Status of ParaTriathlon: Changes for the Better
Most that know me are aware that it is very rare that I make judgments or outwardly state my viewpoints regarding rules and governance of other categories in Paratriathlon. I believe that those directly impacted by the rules should always have the greatest say in making the rules because these are the people that are experts in these domains. These are the people that live every moent of every day in these situations and therefore know the impact of each situation. For example, it is very difficult for someone that has full use of both lower extremities to get an understanding of the effects of a missing limb on balance in the water or on the bike for someone that is a lower limb amputee. It is difficult for someone with full vision to fully grasp the impact complete blindness has on a person running on a road. When we allow people not impacted directly by the situation to determine rules we often times make rules that do what they are not intended to do or many times we even over estimate the impact that a condition has on the individual. For these reasons, it is very rare that I step in and say much about the rules that govern other disability classifications.
There is outwardly one category that is in need of obvious change. As mentioned, it is very rare but rare doesn't mean never, that I express my viewpoint on other categories. There are many things that I look at when giving any strong feedback, most important of which being whether the stats and actual objective finding line up with the subjective or anecdotal finding. I even am sure to use this method when proposing changes for my own classification in order to ensure that there is no bias or belief that I am making the proposition to exclusively benefit myself rather than the overall group as a whole.
The PT4 classification must do something before the 2016 Rio Paralympics to account for very obvious differences among those that have upper extremity (UE) impairments and those that have lower extremity (LE) impairments. Currently, the PT 4 classification includes those with either mild upper extremity impairment (below elbow amputee, nerve injury to UE, etc) or mild lower extremity impairment (below knee amputee, etc). These are two very separate parts of the body and from the outside it may bring to question how they ever got in the same category. To the defense of those making the classifications, there was a significant amount of research done prior to making the categories. An impairment based points system has been created where these two impairments fall between a specified point range. I will not go into too much depth into this process as I hope that this research was done in a complete and thorough manner.
Where further investigation needs to be done is in the differences among transitions. There is a glaring difference between those that have upper extremity impairments that do not need to put on a prosthetic limb and those with a lower limb impairment that must hop on one leg from the water and then put on a neoprene liner and prosthesis. Athletes with upper limb impairments are able to move forward quicker as they have both legs and often times have a handler in the transition that can assist them with donning and doffing items that may be difficult with only one hand. Many of these transition handlers are being done away with to minimize some of the differences but all you need to do is look at the objective data to find that something must be done before Rio.
Looking At the Results:
The PT4 category is stacked with talent and is very deep but if you look at the results, nearly every athlete in the top ten of the world rankings is an upper extremity (UE) athlete. Coupled with the fact that the lower extremity (LE) athletes must put on a prosthesis and that the majority of the sport of triathlon is more lower extremity power based, there seems to be a clear need to look into, if nothing more, a factor for transitions. We must also always look at the demographics in the population. Is an upper extremity impairment more common than a lower extremity impairment in society? If the proportion of UE athletes in the world and in Paratriathlon is significantly greater than this may account for and explain why there is a greater proportion of UE athletes in the at the top of the rankings than LE athletes. If the statistics show that the two are pretty well proportional or if it is more common to have a LE impairment than an UE impairment than there is very good reasoning that something needs to be done to account for these differences.
Looking at results from the 2014 World Championships in Edmonton, there was only one lower extremity athlete in the top 10 (1/10 or 10%) of the results and that is Jamie Brown (8th) from the United States. I am not totally positive on the demographic statistics but I am going to bet with very high confidence that the proportion of UE individuals: LE individuals is much much closer to 1:1 . In no way am I saying that results from competition will always represent demographics in the population but when there are drastic differences such as in this situation, it must be looked at. When comparing times, on average the top five UE impaired athletes were 6 minutes faster than the top five LE impaired athletes at the 2014 World Championships in Edmonton. Let me remind you that this is a sprint distance triathlon which is short and fast. Six minutes in a sprint is a long long time. I realize that not all of this six minute differential is due to differences in transition, in fact only a small proportion of the time is probably related to transitions but this is an area that could easily be investigated by looking at objective data.
The situation becomes even worse when looking at the opportunities for the LE athletes to get to Rio. A very limited number of people will be able to race in each category in the Rio Paralympics. In fact , the IPC has announced only 60 total competitors will compete in Rio. This number includes both men and women and all competition categories. They have not yet announced the designated numbers alloted for each category but lets just say thatt they continue with the trend of gender equity as they have followed thus far which would mean 30 slots for men and 30 slots for women among three categories for each gender. They will most likely not distribute the slots equally among the three competition categories for each gender as some categories such as PT4 are very deep in competition and have much higher numbers in the world competing. Lets just say that the PT4mens class gets 15 slots for Rio. Looking at the number and statistics, this means that there will only be 2 (maybe 3) LE impaired athletes in the world competing in the PT4 category in Rio. This drastically decreases any LE PT4 athlete's chance to even get to Rio, nonetheless be on the podium at the biggest stage in the world.
Why has ITU not done something about this?
The answer to this question is "I don't know." Lets look at some reasons why I am baffled something has not been done.
1. Its Not Done in Other Sports
In other Paralympic sports, a below the elbow amputee would not be competing against a below the knee amputee in the same category. Don't get me wrong, I understand that ITU was forced to condense and combined classes because of IPC's recommendation but there is a reason that the classes are separated in other sports and that reason is that you are comparing apples with oranges and without some sort of provision to account for performance differences related to differences in impairment than there is a definite advantage to one group over another.
2. A Factor for Transition Has Been Created in PT5:
If the response to why this hasn't already been done is that there is not enough research, that is totally false. How can I say that you ask? I can say that because a transition factor based upon race results has already been created in the PT5 category and has been implemented in competition in the 2015 race year. In the PT 5 category, it was suggested that there were definite differences between B1 (totally blind) and B2/B3 (Partially Sighted) athletes whom all compete in one category. As a result, transition times from both T1 and T2 were taken for both B1 and B2/B3 from past ITU races and a factor was created. In all these races, athletes from the PT4 category also raced and therefore there is also transition data for these athletes. There is no good reason why this same thing is not done for the PT 4 category.
3. The Best Should Win
The goal of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is to see the best in the world compete against each other and see the most athletically talented and best prepared individual on that day win. Olympians and Paralympians train for years just to represent their country on this elite level stage. Athletes are put through a rigorous drug testing program to ensure the competition is fair. Strict and very detailed rules on equipment and uniform have been made to ensure there are no outside advantages received by any athlete. Yet, when glaring differences are seen in a category with athletes that are very different in impairment no system has been made to account for these differences.
To ensure there is clarification on my above statements and belief that a factor or some sort of system needs to be put in place for the PT 4 category, I want to make sure that it is clear that the system would NOT be to equalize competition for the mere sake of making the race a sprint to the finish. This would unfairly punish those that are just better athletes. The goal is only to adjust for performance differences specifically related to the different level of impairment.
Do I think putting in a transition factor will have an impact on the men's winner? At the current time my answer would be "No" as I believe the caliber of athletic talent among the top two in the PT 4 category (both UE athletes) is better than the talent thus far when compared to all the rest. I think that Martin Shultz who is the current #1 PT 4 in the world would win even with a factor given to the LE athletes. This may not always be the case though. Also, where the current system really hits home is in the opportunity for those that are in the PT4 category that are LE athletes. Do they even have a fair opportunity from the onset to attempt to make it to Rio? My answer would be a resounding "NO". This goes for both PT 4 women and PT 4 men who will both be competing in the Paralympic Games in 2016.
The main focus of the ITU and the IPC should be to get it right. This means to create a system so that the best athletes have the opportunity to make it to Rio and the best athlete on that day comes out victorious. The focus should not be to go with what ever system makes it look best from a media prospective or whatever system is most convenient. We should always look at the situation from the eyes of the athletes being put in these situations, looking at all situations from in their shoes and not from our own prospective. If all of us do this, in every situation, we will get things right. I hope at least something is done before Rio for the sake of the athletes. I would hate to see the dreams of an athlete to get to the Olympic/Paralympic Games swept away because they were never given the right opportunity.