Somewhere in the evolution of the sport, age-group classifications were formed. Age-group categories are a common way to divide up the ranks of competing athletes. Such a system can be seen operating successfully in youth sports from swimming to little league baseball. And on the other end of the age spectrum, categories for masters – usually athletes still competing in their sport after age 40 – are in effect. Whereas it makes perfect sense to divide up youth leagues according to developmental age, and place older athletes in masters categories, it makes no sense for those of the ages in between.
Triathletes competing in the years between the juniors and masters, i.e. over 19 years of age and below 40, are no doubt the most numerous. An endurance athlete’s prime generally falls somewhere within this age range. These are the years after an athlete’s body has finished its developmental growth stages and before the aging process starts to slow it down. This is the age range for the careers of professional triathletes and the most successful amateurs.
It seems arbitrary at best to artificially differentiate a 24-year old from a 25-year old, or a 29-year old from a 30-year old, especially when they may be of equal abilities. In reality, it is athletes of relatively equal ability levels that are competing against each other rather than athletes of similar ages. Whether at the front of the race or the back of the race, the real competition takes place among triathletes of similar racing levels, regardless of age, duking it out for honors. One may be 26 versus another who is 33, or 24 versus 37… Unfortunately, age-group categorization tends to suppress this competition, often by starting different age-groups in different waves and putting an athlete’s true rivals out of sight during the race.
For most triathletes, it is the goal of bettering a rival outside of their age-group who was twenty seconds ahead of them in the last race, rather than beating another athlete from their age-group by twenty minutes, that provides motivation and satisfaction. And the logistics of faster athletes from later starting waves trying to weave around slower athletes from earlier waves is frustrating for both those doing the passing and being passed.
Simply put, it is time for triathlon to change its racing structure to one similar to that used in cycling. Cycling races divide road racers into categories according to abilities. A cyclist new to the sport starts out as Cat V, then can progress to Cat IV, Cat III, Cat II, Cat I, and Pro. Similarly, mountain biking has the categories of Beginner, Sport, Expert, Elite, Pro. A rider moves up to a higher category by accumulating points based on race performances in their current category. And at each stage, an athlete is competing against others of fairly similar ability. And younger athletes have junior categories, in addition to the masters categories at the other end of the age-spectrum.
Adopting a similar structure in triathlon would go far in making the sport more exciting and enjoyable for racers. Waves would start by category, with the faster categories starting first, allowing competitors to truly race against their main rivals and fostering competition among them. The current age-group categorization for those not either juniors or masters is an ill-fitting approach. In a sport that is now older and larger and possessing a solid national governing organization, it is time to change the approach to the racing categorization system.
In a similar vein, some changes to the collegiate racing system would better enhance competition and team scoring.
Currently, collegiate triathlon teams have the opportunity to compete in both regional races and a national championship event. The addition of the regional races is a welcome site for the sport. And it is hoped that the regional races will gain in importance over the coming years and become better coordinated with nationals.
And the coveted national championships, which is becoming more and more a stepping stone for tomorrow’s Olympians, could benefit from a more streamlined assembly of the field. Nationals in 2002 took place in Memphis, where an elite wave was instituted in addition to a mass wave. One male and one female from each school were allowed to race in the elite wave. However, times from both waves went into determining overall places and team scores. It was no surprise that the actual winner of the women’s championship came from the mass wave and many other mass wave racers displaced elite wave racers in tallying the team scores. Instead of racing head-to-head in a national championship, the opposite took place.
In such an important event, there should be head-to-head racing, anything less is silly. In essence, the idea of an elite wave instituted in this year’s race needs to go a step further. There should be a designated championship wave that allows five of a school’s top athletes (in both the men’s and women’s races) to compete for top honors and team scores. (The current scoring system combines the best three men and best three women times to arrive at team scores.) By allowing five athletes from each school and taking their top three finishers for scoring, the best collegiate athletes across the country would compete directly against each other. Then, a mass wave would include any other athletes a school brings in reserve (for example, the University of Colorado often has up to eighty athletes that compete at nationals, although only the top three men and women count toward the team scores.) Dividing up waves in this manner would be similar to varsity and junior varsity races at cross-country meets. The championship wave would benefit from a more streamlined field, but would still assure that a school is well-represented and that the top athletes from around the country would line up together.
Triathlon has come of age, and in a sport that has never been afraid of experimenting, it is time to retool the structure of its competitive categories.