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Opinion Friday: Hey ITU, Why Not Give Cross Tri Some Love?

Recently DirtTRI has had some requests from various sources to share our opinion on a few different topics. This, of course, gave us the idea to make our opinion a regular column for the DirtTRI website. Hey, we have plenty to say, why keep it behind closed doors, right?

So, to give you the basic concept this column will normally be dealing with timely topics. Due to that timeliness this column may be a bit more free flow than other editorials, so don’t beat us up too much if we stray from strict AP Style.

Ok, excuses for not writin good outta’ the way. Here ya go…


ITU introduces innovative triathlon format….Why?

Earlier this week the ITU announced an “innovative new triathlon format” would be introduced at the 2016 Kitzbühel World Cup. This innovative new concept would consist of a non-drafting 2/3 distance time trial event in the morning (on draft legal style “road bikes”) which would serve as a “qualifier” for a 1/6 distance super sprint race finale in the evening consisting of the top 30 athletes from the morning’s TT.

Find competition rules HERE.

This innovative and revolutionary new format of Triathlon (although, in reality, a copy of the Island House Triathlon concept which is in turn a copy of the 90’s triathlon stage races) was met with a resounding meh :/ from the triathlon media. A few outlets ran the ITU’s press release but, really, there wasn’t much said about the concept.

However, we at DirtTRI were left asking two questions

  • Why does the ITU need an new race format?
  • And, if they are looking for new formats why not focus on building a Cross Tri series?

Does the ITU need a new race format?

We believe its safe to say, NO, the ITU does not need yet another format within non-drafting Olympic distance triathlon.

The ITU is the International Governing Body for Triathlon under the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Therefore the ITU spends the vast majority of its time and money focusing on the “Olympic format” of triathlon, I.E. 1500m swim, 40k draft legal bike, 10k run.

However, the ITU also attempts to impart some sort of “governance” on Long Distance Triathlon (4k/120k/30k by their definition), Cross Triathlon, Duathlon, Mixed Relay, Winter Triathlon, and Aquathlon. That said, most will agree ITU Long Distance Triathlon is roughly 4th tier in importance on the global Long Distance Tri radar. Likewise, Cross Triathlon is second fiddle to XTERRA. As for the rest, they are struggling to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive sporting market.

Now, if we consider just the “Olympic format” ITU racing we see that there is not just one series but indeed there are three: the World Triathlon Series, World Cup, and Continental Cup.

Add to this the fact the three series have recently started racing over both full Olympic distance and 1/2 distance “sprint” events, and we have three different distances raced over three different series all to feed into a complicated and convoluted points ranking system toward Olympic qualification.

To their credit the ITU is trying to build the sport of Triathlon on a global scale. They are attempting to raise the sport’s profile, attract more sponsors and media, particularly TV, and get more triathlon/multisport events into the Olympics.

But why add this TT + super sprint format? How does this do anything other than complicate what is already an over complicated menu of non-drafting road triathlon events under the ITU’s umbrella?

A bit of history

In the late 90’s the ITU was trying to get triathlon into the Olympics and the IOC wasn’t interested. Triathlon was not particularly intriguing as a non-drafting event, particularly for TV, and the drafting rules and penalties were confusing and hard for non-enthusiasts to follow (frankly they still are). Thus, Les McDonald and the young ITU realized they could address the IOC’s concerns with one simple change, allow drafting. However, this also fundamentally changed the sport and the skills needed to excel. But, the changes happened, the IOC was happy, and triathlon was in the Games by 2000.

Considering their history with the IOC, why would the ITU create an event that will to turn back the clock and go directly against what got triathlon into the Olympics in the first place?

Why not focus on developing Cross Triathlon?

The ITU has a strong and important connection to the IOC and the Olympic Games, which is a good thing for the sport of triathlon on the whole. Understandably the ITU would like to get more events into the games and it looked like they had a good shot with the mixed relay…until they didn’t. (see HERE)

The IOC has made it very clear that the Summer Olympics are currently like that cool club in town with the velvet rope out front: nobody gets in unless someone else leaves. The IOC has also made it abundantly clear they want events that appeal to large TV audiences, these events must be at or under two hours in duration, they must be global in reach and have hosted a World Championship for several years. The list goes on and gets quite complicated as can be seen here. However, it is an advantage to be adding a discipline to an existing sport rather than an entirely new sport, so Triathlon has a slight advantage there.

This brings us to Cross Triathlon. 

As we stated above, the ITU’s ambition is to use the Olympics to grow all formats of the sport of Triathlon. One could argue this, in some way, is why they have introduced the new TT plus super sprint format. However, as we explained above, this seems to be redundant thinking and not the most effective for getting a new Triathlon discipline into the games.

Rather, we would argue the ITU should shift focus to Cross Triathlon.

At the 2015 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship, ITU President, Merisol Casado stated “cross triathlon will be the future for the ITU”. Perhaps she said that to please a crowd of passionate cross triathletes. But, we would like to believe that she actually meant what she said.

If Mrs. Casado did actually mean what she said, then why not give Cross Triathlon more focus. Cross Triathlon ticks nearly all the boxes the IOC wants for new Olympic disciplines. Plus, it brings a new dimension to already established Olympic sports, mountain biking and running, by adding another outlet for fans of those single sports. Finally, drafting isn’t an issue, the format is high energy, exciting, and TV friendly.

We would suggest the following strategy:

  • First, give Cross Triathlon the same priority as Olympic format, since it could very well get into the Games.
  • Create a World Cross Triathlon Series.
  • Create a Sprint Cross Triathlon World Cup focused on city centers.
  • Create a National or Trade Teams Championship tied to the World Cross Triathlon Series.
  • Encourage National Governing Bodies to develop Cross Triathlon series in their countries.
  • Emphasize and activate the fact that Cross Tri is open to both age group and elite athletes unlike Olympic format draft legal racing.
  • Partner with major sponsors, similar to the Red Bull UCI World Cup
  • Engage with U-23, Junior, and Youth athletes.

We could build upon this list but that is the basic idea.

Hopefully someone at the ITU will read this and agree. Its time to quit adding to an over complicated Olympic format system and start building toward getting Cross Triathlon into the Games. This is not an unrealistic goal, in fact Cross Triathlon is the ITU’s best bet at getting another sport into the Games.

Let us know what you think on our social media or in the comments below, we’re eager to start a conversation on this topic.

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Jimmy Archer

Founder and Editor at DirtTRI.com. Jimmy has been a professional athlete for over 18 years as a runner, cyclist, mountain biker, cross country skier, and primarily, triathlete. Jimmy has a degree in exercise science from the University of Colorado and is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach. Jimmy became a freelance writer in 2000 while competing and covering the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship. Since that time Jimmy has been head editor at two magazines, been published in numerous publications within the endurance sport, recreation, and travel segments. Currently Jimmy is competing professionally in off-road multisport. In his spare time Jimmy passionately follows Formula 1, Moto GP, and is an avid cook.

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