Search This Blog

Monday, July 19, 2010

New York City Triathlon: Inspiring Trouble

The NYC Triathlon took place this weekend. News reports about the event are few and far between. The stories that did appear today all report that man collapsed near the finish line and is in critical condition. Bill Burke, the race director, has stated that twelve people were hospitalized, a number far fewer than expected. For those unfamiliar with the race, the competitors swim 1.5 kilometers, bike 40 kilometers, and run 10 kilometers. This was all done in humid 90 degree weather. Given the fact 3,000 people participated in the race the number of competitors hospitalized was very low. This fact does not sell newspapers. In the post race stories I read no mention is made of who won the race or even how many finished. However, many stories mentioned that in 2008 a racer died--the only death in the 10 year history of the race. The implications of the news reports is clear--the only thing news worthy about the race is those who collapse or die. Like the average reader of the news, I do not understand what drives a person to compete in a triathlon. This thought preoccupied my mind as I volunteered this weekend at the Vermont 100, one the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile races. Many things struck me about the Vermont 100 and the NYC Triathlon foremost among them the dichotomy in competitors with disabilities. The Vermont 100 had none, the NYC Triathlon had 71 competitors with a disability. I am not sure why the Vermont 100 does not draw any competitors with disabilities while the NYC Triathlon does. Perhaps the Vermont 100 is more hard core--few people are capable of completing the race and it is not an olympic event. The NYC Triathlon, though difficult, is not as daunting--an observation that only makes sense when discussing extreme events. Like the NYC Triathlon, the Vermont 100 does not draw much media attention. I wish it did as I was deeply impressed by the hundreds of volunteers that donated their time and energy and, especially, by those that ran the race.

I am going to follow news reports about both races in the coming days. I am particularly interested in the NYC Triathlon. In large part because of the controversy pertaining to paratriathlon competitors--the NYC race is the national paratriathlon championship and the only race to award spots for the world paratriathlon championships held in Budapest this September. The controversy I refer to is a new rule imposed by the International Triathlon Union. The new rule requires all visually impaired triathletes to wear blackout glasses during the race's running portion. The rule is supposed to "level the playing field" among the blind. This makes no sense to me. Just as there are multiple levels of paralysis that significantly affect one's physical function so too are there multiple levels of vision. I know in any race or adaptive sport that I, as a T-3 paraplegic compete in, am radically different from a T-12 paraplegic. I have no trunk control whereas as a T-12 paraplegic does. This represents a huge disadvantage for me. I assume this analogy extends to blind triathletes as well--a point made in a New York Times article that appeared before the race by Aaron Scheidies who has won four triathlon world titles. Schiedies is partially blind--he has 20/500 vision. Schiedies relies has a guide when he competes but also uses his partial vision to navigate the race. The complexities of paratriathlon rules would seem to me to be news worthy as it has larger cultural implications. Here I refer to the cultural ideal of a level playing field. In an effort to understand the rules of the paratriathlon I took a look at the USA Triathlon Competitive Rules. I am baffled by this 30 page plus document, six pages of which are devoted to "Rule Modifications for Para Triathletes". This document brought back memories from long ago when I played wheelchair basketball in college. All players had to be classified--a process that was exceedingly complex, fraught with subjective decisions, and highly political. I doubt much has changed. Indeed, I suspect classification and the rules governing competition are far more involved. Again, all this seems to be great fodder for the media. They can use the complexity of the paratriathlon to highlight just how difficult it is to establish a level playing field for athletic competition. However this has not taken place nor do I expect it will. I am pessimistic because stories about adaptive sports figures always rely on the lowest common denominator--an emotional or knee jerk reaction that reinforce preconceived ideas about disability. For adaptive athletes this firmly places them in the "inspirational" category. This demeaning characterization never seems to change. For instance, the NYC Triathlon race owner, John Korff has stated the following about paratriathlon competitors: "They are the toughest athletes in our race". Please spare me the platitudes. Triathlete competitors are all tough, no one group is tougher. Sadly, this sort of quote diverts attention from meaty issues such as rule changes that affect world class athletes such as Aaron Schiedies. Perhaps I am jaded--maybe a story about how Mr. Schiedies performed will appear that discusses how the rule changes affected him and 70 other competitors.


Emily said...

In Indiana, the big racing issue this year was whether a service dog would be permitted to participate in the Mini Marathon. A friend of mine with both visual and hearing disabilities wanted to do the Mini with her service dog, and the 500 Festival Committee refused the request. After the involvement of other advocates -- both within the disability and legal communities -- they offered to let her run at the back of the pack and with a muzzle on her dog, provided she indemnify the Committee of all liability. (This was also after they suggested she hire someone to be tethered to her during the Mini, which was impossible do to disability reasons, but also undignified.) I believe they finally dropped the muzzle and waiver requirements after threat of a suit.

To top it all off, the media became involved at the end, praising the Committee for its willingness to allow a service animal to participate -- oh-how-cute stuff -- and threw in the same old inspirational mumbo jumbo.

william Peace said...

Emily, I would think (hope) Indiana is a bit more progressive in terms of disability rights, especially in sports. Many accomplished adaptive athletes call Indiana home and the University of Indiana has big time adaptive sport programs. As for the media, its representation of adaptive athletes is abysmal. The stories are always "inspiring" and adaptive athletes "amazing". All of this is as you know demeaning.

Emily said...

Well, we do have some great programs. We are really at the forefront of power soccer, the first sport designed for people in power chairs. (As for its support in schools, there is one club for recreational play at IUPUI and two competitive teams at Ball State. I'm not sure how much, if any, sports funding they receive.)

We also have a rehab hospital with a lot of sports programs open to the public. I went waterskiing with them in June.

Maybe it's just the 500 Festival Committee with issues. I know the guy who won its wheelchair division. But wheelchair racing is well-established. I think if one doesn't fit in the box with regard to already-established (or clearly mandated) accommodations, that's when the problems start.