Forced Upgrades: Make the Best Amateur Triathletes Turn Pro

Next weekend the best Ironman triathletes will compete in Kona for the title of world champion (of various divisions). If past history is any indication, the first amateur man will come in around 25th overall, while the best amateur woman will have less than 20 professional women in front of her. Nearly every one of the top age group winners will have dozens of sponsors. Some will have performance incentives, travel costs paid for, and nice houses to stay in.

Most will have training schedules and lifestyles that would make the vast majority of professional athletes jealous. Nearly every person on the podium in every one of peak age groups will have qualified multiple times for their elite/professional license, but will have chosen instead to continue to race as amateurs. At this point, though, it’s hard to pretend they’re really amateurs.

Triathlon operates on a very simple — perhaps too simple — categorization structure. There are elite triathletes and there is everyone else. But where those two overlap the major difference is not in how good the athletes on either side of that line are. Nothing changes when someone opts for their elite license — they don’t suddenly get faster or have more time to train or more money. The major difference is not in their ability, but in whether they actually choose to box their weight.

Under the current system, an athlete could meet the standard for elite qualification at just one race and take their “pro” license immediately — not that that happens often — while another athlete could meet those same standards over 20 or 30 times and yet continue to sandbag in the age group divisions. And, as is becoming increasingly evident, far too many people choose to sandbag, taking podium spots and the support that comes with that from other up-and-coming triathletes.

IMG_20150516_153454Given the incentives, of course they choose that option. Everything about how triathlon works tells them that they should. A friend, who used to race for a major amateur team, once told me that the title sponsor wouldn’t let her upgrade to the elite/pro division. The existing system meant that those sponsors would rather have an age group champion, who they can market to other women with a false sense of relatability, than a mid-pack pro.

This is a broken system. But it doesn’t have to be.

While triathlon’s roots are in the age group races, cycling’s structure came out of that sport’s history in large prize-moneyed event. And so cycling has a system based not on how old you are, but on how good you are. A cyclist moves up in categories by achieving a minimum level of results. Most importantly, though, after you achieve a maximum level of results you are forced to upgrade. There is no option to it. A new license, with your upgraded category, simply arrives in the mail. (And, yes, there is a system by which you move back down too.)

Triathlon needs forced mandatory upgrades. After a certain number of overall amateur wins or podiums, an athlete should be required to upgrade by the end of the season.

Forced upgrades would push more pseudo-amateurs into the elite field, leaving spots open in the age group ranks to be filled by burgeoning athletes, as the opportunities trickle down. It would also force the development of a deeper elite field, creating room for growth and competition — particularly among the women.

As the debate over 50 Women to Kona has prompted more analysis of existing numbers and results, it has become increasingly clear, not just anecdotally but statistically, that more of the top amateur women choose to stay “amateur” than their male equivalents. (This is particularly ironic given that if all the women who have qualified upgraded together then Andrew Messick would have far less of a misguided argument about proportionality to lean on.) The development of the women’s half of the sport would benefit from those athletes being required to move on and move up, fleshing out the back end of the women’s elite field, creating competition and opportunities for development athletes, and eliminating the prisoner’s dilemma that currently plagues the elite amateur fields.

While there are only two formal categories in triathlon, in truth there are obviously more. There are those professionals who earn a sizable living. There are newbie triathlon beginners and casual athletes just out for some exercise. And, in between, there are very, very good athletes, most of whom train a full workweek whether they also work another job or not — since nearly every Olympian and most professional athletes work other jobs anyway. 

In fact, according to USA Triathlon, when the federation first started handing out licenses in the late-1980s, there were three categories: open, elite, and age group. Athletes self-selected to the most appropriate. But that system fell by the wayside as age-group competition dominated the landscape. While some races — most notably Lifetime’s series — have created elite amateur divisions in a similar vein, the practice hasn’t widely caught on, largely because it’s no longer supported on an institutional level.

USA Triathlon’s Athlete Advisory Council reviews and revises the elite membership criteria annually, but the focus tends to be on expanding the options for younger athletes to get into draft-legal racing, since that is USAT’s primary focus (and presumably other IOC-backed national governing bodies’ focus as well). The one caveat they have said they are currently making is that the existing elite qualification structure relies on prizes purses to determine the size and quality of a race field. But with prize money going away at so many big races, USAT says it is currently re-evaluating its qualification criteria and expects to announce a revised structure at the end of the year.

That will allow more talented athletes the option of upgrading to become elites and progressing in their athletic journeys. But it only makes a difference if they actually take that option. The revisions likely won’t fundamentally change the underlying incentives or numbers.

The only way to do that is to make people do it.

photo credit: The clock that marks the finish line via photopin (license)

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly is a reporter and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She quit triathlon for a few years, because triathletes can be annoying, but now she's back into it and only hanging out with the non-annoying triathletes. She blogs about stuff at Sunny Running.