one another, a course the size of the compact Hawrelak Park, with its two-lap swim, bike and run, cannot handle the volume in a non-drafting format, or even administer the race competently. As a case in point, GBR’s Peter Prior served a penalty for drafting, has since been disqualified, and despite his best efforts to find out, still has no clue as to why.
Yet the majority of age-groupers approach this with their eyes open, and the numbers turning up for the age-group standard distance racing on Monday, rivalled the weekend support for the elite racing. The racing was competitive. Only Jane Leslie (F65-69), Daphne Belt (F70-74) and Neil Eddy (M25-29) struck standard-distance gold for Team GB, with Edward Castro (M25-29) the lone Sprint winner, which is testament to the strength of the home nation and the USA, and the growing proliferation of the sport around the globe.
The parade of nations, opening and closing ceremonies could do with some attention. Triathletes do not suffer successive welcome speeches gladly when they have food and sleep to consider and the snaking queues proved catering for thousands is an unenviable logistical challenge.
But these are minor gripes, discerning competitors will vote with their feet in future, and it shouldn’t distract from the overriding message of what a phenomenal participation – and, when delivered properly – spectator sport we have. This video – which I’m sure many of you have already seen – encapsulates the essence of it better than this column ever could: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpiDGvgQ7bs
P.S. If you missed out on Edmonton and fancy a crack at Chicago 2015. This is what you have to look forward to: http://youtu.be/BusayKaSfaw