Tuesday, November 4, 2014

An open letter in response to Challenge Triathlon's survey on professional athletes

I recently saw a survey posted by the organizers at Challenge Family Triathlon via a friend's Facebook feed. I clicked on it out of curiosity, and subsequently felt provoked enough to provide some answers to the questions. But the further I went through the questions, the more curious and troubled I became. It occurred to me that the survey had a particular concern that has been discussed with great frequency in the triathlon community in the last year, but the nature of the enquiry gave me the feeling that Challenge was looking for answers to all the wrong questions. Assuming that Challenge is genuinely interested in improving the athlete experience, I thought I'd take more space to suggest a more radical change that would get to the heart of the issue they're exploring.

The survey appears to boil down to a summary question for amateur participants: do you really care about professional athletes, and if so how much money and effort should Challenge put into taking care of them for your benefit? Professional athletes, journalists, certain "activists" and major race organizations held this dialogue throughout the 2014 racing season. However, this survey touches a third rail I haven't seen discussed yet. It questions whether people even care about the pro race. While I believe that WTC has an internal opinion on the matter that they're not sharing, it's tangential to this initiative by Challenge. I think it's good that Challenge is asking, but like I said, they've asked the wrong questions.

For instance, question 1, "Do you think prize money for professional athletes is adequate?", is totally off the mark. Think of it like this. I am a professional writer. I am a twice-published author who has written articles in just about every triathlon magazine in print. When I write something that's good enough for print, publishers pay me for my effort. My payment is a matter of negotiation between myself and the publisher. At no time do we consult the masses of triathlon bloggers throughout the world about the value of my work. If a publisher did that, I would never work with them again on the simple grounds that they've shown a complete lack of understanding and respect for my work. I'm sure Challenge would similarly balk at the notion of a survey asking amateur race organizers how much money they thought the directors of a large professional organization ought to make. In short, by asking amateur athletes how much money pros are worth, Challenge sends the message that they don't put much worth in pros at all. It also shows they don't understand the gripe professional athletes have. In numerous interviews I've conducted with pro athletes over the years-- including Challenge acolyte Chris McCormack-- I've never once heard a pro athlete say they turned pro for money. In fact, most of them explicitly admit they knew they'd never make much money. They didn't do it for profit. They did it for prestige. Some wanted to win the Olympics. Others saw Julie Moss or Mark Allen win in Kona and felt an irrepressible desire to try to do it. These people have sacrificed more money, blood, sweat and tears than they'll ever make back in prize earnings. The argument for payment isn't about giving them what's "fair." There will never be a balanced scale for equity in a professional sporting world where people like Michael Vick and Alex Rodriguez can walk off with hundreds of millions of dollars. This is totally a business discussion. The pro athletes perceive that the race organizer makes a disproportionate profit from races compared to what the athletes do. It would be like a publisher telling me that my royalties from a book would only come to 1% of total sales. That's not a good deal. If Challenge wants to resolve this dispute, they need to open their books a bit to the pro community and have an honest discussion about the business margins. The amateur racing community doesn't factor into that.

The same thing goes for questions like "How important do you think professional athletes are to triathlon events?" and "Do you think pros athletes add value to an event?"

This train of thought continues to question 9, which comes as a bit of a non sequitur: "If there was one thing you could change that would enhance your race experience at Challenge Family events, what would it be?" This could be totally decoupled from the circumstances of pro athletes, and indeed for most amateur participants it is. I'm sure the range of ideas will offer a few nuggets of wisdom to Challenge. But I want to propose something that's more directly connected to the apparent concern Challenge has over the pro issue.

As a triathlete, my background is a nine-or-ten time Olympic distance race finisher with four 140.6-mile races to my name. None of those races were "big brand" events. I have always gone with independent events, both in the U.S. and Europe. But even though I continued to write about triathlon, I stopped actually racing in 2010. Today I'm a competitive cyclist and casual Crossfit gym visitor. I stopped doing 140.6 events because it got boring. And it got boring for the very reason that my racing experience was totally decoupled from the circumstances of the pro athletes.

Let's assume that the typical amateur athlete participates in a long distance triathlon for one of three reasons: to get that "bucket list" finish, to qualify for a championship race like Roth or Kona, or to actually win in their division. If you think about it, Challenge and Ironman both really only succeed at giving people in the first category the best possible experience. They could do much better for the other two categories. And if they made the necessary changes to realize their potential, they would almost automatically solve all their "pro athlete relevance" problems at the same time.

Here is a question for Challenge: Why is there a pro athlete category of racers defined by their athletic ability, and everyone else races according to the year of their birthday?

The answer to that question is "there is no good reason." It's a completely arbitrary assignment. And it's that very arbitrary nature that not only ruins the race experience for those other two categories of athletes, but strips pro athletes of their relevance and value to the race. It kills the race experience for the second two categories because it concentrates the competition and dedication to the sport in a few specific population clumps, thereby reducing the relative opportunity while also obscuring the participants' sense of being in a race. It kills pro relevance because it sets them aside as a special category defined by a completely different set of metrics and affording them a race experience wholly unique from what the age-groupers go through. In other words, Tim O'Donnell and Frederik Van Lierde know each other and are acutely aware of each others' progress at any time during a race against each other. As a 30-35 year old competitor, I never have any clue where the other guys in my race are. I started in a mass of men and women much older and much younger than me. We probably all wore the same color swim caps and other than the indistinguishable markings on our legs there was never any way to know who was who. On top of all this, if, as part of my goal, I've come to a race to achieve a faster time than ever before, I am at a disadvantage because I will spend the first 40 miles or so battling through a mass of slower swimmers and cyclists before I can "break free." This is an extremely aggravating expense of energy on my part that could have been spent on making time rather than negotiating packs. It's another way in which the pro experience is completely different from my own.

All these problems can be solved in one fell swoop with a radical yet simple change: scrap the age-group system and go to an ability classification like amateur cycling.

For a long time, cycling has categorized amateur participants according to their finishes in previous races rather than age. This makes races much more competitive. It makes them more fair for the participants and more efficient for the organizers. It gives athletes of all stripes an added sense of drama and a basis for comparison with elite and professional competitors. Athletes derive a sense of their progress both personally and on a comparative basis. Not only that, but it also gives them an "extra goal" to achieve in their racing. Maybe a second or third-year athlete can't qualify for Challenge Roth, but they can move up from Category 4 to Category 3. And that change in status would bring a much greater sense of accomplishment than simply blowing out the candles on a cake. They would have accomplished something in the interim. In short, it would be a landmark on their "athlete's journey."

In all honesty, I might have started racing Challenge events in 2009 if I'd heard about such a system, and I might still be racing them today if I'd been on the verge of upgrading in 2010.

I think this also creates substantial opportunities for Challenge as a race organizer. First, it would create a broader sense of competition at levels just below pro. It would help recognize athletes on the cusp of making the pro ranks. It would facilitate drug-testing by putting people of a certain "at-risk" ability level in the same group and allow more careful and targeted observation of them. It would present the opportunity to offer prizes to the lower tiers of competitors; perhaps not cash, but something that rewards their high level of performance. It would reconnect amateurs with professionals by allowing us to compare the finishing times of second-tier athletes with top competitors.

At the very least, it would finally destroy this dreadful malaise that has plagued long distance triathlon ever since the sport became "mainstream" in the late 90's-- the sense that professionals are a privileged class who get to actually race and amateurs are people who, regardless of ability, are forced into something between a slog and a death march.

In conclusion, I applaud Challenge's concern about this issue. The heart is in the right place, but the thinking is off in left field. The issue of professional athlete compensation is not related to pro/amateur relations. The race organizer is the solution to both issues, though. Sort out the prize money issue by speaking directly to pros about their sense of worth from both their perspective and that of the race organizer. If you want to get more value out of professional athletes by connecting them to the amateurs, then make amateur racing more like pro racing. Like any other race organizer, Challenge is a business that profits by providing people a platform for a recreational experience. It's no different than a pinball machine manufacturer. If people aren't getting what they want out of the experience, then you tweak the pinball machine. Pros are like the pinball itself. If it's not rolling toward the player often enough for them to bounce it back up the table and watch it go, what's the best way to fix things to ensure people will keep coming back to play: blame the pinball, or adjust the tilt of your platform?

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