There are so many topics that can be discussed with relation to T5 Paratriathlon but the one that seems to be in the spotlight right now is The Factor System.  The Factor (Stagger) System was first used recently in an ITU  Paratriathlon Race in Yokohoma, Japan and of course with any major change, there was controversy with it.  

History and Evolution:

Before looking into the current rule, lets look at the history and evolution of the rules.  First, a factor (stagger) system has been used before in Paralympic sport.  Factors among blind athletes are used for Paralympic Alpine/Nordic skiing.  Second, it should have been to no surprise that some sort of factor was going to be put in place.  ITU made a very good decision to do away with the blackout glasses rule for all blind/VI athletes and broke the then T6 category up into T6a and T6b.  Keeping these two categories would have been optimal and obviously much more "fair" but it has already been announced that there will only be six medal events in ParaTriathlon in Rio 2016 (3 Male and 3 Female) and so in order for a Blind/VI category to be included and allow  for the greatest rate of inclusion, some other sort of system had to be put in place.  The original T6 category was divided into T6a (Full Blind) and T6b (Partially Sighted) in order to collect statistical research at ITU races and from there create an accurate factor which would allow for uniting the category back into one once again.  With the elimination of the Los Otros category going into the 2014 year, the T6 Blind/VI category was then renumbered T5.  This is a very brief  summary of the changes in classification over the past years.  Realize that many of these changes were made as a result of the mandate by IPC that only three medal events per gender shall be included in the 2016 Paralympics.  It must be realized that as the sport grows and the level of competition improves, classifications will be subdivided and new categories may be created.  

The Current Factor System

To all National Federations:

ITU released this statement with regard to implementing the Stagger System. The full press release is attached with a link below as well. 

On May 19, ITU released this statement regarding implementation of a factor system:

The ITU Executive Board recently approved the use of a staggered start system for Paratriathlon races in the PT5 Sport Class. After gathering research and reviewing proposals the last two years, the ITU Paratriathlon Committee endorsed the recommendation to the ITU Executive Board for the adoption of this system.

The purpose of the staggered start is to allow well-trained athletes with differing degrees of impairment to be competitive in the same medal event. It does not level out times from worst to best athlete; rather the most prepared and strongest athletes are still likely to be the winners. After analyzing the statistical results from the past three seasons, specific mathematical formulas have been applied to determine the compensation time (or time delay) for sub-classes B1 and B2/B3 in the PT5 Sport Class.

View the full details on the Stagger Start Rule CLICK HERE

Breaking Down the Factor System:

The current factor that was created and implemented as the Stagger Rule was done so by using Paratriathlon results since 2010.  Each discipline was analyzed and a factor from each discipline was created using a series of median time calculations.  As is standard for statistical research, outliers on the extreme ends of fast and slow among the category were discarded.  Only Elite Paratriathlon race results were used for creating factors for each discipline.  Transitions were not used in this factor system creation.  From the research, n overall factor was established and a time of 3:43 for the male and 4:16 for the female T5 athletes was established.  This means that at ITU Paratriathlon Sprint Distance Races, those classified as B1 athletes will start and the B2/B3 male/female athletes will start 3:43/4:16 after the B1's respectively.  As part of ensuring athletes are in the correct category (B1-B3), all T5 athletes will need to be re-classified under the new system of visual assessment.  

 Here is a list of items that are included in the new factor rule that are of importance.  

- The PT5 athletes may compete either starting together, or using the staggered start called ‘‘Fair Start System’’

- T5 athletes that are classified as B1 visual classification must wear blackout glasses on the run portion of the triathlon.  

-  All Paratriathlon Start List must include the classification (B1 or B2/B3) and the time difference. 

- Paratriathlon races cannot coincide with Age Group (AG) race unless there is no other way to implement the race and if so there must be sufficient timing after the AG start time.  

- Transition time differences have not been included in the current factor system but may in the future. 

- Only Sprint Triathlon results were used to create the current Stagger Start Factor and this factor will only be used on Sprint Distance Paratriathlon races.  This compensation time will not be applied to any Multisport discipline or if a specific segment/leg in a sprint distance triathlon is modified or cancelled.

-  The current factor is 3:43 for Males and 4:16 for Females in the T5 category. This factor will be re-evaluated and adjusted on a later determined time period basis (annually, biannually, etc)

My Own Analysis of the Systems:

Everyone is going to of course have their opinion on this issue.  I will give my opinion but always try to take into account the scenarios of others and what I believe is legit and fair.  I think we would all agree that splitting the T5 category up into B1/B2/B3 or B1/B2-B3 is the most accurate way to do it.  The fact is that this is not an option at this point so its not really worth arguing for, going forward to Rio 2016.  

We can however analyze the current system and whether there are modifications that could be made to make the system more accurate.  I think ITU understands that there are flaws to the system.  It's in its infancy and I am sure there will be changes going forward.  The one thing that can't be done is over analyze and attempt to equalize every scenario as case by case situations do exist but they exist going both ways and thus only the major differences that apply across the board with regard to the classes of vision should be included into the system.

Many questions arise in my head with respect to the new factor system.  I will expand upon these questions with my beliefs/answers and give an alternate proposed factor system below:

1. Do we currently have elite level competition in the T5 category to create an accurate factor that represents true elite level differences based upon vision? 

A1: No, with the sport in its infancy I don't think that we have a large sample size of elite level athletes among the B1 and B2/B3 categories and therefore a factor that is intended to "level the playing field" based upon visual differences  solely, does not represent a factor that should be used at the present time for elite level competition.  At the present time, we have many novice/beginner level athletes that are racing at ITU Para events and if you compare this level of competition to the level you see in well established Paralympic events such as swimming, cycling and athletics there is a significant difference.  We must continue to include this level of competition in the sport at present because the sport is so young and needs to grow but I don't think it leads to an accurate factor at the present time.  As a result of this, I have proposed what I think is much more fair  at the current time until deeper elite fields arise in the sport. This proposed system is at the end of this blog. 

2. What will happen if the race course is short or a part of the race course gets shortened or canceled?

A2: I think everyone will agree that if the factor was created based upon sprint triathlon results, than if the course gets modified or is not fully accurate, than using the same exact factor cannot be accurate.  For example, if the water temperature is deemed too cold to swim the full 750m and the swim is then cut to 400m, it doesn't seem realistic to keep the current 3:43/4:16 factor.  The rules hint  that the factor won't be used in this situation but don't give an alternate solution such as adjusting the swim factor time based upon the shortened distance.  If the current system's intent is to "level the playing field", it must take into account factors that totally disrupt statistical analysis such as varying controlled variables.  

3. Should the system ever be used where the factor is implemented after the race is over?  If so, when and why?

A3: In my opinion, the factor should always be implemented at the start of the race.  I don't think athletes should ever start together and then after the race is over subtract times from the results.  Subtracting time after the race totally deviates from the foundation of sport and competition as well as leaves the athletes in total mystery of where they are in the race.  In addition, if they want the sport of paratriathlon to be a spectator sport and increase the excitement, having someone cross the line  and then granting the win to someone that is behind them does not fare well for spectator understanding or for media coverage. I don't really see any scenario why you should start the athletes together and implement the factor after the race (even water conditions etc) but I am open hearing other arguments.  

4. What constitutes a "sprint triathlon"?

It mentions that the factor was created based up on "sprint triathlon" results and will be used only on "sprint triathlon" races.  What constitutes a "Sprint triathlon"?  Does this only refer to courses that are exactly 750m swim, 20K bike and 5K run or does it include courses that are different than these amounts?  Is there a range that a course can deviate from the above distance and still fit into the current factor?  My gut tells me that it only applies to the above listed distance with slight deviation but this is something to look into and clarify. 

5.  Do we account for transitions? Are there any other factors to account for?

A5: At present, transitions are not factored into the equation.  I don't think transitions should ever be factored because it differs so much on a case by case basis as opposed to on a visual basis.  I am not totally opposed to allowing B2 athletes to get a handler in the T1 and T2 transition  to account for the detailed oriented nature of transitions but I don't think that this is essentially necessary either.  There are totally blind athletes that function and have accommodated better than most B2/B3 athletes and visa versa.  We have to be very careful to not penalize those individuals that have found ways to adapt and accommodate to a greater degree than others and automatically attribute this to visual differences.  

Questions have arisen on whether we should include other possible items such as training differences and access to training among B1 vs B2/B3 athletes and as I mentioned above I think this is a case by case basis and once you start considering things like this you have opened a can of worms where by which you will begin penalizing athletes with respect to non-visually related attributes.  Yes, I definitely agree that there are many cases whereby a completely blind athlete may have greater difficulty accessing training but there are undoubtedly B2/B3 athletes that may have an hour bus commute to a pool and few people to ride tandem with whereas the B1 may live right ext to the pool and have plenty of resources for tandem riding.  Also, there are countries where the paratriathlon team will have full residency  at national training center and thus constant access to training whereas other countries have no residency or support for their paratriathlon program.  These factors can never be accounted for nor should they be.  These same types of outside factors exist among "non Para" athletes and are just part of differences that exist among individuals around the world.  We all have different genetics, different resources, different ability to adapt and accommodate, different training terrain and climate, etc.  If we try to account for all of these things than we will penalize people in unintended ways and will basically make sport robotic.  

People also question  whether a factor  differentiating B2 and B3 will be created.  I think that this is probably the natural progression as elite athletes arise among each category.  I am thinking that they will create a factor for all categories and eventually down the road have total separate  medal events for the various blind/VI classes.  This is much further down the road.  

My Proposed System:

As mentioned above, I don't believe we have enough elite level T5 athletes to create a factor that is accurate for elite level competition.  To much of the difference among individuals is due to ability level and experience in the sport as opposed to purely visual differences.  This means that I don't believe that the current factor which is based upon Paratriathlon results over the past three years is as accurate as it could be.  I think this method of creating a factor can become fairly accurate as the level of competition increases and the sport grows but not at the current time.  

What would I propose?  I think the most important thing at this point is to get differences among elite level competition among B1-B3 athletes in each discipline; swimming, biking, running. Why not get these differences from already established Paralympic competition in each discipline?  This means that I would propose a factor  that was created based upon Paralympic swimming (S11-S13) results, cycling and Track and Field (T11-T13) in the same way that the current factor was created by these aspects in triathlon.  This would eliminate the fact that there is so much disparity in ability level among the T5 category at this point.  With that said, I understand that triathlon differs in that it does not take place in as standardized of environment as a pool or on a track but I think the differences related to these factors are much smaller than the current differences with respect to physical ability and depth of competition.  

In addition to the above proposed system of factor creation, I would still strongly encourage ITU to continue to collect data from ITU Paratriathlon events with the intent of implementing a factor based on paratriathlon competition once it is determined that the level and depth of competition is considered elite caliber on a consistent basis.  

Summary:

The above blog has included a review of the newly implemented Staggered Start system along with my own view points and proposed system that could be used to better "level the field" among elite caliber T5 paratriathletes.  Again, it must be noted that my ideas represent how I believe a fair system should be implemented and does not represent necessarily the viewpoint of ITU nor does it represent the direction that the sport is heading necessarily.  This blog is purely meant to educate people about the status of the T5 classification with respect to the staggered start system and my prospective on the topic.  

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