Status of ParaTriathlon Part 5: Breaking Down the New Staggered Start Method

The Status of Paratriathlon is better off than it was three years ago when there were much more controversial rules and the platform of the sport was much smaller and less known.  Of course, the status of the sport would be much better if all five categories would be included in the inaugural Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 but this issue I have already addressed in previous blogs.  

New Staggered Start Method:

There has been good progress in the PT5 category  since  the removal of the "blackout glasses" rule and the implementation of rules that allow blind/VI athletes to compete to the best of their ability.  With the requirement that the PT5 category remain one classification and not break up into separate classes it was very clear that some sort of factor system would need to be created.  Obviously, we all agree that if possible the best solution would be at least two classifications for blind/VI athletes but with this not an option, the staggered start system is the next best method if in fact some sort of system is used to account for differences in performance related to visual differences. 

Last year, ITU introduced the initial Staggered Start System.  This system was quickly put into place and it was very clear that there were many flaws to it.  The factor was supposed to account for visual related differences in performance in elite blind/VI athletes.  The problem with it was that the sport of Paratriathlon didn't have enough elite level competition to make a factor using past triathlon results.    In addition, the factor accounted for differences in the bike when in fact the UCI (International Cycling governing body) does not differentiate for varying degrees of blindness and the International Triathlon Union (ITU) bases its rules for cycling on those of the UCI.  

Since there was insufficient elite data in triathlon, I created a factor based upon elite level competition in Paralympic Track and Swimming. These sports are well established and have very high level competition.  With the afore mentioned, I was well aware that these results were in standardized environments as opposed to open water and open roads and thus more insight would need to be taken to look at how much the open environments would have with comparison to standard environments.  Using the standard environments had its advantages  in that it ensured that the distance being measured was always exactly the same.  It also allowed us to look specifically at how visual differences affected performance.  One thing that was paramount to avoid was penalizing the better athlete or penalizing an athlete for adapting to his/her environment better than another athlete.  The goal of the staggered start was in no way meant to balance out the athletic talent within the classification but rather balance out any differences on performance that were strictly  due to visual differences. 

A working group for blind/VI athletes was created after the 2014 season that included blind/VI athletes from the PT5 category.  Both B1 and B2/B3 athletes were represented in this working group as well as some individuals from ITU.  The group recommended that we expand the research to beyond just Paralympic results and also include World Championship results in creating a factor.  The group also agreed that cycling results would not be used in the factor.  Medians would be used rather than means in order to avoid penalizing  exceptionally talented athletes based on factors other than visual differences.  

The Basic Framework of the Purposed Method Was:

    1    Create ratios constructed from 5,000m run and 400m swim in Paralympic and World Championship results. 

    2    Convert 400m swim data into estimated 750m swim times based on pace.

    3     Use ratios for the median top 85% of athletes for comparison among groups

    4    Apply the  ratios to the top 20% of elite Paratriathon results in order to calculate the lead-off value attributable to the swim leg and the run leg

    5    Create a transition factor from paratriathlon results 

    6    Sum up the swim compensation, run compensation and transition compensation to get an overall Fair Start Value for both the men and women. 

Following the crunching of many numbers by statisticians affiliated with ITU, ratios and corresponding time equivalents were created for the swim and run legs.  The difference among 5,000m results between B1 and B2/B3 results was 5.6% and for swimming was 13.9%.  Converting this into time using the top 20% of Paratriathlon data, a time equivalent was found to be 59sec for men and 65sec for women in the run and 81sec and 97sec for the women in the swim.  As stated above, a transition factor was created using actual transition data from Paratriathlon races and this time amount was found to be 34sec for men and 38sec for women.  Using the framework outlined above, these values were then summed up to get a new fair start method for the PT5 Men and Women.  These amounts are as follows

Men:  59+81+34 = 174sec  =  2:55 (Rounded 1sec to this time)

Women: 65+97+38 = 200sec = 3:20

After obtaining the above newly proposed staggered start values, we then needed to look it any further compensation that was necessary to account for performance differences related to open vs closed environments.  Looking from an outsiders prospective, most would imagine that the variability among open courses would hinder the performance of those with less vision. I myself also thought this may be the case but was surprised when I found that this was not the case when looking at elite level competition.  In fact, in the top 10 in the world rankings for the marathon there are more B1 athletes ranked in the top 10 than B2 athletes.  This race takes place on an open road course just like the run portion of ITU triathlon.  Further refuting the argument for greater compensation is the fact that only 10% of the worlds population that is legally blind would actually fit into the B1 classification.  This means that despite having 90% of the potential athletes in the B2/B3 classification, the B1 classification still has more athletes in the top 10 of the world rankings in the marathon.  

Most of the focus among the group seemed to be focused on whether further compensation should be given based on the variability in the run and not the swim.  There also is very little data on open water swim races comparing B1 athletes with those of B2/B3 and therefore no statistical or objective method could be used. Also, as mentioned previously, the competition level in Paratriathlon has not reached an elite status to create an accurate open water swim factor from Paratriathlon results.  In addition, Paratriathlon courses have not been fully standardized to 750m  on every race  in order to allow for accurate statistical calculations.  

Despite finding no statistical reasoning for creating additional compensation in the New Staggered Start Method, there was an additional proposal that came about because of the belief that additional time needed to be granted (as I also believed at first glance)  due to variability in the run and swim from standardized environment,   As a result, a second proposed method that would take the original staggered start time used in 2014 and the newly proposed staggered start time explained above and average the difference.  The reasoning was that this would account for variabilities in the open course.  We would call this new proposal method B and the first proposal method A.

In the end, the ITU Committee voted and decided to adopt Method B for the New Staggered Start System that will be implemented in the 2015 year.  This means that the new staggered start time is was created by doing the following:


 Old Factor (Men 3:43/Women 4:16) - Method A Proposal (Men2:55/Women 3:20)/2 = New Staggered Start Time (Men  3:18/Women 3:48)


Concern Regarding Method B

1.  Statistical Basis: The purpose of creating a new staggered start procedure was to find an objective way to get very close to an accurate factor without guessing or using data that doesn't correspond to elite level competition.  In my mind, averaging the difference between the previous method and the new method is not a statistically sound method and it goes against our objective of creating a new method that is clear, concise and easily explained to others.  

2.  Use of Original Factor in Any Shape or Form: As mentioned earlier, the original factor that was used during the 2014 race season had a large proportion coming from differences in bike results which should not included at all as the UCI does not differentiate for variability in vision in Para-Cycling.  Also, the original factor included results from run and swim courses that were not standardized to the 5K  and 750m distances respectively and therefore the reliability and validity of the factor is not very good.  

3.  Easy to Explain: One important issue that the working group wanted to ensure was that whatever system is used to create a factor, it needed to be clear and easily explainable to others. Method A is very clear and concise.  Method B is fairly clear as it is comprised from much of the same methods as Method A but it becomes difficult to explain when the guessing begins.  Taking the old factor which was not statistically sound and the newly proposed system which is fully based on stats and then averaging the difference makes Method B more difficult to explain to others.   


I have just broken down how the New Staggered Start was constructed.  Method B was chosen as the final manner as to which to implement.  Although I don't think this was the best option based on statistic and objective findings, I commend the ITU for creating a working group on the issue and for realizing that the old system was not the most accurate representation of performance differences due to visual variability.  Great strides have been made in the PT5 category over the past few years and I hope that this continues as the goal is full inclusion of both PT 5 Men and PT 5 Women in Tokyo 2020.  

Aaron ScheidiesComment