In 2014, with the return of qualifying process for the Olympics, the races of the World Series and the World Cup were in full swing. It was not uncommon to these races to be at there max capacity of 75 athletes. It’s a huge contrast where some womens’ races where topping out at 30 athletes in 2013.
2013 was definitely the year of the construction of the Club of 8. At each race, the best swimmers took with them the big names in the sport: the Brownlees’ and Gomez. With an explosive start to the cycling leg, this created the selection to ensure they made the podium together. This has been the most effective way to eliminate the best runners.
For 2014, we knew it was going to be the importance of the swim that was going to set the tone for the season. With a larger number of athletes on the dock, this discipline has become more and more like water polo. On our screen, it is very difficult to realize what’s really happening in the water. A female athletes testimony was that she had spent 30 seconds under water during a race. Her opponents simply passed over her. It was a dangerous situation and a fight to recover from this situation.
Edmonton probably had the strangest course of the season. The course itself added the first turn buoy at 100m. A male athlete said he was never able to recover from the swim for the entire race: it was a constant battle the entire time.
It is not enough to be a good swimmer and lower times in the pool, you must have the tactical awareness and above all be on the offensive. Alistair Brownlee admitted when he races, he imagined two lines and all that went in its area would pay the consequences. ITU athletes know they need to have two speeds. The first is to successfully move to the first buoy as fast as possible and the second is to swim as fast but as easily as possible.
Unfortunately, there is no concern to decrease the increasingly violent contact during the swim. With the depth of competition increasing, an accident could eventually happen. With 75 athletes swimming to the first buoy at just 300 meters, and a lot of athletes are very close in swimming capability, you will increase the risk that an athlete will eventually get seriously hurt.
Some athletes can go anywhere on the pontoon (Aurelien Raphael) and manage to escape. For others, the race can simply play out in the first few meters of there swim. Although Javier Gomez is still able to find his way to the front after pretty average starts, this is not the case for others. They do not have the luxury of being World Number 1 and eliminating swimmers on one side (outer space on the pontoon).
We talked to several elites to know their opinions. They all agreed that the conditions were very different between races. You could have a relatively calm swim or carnage in the water. Some swimmers have a bad reputation as being overly aggressive pack swimmers and can be identified. However, once in the race, in the middle of the pack, it is harder to judge what goes on from the sidelines.
The reasons? There are several
It is virtually impossible to identify who the aggressive swimmers are in the water. This gives them free rein to do as they please since the on-water referees are generally poorly trained to spot offences in the water.
From memory, the ITU has never punished an athlete for dangerous behavior, even if there are some well know elites acting this way. To date, only a Harry Wiltshire was punished because the camera was clearly on Javier Gomez. And this only happened many days after the race. These types of actions are probably more common than we think. Just look at the number of athletes who lose their caps and even their goggles during races.
The second reason is poor design of the course.
In a way, we should be glad that all routes are not entirely uniform. Unfortunately some rules should always be followed to the letter for the safety of athletes. The first corner should always be at least 350m to allow the group to be less condensed during the first pass. This is not always the case, but the second most important point is the position of buoys. With three buoys, it is possible to make turns at 120 and not 90 degrees. As the angle is more pronounced, the more it causes a slowdown and thus a traffic jam ensues. On numerous occasions, although three buoys were used, the second one is usually not in a good position and there’s almost no reason for it to exist.
Whether for the viewer or arbitrator, it would be interesting to develop unique caps per athlete. Just like Formula 1 or Jockeys, it would be interesting to consider the creation of a system. From the media point of view, the use of drones over the buoys could be very interesting. Finally, ITU must above all be more careful in the position of its buoys and starting to show their presence on the swim course.