Mass Appeal

Seeking excitement

The triathlons at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games demonstrate that the sport offers excitement in terms of spectacle – but have any of the events, apart from Athens, offered much real excitement in terms of racing? Typically the cycling is negative with a couple of escapees being allowed to gain a small advantage over a large bunch. The extra effort of breaking and staying away, compared to riding effortlessly in the bunch, means that a gap of just over a minute isn’t enough to get them half way through the run. In other words the incentive for serious contenders to cycle aggressively is too small with the result that the cycle section is perceived as negative and boring. Drafting gets a bad name; Triathlon continues to draw small crowds; Sponsors are uninspired and television coverage of triathlon continues to seek embellishments - normally concentrating on the sheer idiocy of a sport which combines swimming and cycling and running.

But what are the alternatives? Non-drafting? With 40 guys filing out of the water at the end of the swim non-drafting is a complete non-starter. A time trial? Possibly an addition (more of that later) but time trials offer so much less spectacle and excitement.

A change of tactics

Here is an idea that I came up with shortly after the 2000 Olympics which borrows from cycle Road Racing and Biathlon (Cross country skiing & shooting). Many cycle races are enlivened by ‘primes’, that’s the French word for ‘prizes’ so it’s pronounced ‘preem’. A line is placed across the road and the first rider to cross it wins a prize. Sometimes the prize is a one-off (normally cash), sometimes it is points towards a bigger prize (like the Green Jersey in the Tour de France). Besides giving the spectators something to watch a prime is a good incentive to use extra energy to be at the front – riders will either try to sprint from the bunch or try to break away some distance beforehand. Using any extra energy during the bike leg of a triathlon, however, is normally a bit of a faux pas so what’s needed is some real incentive to go for them, and this is where the Biathlon idea comes in.

Earning a bonus

In Biathlon the skiers arrive in the shooting range, their muscles burning, their chests heaving and their hearts pumping like mad, and have to shoot at five targets with five bullets. Once the've shot their five bullets they can carry on skiing. If they miss any of the targets they have to ski one lap of a penalty circuit for each miss. In other words, they have to pace their shooting because inaccuracy is costly, but they still want to be as quick as possible. My idea for triathlon is that the incentive for winning a prime is the opposite of a penalty loop – a short cut!

All that would be required is an out-and-back section on the run course. Any competitor carrying a prime bonus would be able to cut across early. Now there’s an incentive for more aggressive cycling.

Cashing in the points

Developing the idea a little further a triathlon could have four cycle primes offering bonuses to the first (3pts), second (2pts) and third (1pt) across. With the first close to the start there would be real incentive for the strong swimmers to race from the gun.

Each competitor could earn between zero and 12 points. With each point earning, say, 60m worth of short cut, a competitor with the maximum of 12 points would gain a 720m advantage over someone with none. That would equate to around two and a half minutes at 32min 10k pace. With up to 12 competitors holding points at the start of run, and a lot more energy having been expended during the swim and bike legs, the outcome would not be apparent 2km out of transition.

Managing the system should be fairly straightforward. Points would be tallied for the scoring riders during the bike leg. An out-and-back section on the run course would have a series of numbered ‘gates’, the number being equivalent to the number of points required to pass through. By the time the competitors arrive each gate would also carry the race numbers (or even the names) of the athletes with the matching points tally. So if competitor number 32 has acquired 7 points the number 32 will be at gate 7, competitor 32 cuts through and shortens his run by 420m as a reward for his efforts earlier in the race. Remember that somebody has to get the points so besides there being incentive for sprinting or breaking clear, there is also much incentive to chase to make sure that they don’t go elsewhere or to ensure at least that they are not won easily.

Too few medal medals

Another problem that Triathlon faces at major games is the number of events. It’s too few. Triathlon made its debut at Sydney but after 4 hours it was over. This has knock-on problems where funding and ‘success’ are concerned. Cycling was considered a great British success in Sydney – but we got no medals on the road, in any of the bunch races on the track, or in any of the women’s events. British swimming was a huge success the Commonwealth Games but there are 5 strokes (including the medley), 5 distances and 3 relays for each sex. That adds up to a lot of races, a lot of medals (42 golds, 42 silvers & 42 bronzes – 126 in total) and a lot of opportunities to claim success. How many weight categories are there in boxing, weightlifting, judo…?, how many apparatus, team and all-round events in gymnastics? Triathlon, on the other hand, offers just six medals and the maximum for any individual triathlete is one. Triathlon needs more races – different distances and different formats.

We already have team events, variations in distance and the Triple Super Sprint formats for drafting races but here is a new format for non-drafting that I believe could make for a more interesting competition than a simple time trial.

Head to Head racing.

This idea borrows from speed skating and, to a degree, pursuit cycling. The only requirement is a lap based course with separate lanes for each competitor in all three disciplines. The competitors in each race start at the same time and change lane each lap to ensure that each does exactly the same distance – as in speed skating. The number of competitors in each race would be limited by the number of lanes available and the number of laps would have to be a multiple of the number of lanes. Two lanes would be easy, more might become complicated.

This format would result in head to head competition with the riders unable to draft.

Competitions would have to be structured as elimination rounds so the races would have to be fairly short and the number of rounds limited or well spaced out. For example a two-lane competition might have a qualifying round with the fastest eight on time going through to the semi-final round. The two fastest semi-final winners would then race for gold & silver with the third and fourth fastest winners racing for bronze. Such a structure is used in pursuit cycling.

If I hear the word ‘gruelling’ one more time…

Perhaps, with formats such as these, triathlon races would be sufficiently exiting that instead of dwelling on how ‘gruelling’ triathlon is, and what superheros/nutters triathletes are, TV coverage would revolve around whether the early leaders had built up enough of an advantage to hold on and whether those who didn’t take risks early on had saved enough to run down those who did. We’d see an animated swim with the strong swimmers looking to gain early prime bonuses instead of conserving energy. We’d see excitement on the bike leg with stronger cyclists trying to capitalise on their strengths, the strong runners and serious contenders forced to respond and meaningful action at each of the primes. Athletes who figure in swim and bike would also feature in the run instead of vanishing rapidly into oblivion. Hiding in the bunch and waiting for the run would become a risky option even for the strongest of runners



Tim Williams 2002.


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