Professionalizing Paratriathlon Continued
Last week, I introduced to you all, the loyal #eyeronvision newsletter fans and supporters, an idea that has been perculating in the Paratriathlon—and wider Para sport—world. That is this idea of Professionalizing Para Sport. In our case we’re specifically looking at ways to further professionalize the sport of Paratriathlon. We introduced how here in the USA we’re trying to make steps toward this. USA Triathlon, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and Toyota, have stepped up in big ways to offer limited prize money and USA Triathlon has at last brought the Olympic and Paralympic pathways in closer alignment by equalling the National Team benefits. While these are incredible steps, Paratriathlon and Paratriathletes are still far from being on even footing with our able-bodied counterparts across the globe.
Triathletes have long touted our sport as being innovative and willing to push the envelope. In the 1980s, it was the sport of triathlon that pushed the envelope when it came to the development of wetsuits specifically designed for swimming. Additionally, it was triathlon that pushed the innovation of the time trial bike, aerobars, and bar-end shifters. There were also several other technological innovations. Triathlon was also a sport that was willing to push the idea of what’s possible for the human body and mind. Julie Moss became the face of triathlon in 1982 with her famous crawl to the finish line during the Hawaii Ironman. In 1985, those “Professional Triathletes” who were the major stars of the young sport boycotted the Hawaii Ironman until the race organization offered a prize purse. A few short years later a host of female stars were able to advocate for equal prize money for both men and women professionals. Once Triathlon made it into the Olympics, it became very important for the International Triathlon Union (now World Triathlon) to have gender equity. This extended to the Paralympic Games when Paratriathlon successfully made it to a Paralympic level sport.
Speaking of Para and triathlon involvement. Triathlon has long been welcoming to athletes with disabilities. From athletes like “One Armed Willie” dominating at the Hawaii Ironman, to Dick and Rick Hoyt making headlines in 1989, to above knee amputees, below knee amputees, wheel chair athletes, and blind athletes all completing triathlons ranging from super sprint to Ironman distance triathlons. The annual Ironman special which airs on NBC in recent years nearly always highlights an athlete or two with a disability.
Again, all of this is good. Triathlon has shown it can be on the leading and cutting edge of technology and even society. However, much like wider society, as the sport becomes more professional and commercial, the para side of the sport is left far behind.
Perpetually Behind The Times
In the year 2000, I was in third grade and introduced to a text-to-speech screenreading software program called JAWS For Windows. This computer program allowed me to begin to learn to navigate on a computer without being able to see what was going on on the screen. Instead of using a mouse to click around I could use keystrokes to navigate around documents so I could read class assignments and type out my homework. While theoretically this put me on a more level playing field with sighted classmates, there were some drawbacks. Mainly every time the Windows Operating System updated the JAWS platform would need to be updated. JAWS was an extremely expensive program and quite often we could lag two, three, or more generations of JAWS behind the current operating system. As a result, things might not work the same. Glitches appeared regularly. As the internet came more and more into the fold of every day life this occurred more and more often. Screen reading programs lagged far behind and people who relied on this technology had to turn to help from sighted peers, thereby hampering our independence.
Much like technology, triathlon has progressed in much the same way. The other week, I was having a conversation with someone about the World Triathlon Super League Arena Games, a new and fairly exciting virtual format that professional triathletes are able to compete in. The race consists of a pool swim, stationary virtual bike ride on a platform called Zwift, and a treadmill virtual run again hosted on Zwift. Zwift is a very popular training platform where cyclists and runners can ride, run, and/or compete against each other in the virtual world. It’s very videogame-like. With the invent of smart bike trainers and treadmills, you can actually simulate terrain changes on the platform as well.
Some enterprising entrepreneurial thinkers realized that they could host competitions that people could watch online. The Arena Games have become fairly popular during the COVID19 Pandemic. When I initially heard about the Arena Games I thought, “what a fantastic concept. Maybe this could be a way we could highlight Paratriathlon more. Maybe this could be a format where people could actually get to know the Paratriathletes and the fans could see what kind of power numbers we push on the bike, what paces we swim and run, etc.” Alas, apart from one para exhibition that wasn’t aired live and only showed a couple minute highlight video, back in April 2021, the Arena Games hasn’t considered Paratriathlon.
When I pointed out this to the person I was having a conversation with, they responded, “Maybe once they work out more kinks they’ll include Para.” And that is the fundamental flaw, and where things need to begin to change.
Much like screen reading technology constantly having to catch up to the internet and various operating systems, triathlon has followed the model of “work out the kinks then maybe figure out how to fit in para.” This mirrors societal behaviors.
For example, Professional Triathletes who are able-bodied have a variety of ways and opportunities to earn a living. World Triathlon offers prize money at a variety of races for able-bodied pros ranging from Continental Cups all the way to World Triathlon Championship Series Races. These same pros can then turn around and supplement that potential income with prize money from Super League (a series of extremely short fast circuit triathlon races). Pros can even branch out and race as Ironman 70.3 Professionals, Ironman 140.6 Professionals, XTERRA Offroad Professionals, be part of the Professional Triathletes Organization and their whole slate of races, and they can also supplement with endorcements, sponsorships, speaking, coaching, etc.
Paratriathletes can of course seek endorcements, sponsorships, coach, speaking engagements, etc, however, we do not have the opportunity to receive prize money from all of the various race organizations listed above. A key distinction of being a Professional is my opinion is when others also recognize that you are a professional.
A restaurant chain opens up and they need to hire wait staff. Wait staff is told they can receive bonuses for top performances and great customer revies. The best wait staff receives payment for being the best. Other restaurants open to compete with the first restaurant. Wait staff floats among the various restaurants and compete against each other to earn the top waiter or waitress.
Somewhere along the way, it comes to the attention of the restaurant industry that they need to have some variety and representation in their wait staff. They should probably have some people with disabilities be wait staff so they seem like they are doing good for society. So they create a restaurant and people with disabilities are allowed to apply to and work as wait staff for this particular restaurant. However, the restaurant industry says the people with disabilities will not receive bonuses for doing their jobs. They won’t be paid a wage at all. They are so inspiring and their stories are so incredible they should be able to go out and have people from outside give them money. The restaurant industry says they’re doing the people with disabilities a huge favor by employing them (but not paying them). They give them tremendous opportunity for personal growth, however they do very little if any promoting of the restaurant where the people with disabilities are the wait staff. Because they do very little promoting, they say it’s up to the wait staff to promote the restaurant. “Bring in more customers and we’ll think about cross promoting you. Then eventually when your restaurant is out performing all of these other restaurants that we’ve invested so much time and effort and energy into building. Maybe then you’ll get a slice of the pie.”
Quite often this is how the para sport world can feel. At least, that’s how it often appears in Paratriathlon. We’re caught in this no-man’s land of there’s just enough interest in Paratriathlon to have organizations like World Triathlon at least put on races, and hold paratriathletes to the same standards as our able-bodied counterparts, but we’re not deemed important enough to be considered professionals by our own International Governing body.
So What’s The Solution
Unfortunately I can’t wave a magic wand and make Paratriathlon and Paratriathletes equal in the eyes of everyone in the world. If I could do that I would’ve waved the wand and more people with disabilities would be in more prominent positions across all industries. There wouldn’t be massive gaps in employment between the disabled and nondisabled communities… but I digress.
We’ve established that there’s inequality and unfairness in the Para sport world. When I first stepped into the World Paratriathlon racing circuit a high level coach told me “the first rule of para is that para isn’t fair.” Despite knowing this, one of my major goals/visions is to leave the sport of Paratriathlon better than when I entered it (when ever that may be). This includes striving for more fairness and more equality between the able-bodied and para sides of the sport. So again, what are some steps that can be taken to accomplish this.
One step is one we’re doing right now. I’m finally in a point in my career where I can express to you all this disparity. I can begin to tell you all these things and explain my views and positions on it. I can educate you, and do my best to get you excited about the sport of paratriathlon. I plan to write more about our sport as a whole, maybe do some pre-race analysis for various Paratriathlon Sport classes. I can also go out and try to partner with companies and organizations who hold similar values to me. Through our combined platforms we can begin to spread the word and direct the narrative toward these issues.
What can the triathlon industry do?
I do not have very much pull and authority in the triathlon industry. But here’s what I’d recommend to those who do have influence. Think creatively and outside the box. Or, just include Para in your strategy instead of it being an after thought.
Why can’t Paratriathlon have featured Super League races? This short super sprint format is fast paced and exciting. It’s spectator friendly and easy to put on TV or a streaming service.
Why can’t there be a branch of the Professional Triathletes Organization for Paratriathlon? One of the things that the PTO has worked very hard at is making a TV friendly product. They’ve done this by bringing professional triathlons into race car venues, and using nascar broadcasting techniques to highlight the racing. Why can’t that be done with Paratriathlon?
World Triathlon, you have a tremendous streaming platform in TriathlonLive. Why do the able-bodied professionals get such amazing crystal clear coverage with incredible commentators who know the sport and if Paratriathlon is ever featured we get a static camera. And if we ever do get commentators they’re poorly prepared and do not know the sport. (One memorable instance was when I and a few teammates were watching the livestream of the 2019 World Championships. A commentator boldly stated “Most paratriathletes start out as swimmers because it’s something they can do on their own.” Sorry, buddy, that’s just not factually correct.)
Additionally, World Triathlon, why does Paratriathlon have less than half the number of racing opportunities as the able-bodied side? Why isn’t the points scoring system for determining a World Champion similar? Here’s an idea. Every time there’s an able-bodied World Triathlon Championship Series (WTCS) race, have a World Triathlon Para Series (WTPS) race right alongside. Give it equal coverage, hipe it up! Actually have the World Champion determined by how well the athletes did across the season just like you do on the able-bodied side.
Triathlete Magazine, you quite often do breakdowns of major professional races for World Triathlon, Ironman, and Challenge races. When you do feature Paratriathlon it’s often in the “feel good inspirational” variety, rather than focusing on the actual “Racing!” Why not have someone who breaks down the Paratriathlon fields and makes podium predictions prior to major races such as WTPS and World Championships?
Ironman and Challenge, it’s time to establish how Paratriathletes can “Qualify” for World Championship level races. Right now, there is no pathway for “Qualification” just invitation or lottery.
Here’s an out ob the box idea… Why doesn’t World Triathlon establish a true Mixed Team Relay which combines able-bodied and paratriathletes on the same team competing against other countries?
I do not pose these questions to be divisive or accusatory. I genuinely just want to get a conversation going. As Paratriathletes we’re often faced with obstacles that most people find daunting. We’re often told how incredible it is that we do what we do. We’re able to do what we do because we’re determined to find a way. Triathlon industry, it’s time for us all to sit down and ask ourselves “How can we do this together, as a whole?” Rather than “How can we make able-bodied triathlon better and then squeeze in Para where it’s the easiest?” Triathlon, it’s time for us to step up and lead the way and show the world the true power of sport. After all, isn’t that what the original intent of the Olympic and Paralympic Games was intended? To Unite the World Through Sport?
As always, keep an “Eye On Your Vision!”