Olympic Triathlon vs. “Regular” Triathlon

28 08 2008

It is funny how people can watch the same event and come away with such an opposite reaction.  I watched both the women’s and men’s Olympic triathlons last week live on streaming video (hooked up to my big screen TV), and found myself on the edge of my seat, glued to the announcer-less action for the entire two hours.  Perhaps the difference comes from my acknowledgment and acceptance that what I was watching was not necessarily the same exact sport that we do, but rather a version that was specifically designed for this type of high profile live or televised event.

When the IOC decided to include “triathlon” in Sydney in 2000, they chose to align with the ITU (International Triathlon  Union) version of the sport that featured dock start swims, criterium style bike legs that brought the athletes back to the spectator viewing area frequently, and a similar loop-style course on the run (note the current Boulder Peak pro run course).  Many pros at the time (Wes Hobson, Simon Lessing, etc.) expressed dismay at this decision, as indeed it did not properly reflect the ‘individual’ test of swimming, biking, and running that the sport was founded upon.

While it is true that this style of triathlon that the IOC chose to include in the Olympics is indeed different than Kona, 5430, etc., I believe it is naïve to dismiss it as not being an “individual test of the three sports” in the matter that has often been presented here over the past 8 years.  Here’s my take:

  • Swim– If you can’t swim 18 to 19 minutes (w/o a wetsuit) for 1500 meters, then it is highly unlikely that you will make the podium in this style of triathlon racing.  I’d say that’s a pretty good test of one’s world-class swimming abilities.  Conversely, many a non-drafting triathlon has been won by an average swimmer (exceptional biker/ runner)… consider Natascha Badmann in Kona, especially her first few wins when she couldn’t break an hour.
  • Bike– Obviously this is the leg that gets the most attention when comparing the two styles of racing.  First of all, you must consider that if a promoter (IOC, Hy-Vee, etc.) decides they want a close-up, circuit style course to draw thousands of spectators and TV, then you simply can’t have a non-drafting bike w/o disqualifying every athlete given the lack of road on which to spread out.  Secondly, it is the inexperienced cyclist who insists that this style is not a test of one’s abilities on the bike.  While time-trialing does indeed test our fitness and aerodynamic abilities, wouldn’t we (and the average viewer) agree that the ITU-style is more reflective of one’s well-rounded cycling abilities (aka the actual sport of bike racing) including cornering, shifting, climbing, descending, drafting, covering breaks, tactics, avoiding crashes, and yes… having the skills to work less than others in order to save energy for the final push.  In fact, wouldn’t the average viewer identify much better with this “Tour de France” style of cycling vs. the pure time trialing that is featured during NBC’s Kona coverage whenever they aren’t forced to interrupt the perceived ‘boredom’ with feel-good human interest stories? Lastly, if you think that it is so simple to just “sit in the pack” and save your energy, I suggest jumping into the Cat 4 (beginner) race at a local ACA criterium and see how many laps you can hangJ Ask Julie Ertel how easy it was to “sit in” for 40K, especially when the road tilted up 6% for 1K.  She tore herself apart trying to stay onto that lead pack (despite being able to draft) and by the time the run came around her legs were toast!  It is the inclusion of these ‘tactics’ that makes this style of racing so compelling (to me at least).  Note, as Simon B. suggests, the two men who broke from the lead pack knowing it was there only chance to podium that day given their modest running ability (34:19 10K).  The others in the lead pack either could not join the break or were pinning their hopes on running sub 31.
  • Run– When the lead pack (in both men’s and women’s races) hit T2, I was literally jumping out of my seat with excitement.  A 30-second transition was critical to not lose touch, and the sight of 20+ runners hitting the road at the same time was so much more reminiscent of an elite running race (i.e. Bolder Boulder) than what we customarily see in non-drafting events.  Emma Snowsill’s ability to pull away from the sport’s other gazelles was simply amazing, and a legit 33-minute 10K (even w/o the swim and bike) is not something you see women run all that often.  For the men, watching that lead pack whittle down to the final four, and Whitfield’s incredible ability to claw back up, was epic sports drama that you just don’t get much in non-drafting events.  Watching unheralded Frodeno outkick Whitfield in the final meters was so unexpected and one of my absolute favorite highlights of these Olympics.

So, with all the above in mind, I still absolutely love “regular” triathlon and wish that the coverage may have provided the viewer some insight into the differences.  If however, I had the opportunity to participate in both styles of racing, I would certainly jump at the chance to try a draft-legal event, although my modest swimming ability would certainly be exposed and negate any cycling or running advantage I might have… I guess that’s my whole point.

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