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IRONMAN rules in spotlight as Messick blasts ‘knuckleheads’, reveals RaceRanger and 20m-drafting talks

IRONMAN chief tells us why they're not afraid to dish out penalties

News Director
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The women’s race at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona 12 months ago saw penalties make the news – and, even a year on, her five-minute drafting sanction still rankles with Laura Philipp.

It was a similar story at both 70.3 Worlds this year in Lahti, none higher profile than that Lionel Sanders’ ‘imaginary’ centre line DQ.

Then in the men’s IMWC in Nice, Braden Currie had a rollercoaster ride as he was penalised, then disqualified for not serving it, before being reinstated.

So what what can we expect from the officials when arguably the best-ever full-distance women’s field toe the start line in Kona this Saturday?

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Better communication required

That was the question we put to IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick and it prompted a typically forthright response, though also an admission that things can be improved on all sides.

He told us: “Well, I think the situation in Lahti was unfortunate in many, many dimensions and I don’t think anyone showered themselves in glory, including many of the knuckleheads who weighed in on social media about out one thing or another.

“There’s a long list of things that we could have done better. I’m sure Lionel is thinking to himself there’s a long list of stuff he could have done differently and better.

Lionel Sanders bike 703 Worlds 2023 photo credit Talbot Cox
Lionel Sanders in action in Lahti [Photo credit: Talbot Cox}

“There was a big change between Lahti and Nice in terms of the way we communicated to our athletes about how we were going to enforce the rules. And part of what I think our obligation is to the athletes is to be clear about how the rules are going to be enforced and interpreted. And that’s part of where I think we weren’t at our best in Finland, in that the centre line rule has always been there. It’s part of the consolidated IRONMAN and World Triathlon long course rules.

“And everybody knows you’re not supposed to ride on the wrong side of the road. That is not news to anybody. However, if we were going to show a red card to someone for riding on the wrong side of the road, it’s probably a good thing for us to remind the athletes that that’s something that is taken seriously by the Finnish Triathlon officials who are in charge of initiating that race.

And so I think one of the areas where we’ve tried to be better and we’re committed to being better is in making sure our athletes know how the rules will be interpreted again in a way that promotes safe and fair racing.

Not afraid to give penalties

So learnings from Lahti then, but a warning too ahead of Kona as Messick added: “The reality is at a World Championship the stakes are high and when the stakes are high, everybody needs to be at their best. And that means the officials need to be super sharp and super tight – and so do the athletes. We both have obligations if we want to create the best, safest and fairest race.

“And so I think one of the things that has been lost in the social media-driven stories around both Lahti and Nice is that we always have – and likely always will – give penalties.

We’re an organisation that does blow the whistle and there’s others, by the way, that don’t.

“It isn’t really advancing fair and safe racing to just not call penalties.”

Asked if he’s thinking of any particular instances, Messick says: “No, but I think the point is that in all aspects of fair competition, whether that’s rules enforcement, whether it’s anti-doping, the reason you have officials is to protect the athletes that are following the rules. If your commitment is to the athletes who are following the rules, you have an obligation to them to not make them look like suckers.

“So if somebody is drafting on Saturday at Kona, we’re going to show them a card. Now maybe people are going to be mean to me on social media because we’ve penalised somebody. But you know what? I would rather blow the whistle for somebody who is not racing cleanly to protect the people who are.

“And if people want to be mean to me on Twitter, that’s okay, I’m a big kid, I can take it because the alternative is to just put the card in your pocket, let people race however they want to race. But that’s not the way we’re wired, that’s not the way we’ve ever been and that’s not the way we’re going to officiate the race on Saturday.”

RaceRanger and 20m-draft zone?

Messick was also keen to point out that having separate races – as we have at the 70.3 Worlds for a number of years and in the IMWC since 2022 – makes a huge difference: “When you go to a single-sex race, the amount of distance your fixed number of motos have to cover is smaller. So the density of race officials is higher in a single-sex race. And that means to the pros, it’s much more likely at any point in time that somebody’s watching you.”

And looking to future progress it sounds like significant moves have already been initiated, with Messick highlighting two of them.

He explained: “I think more broadly, your point around how are we thinking about rules and enforcement, we’re going to do a lot in the coming years. I think it is likely that we will announce in the coming weeks some type of partnership with RaceRanger.

“We think that there is real promise in the technology and we would like to help James [Elvery, the co-founder] and his team develop that and turn it into something that can be used more broadly and more fairly.”

RaceRanger installation PTO European Open 2023 Ibiza
RaceRanger has been used at PTO Tour events this season

And we met the other day with representatives of the PTO Athlete Commission, with Ruth Astle, Sid [Laura Siddall] and Dylan [McNeice] who are all in town. We spent a couple hours with them and this is them speaking as professional athletes.

“They reinforced how strongly they feel about clean racing, particularly as it relates to drafting. And then we had an interesting conversation. We’re happy to evaluate the 20-metre draft zone. I think what’s missing in our mind is there’s never been a real evaluation of the 20-metre impact. All of that second and third-order effect of a rule change, to the best of our knowledge, has never been thoughtfully considered, discussed, talked about.

“Frankly, it seems to me that the overwhelming dialogue that I’ve heard so far has been just that we should go to 20 metres because it’s eight metres better, not that it’s going to fundamentally change the way professional athletes race. That is potentially going to create more penalties for people slotting in. It’s going to create more bouncing in the race because people accelerate, then they decelerate and there’s more yo-yoing.”

There’s a lot to consider – our view is it needs to be really looked at and we’re prepared to do it.

Most competitive race ever?

But back to the present and the hope for everyone on Saturday has to be as fair a race as possible, with Messick saying: “I think the women’s pro race might be the most competitive race that there’s ever been of any gender.

“I think that on the start line, there’s going to be a minimum of seven women who, if they execute the way they know they can execute, they’re thinking to themselves, I can be a world champion today.

“And I think that we’ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to create a platform that is sort of worthy of the extraordinary capability and dedication of these athletes.”

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  

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