Earlier today, Lance Armstrong debuted as a pro triathlete in the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) run Ironman Panama 70.3. He did very well for a first entry into the half-iron distance, which wasn’t unexpected considering his history as an endurance athlete. His training on Strava showed he was more than ready for the bike distance in a half, but as expected from his running history he was unable to hold off a top 70.3 distance specialist during the half-marathon, and finished 2nd overall. Finishing second against a fairly packed field is no mean feat. But just doing well isn’t doing enough. In this case, WTC has formed a major partnership with Lance and Livestrong, and I have hopes and fears in regards to what the partnership between Lance Armstrong and the WTC means for the sport.
Athlete testing: The current testing protocol in WTC events is to test the top 3 podium finishers in each of the men’s and women’s pro races for doping, and randomly testing from 4th place down. One would think that with the cloud of suspicion that has followed Lance for the past 10 years, WTC would be only prudent in making sure Lance was tested in every event, and would perhaps go so far as to put that into the partnership agreement. I was dumbstruck to learn that not only was Lance not tested, none of the men’s podium finishers were tested at Panama today. This information came directly from Rasmus Henning, a celebrated pro who placed 4th:
I thought it was common practice to drug test Top3 and not just random from 4th and down? That was not the case at 70.3 Panama.
— Rasmus Henning (@rasmushenning) February 12, 2012
Triathlon is still a niche sport in the US, and having Lance could be a potential windfall for all triathletes and triathlon as a whole; increased interest brings new sponsors, new sponsors could mean more races to watch on TV, etc. All of that means nothing however, if those benefits come at the cost of the integrity of the sport. Seeing the first race Lance did essentially ignore doping protocols really has me concerned for exactly what kind of deal WTC struck to sign on with Lance. I earnestly believe that pro triathletes are some of the cleanest, hardworking athletes on the planet, but as Lance has proclaimed his innocence for so long, one would think he would welcome more stringent controls as he comes into the sport. This is a bad road for WTC to take, and it makes room for sponsors to put extra pressure on their athletes to do whatever it takes to beat Lance, which is exactly the wrong direction for this sport to go.
A USADA Ban: The US Anti-Doping Agency has said it is moving forward with an investigation into Lance’s alleged doping history in cycling, and is going to ask for the evidence from the recently closed federal investigation. NPR and several other credible news agencies have reported that the government believed it had the facts and testimony to prove Lance doped but the case was dropped, whether from political pressure as some would suggest, or perhaps because the case on the fraud charges were not strong enough to warrant an expensive trials in uncertain economic times. Should the USADA ban an athlete, WTC had previously indicated they would follow that ruling. Lance is racing as a WTC pro via his USA Triatlon elite standing which would certainly be stripped if USADA laid a ban on him. What would that mean to promoters and race organizers who put out additional expenses in the expectation that Lance would be participating or for fans and athletes attending an event he was involved in? Certainly WTC can’t cover the costs of those racing just because Lance was forced to withdraw, but it does lead one to think that as professional traithlete Jordan Rapp said recently on SlowTwitch.com, it is indeed curious that WTC would partner with an athlete having so recently been under federal investigation and with an ongoing USADA investigation into his doping history, and still see so many folks excited about his presence in the sport.
Preparation from event teams: The positives of any major celebrity, sports or otherwise, appearing at a race range from additional spectators cheering on the participants, additional tourism dollars for the host community, and potentially more interest in participation in the local community, helping to ensure the race is secure as an annual event. Not every side effect will necessarily be positive however. Many 70.3s are held in relatively small venues, with participants and their families already struggling to find parking, dealing with long lines for restaurants, and finding safe places on the course to observe the race as just a few examples of things I witnessed personally at Timberman a couple of years ago. Take all that and throw the armada of Lance’s entrourage, media coverage, and additional fan interest and you’ve got a recipe for challenges on and off the course. How long until the first time an overzealous spectator wanting a good view of Lance does something stupid that winds up impacting, or worse, injuring another competitor who just wanted to race their race? I hope WTC is pushing every race on Lance’s announced (and unannounced as he’s posted his schedule for the first half of the season) races that they need to do a lot of work to prepare for the differences they’ll be seeing on their race courses and at their venues.
Keep the pros and the amateurs together: One of the few things you can get nearly all amateur triathletes to agree on is that we love the idea that we get to line up and “race with” the pros in our sport. Seeing your favorite pro triathlete often just hanging around the venue or transition area is a real treat. At Timberman, my bike rack was less that 100 feet from where Chrissie Wellington, Andy Potts, and all the others were racking their bikes and getting ready for their race. I enjoyed this fact, even with a couple dozen lookie-loo’s coming over and crowding our transition area to say hi to the pros or try and learn from watching them prepare. Dropping Lance onto of that will lead to one of two things happening. Either A) The folks racked near the pros will be overrun with athletes trying to get a glimpse of Lance leading to all sorts of chaos, or B) It will lead to pros being racked further away from the amateurs building a divide between amateur and pro that the majority of participants will not be happy about. Pros are entitled to the same relatively calm pre-race prep time as the rest of us, so event teams will need to find creative ways to deal with this situation without making the rest of us feel left out.
Field Sizes: Livestrong is offering additional charity race slots above and beyond what WTC had already made available at each of the races Lance has advertised as participating in. While these events haven’t yet filled, it’s highly likely the Livestrong charity slots will fill quickly, and for folks registering normally with an expectation of the general field size will likely be in for a shock. Neither Livestrong or WTC has announced how many additional slots will be made available, and I think that’s a significant error. The growth of field sizes to maximize profit (and admittedly help meet demand) has in many cases led to overcrowded transitions, clogged swim and bike finishing chutes, and an increased risk of accident on the bike course. Add into that mix an unknown quantity of racers, with a large potentiality of those racers being Lance fans who are new to the sport, and you have a potential recipe for disaster.
Some might ask why I’m worried about this; I’m not currently planning on doing any WTC races this year, and even if I were they wouldn’t be ones on Lances calendar. My concern is one that I learned a long time ago as a computer consultant: perception is reality, at least to the general public. If Lance is at the races doing well, getting a lot of attention on the sport, then everything must be great, and all races are just like the one Lance raced. The average person off the street doesn’t know the difference between an Ironman distance race and the sprint tri happening around the corner. To them it’s “Ironman, you mean the race on TV in Hawaii?”. And if some of the concerns above occur, the public won’t know the difference between WTC, Rev3, or the race in the next town over put on by a good group of folks to help out a local charity. They’ll just know something bad happened in a triathlon Lance was doing and it was on SportsCenter. The first pro that dopes to try and beat him and gets caught or gets sick because they did it wrong, the first Lance fanatic who knocks some kid into the street in front of some guy on his bike because he was trying to get a better shot of Lance speeding by; or worst of all, Lance has just won the Ironman World Championships and receives a lifetime ban from the USADA. This would throw much of the triathlon world into the kind of chaos so prevalent in the cycling world in a way that the sport has never really experienced, besmirching the name of a sport that has not risen to the worldwide prominence cycling had long before it became synonymous with doping in the view of much of the sporting world.