Racing in the Shadow of Terror

Long course triathlons feature rough water, strong winds and high temperatures, but can they endure the Middle East’s political climate?

Political turmoil and armed conflict are gripping the Middle East on a scale that hasn’t been seen in the region in almost 100 years. Nearly every country’s incumbent regime is under pressure from its citizenry to reform in some way, and several nations are fighting outright civil war. As the joint Challenge/Khalifa venture learned earlier this year, it’s an awkward time for triathlon race organizers to expand into the region. Their planned long course event in Oman, meant to be one leg of the high-profile Bahrain “Triple Crown” series, was forced to cancel due to the eruption of conflict in neighboring Yemen. Events farther north this week now raise the question whether World Triathlon Corporation will also meet a similar fate with its inaugural 70.3 race in Turkey scheduled for this October.

Heads of state and international security watchers have trained an uncomfortably bright spotlight on Turkey for almost two years ever since the outbreak of civil war in Syria between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a mixed bag of revolutionary groups, from which have emerged two leading forces: the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or ISIL to those who construe it as Iraq and the Levant). Concern then focused on how Turkey would respond to violence and the ensuing humanitarian crisis spilling over its borders.

International scrutiny intensified last year when ISIS invaded northern Iraq. Their forces captured Turkish embassy staff in Mosul and later committed atrocities in and ultimately destroyed the city of Kobane just on the other side of the Turkish border with Iraq. Through all of this and despite international calls to act, the Turks managed to keep themselves from getting involved in direct military action.

That all changed on July 24th when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the Turkish military would begin a limited air and artillery campaign against ISIS in response to a bombing that killed dozens of Turkish security personnel. Turkish planes immediately began hitting targets in Syria and Iraq, and the government rounded up hundreds of people with suspected affiliation to terrorist groups. There was just one problem. The majority of bombing targets and incarcerations didn’t actually target ISIS.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK for short in their language, is a paramilitary group that has waged insurgent warfare against Turkey for decades. Its ultimate goal, shared by several other Kurdish insurgent groups, is the creation of a sovereign state for the Kurdish people. Some of the land for this new nation would ostensibly be cleaved from Turkey.

It ought to come as no surprise that the Turks object to this idea. Racial tensions between Turks and Kurds have driven most of the Erdogan administration’s calculus regarding events in Iraq, especially regarding Kobane. And in the last week the PKK has been the primary target in the majority of Turkish airstrikes and security actions. The Kurds and especially the PKK are viewed as a greater threat than ISIS. Many experts are now concerned that Erdogan will continue to use the ISIS operation as a cover to crush the PKK and inadvertently throwing more chaos into an already volatile conflict.

All of this is great material for a Robert Ludlum script, but what does it have to do with a 70.3 race? To an extent, it’s hard to tell. If there’s any business having as difficult a time expanding into the Middle East as triathlon organizers, it’s fortune tellers. However, recent history indicates that it’s a safe bet Turkey will experience greater instability in the coming months.

The country has experienced numerous terrorist attacks in the last two years, mostly against its governmental and law enforcement personnel. However, the U.S. consulate in Adana was shot at in 2010, though it’s unclear whether the embassy or the Turkish guards outside were the intended target. In 2013 the U.S. embassy in Ankara was attacked by a suicide bomber associated with another Kurdish nationalist group, the DHKP/C.

Closer to the event itself, the Kurdish population in the host city of Antalya has swelled by nearly 30% in the past five years. The resulting social unrest reached the boiling point after the September 2014 murder of a Kurdish man by members of the ultranationalist group ülkücü. The local population remains highly suspicious of the government’s role in hindering the investigation. Additionally, ISIS has shown a strong tendency to respond violently against any country that threatens its activities in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey could experience reprisals from any of these groups within the next few months, and a large gathering of western participants in a major tourist location that happens to be the country’s eighth largest city would present a tempting opportunity. It’s arguable that even with increases in PKK and ISIS activity in Turkey, the Ironman event will go off without incident. However, the benefit of hindsight now tells us Challenge Oman would have been safe, too. It’s always easier to predict the past than the future.

It would therefore be fear-mongering to say an attack is imminent, but the potential does exist. That potential raises the question of how an event organizer should assess and respond to such a risk. A cancellation due to security concerns might cast a shadow over the event that hinders its success for years to come. Of course, any disruption with earmarks of terrorist activity might not only damage the event’s reputation, but that of the Ironman brand at large. There’s no mathematical formula for this situation. It’s a judgment call. That’s why, as the saying goes, Andy Messick gets paid the big bucks.

While Messick may not have a calculator to help him choose, he does have to contend with precedent. Both the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department have published travel advisories for Turkey, warning that the risk of terrorism remains high. There is also the decision by Challenge to pull back on the Oman race. When the national governments of two of your most populous customer bases and your largest competitor err on the side of caution, it’s tough to be lone ranger.

If a decision is going to be made it will have to come soon. The event is less than 90 days away and athletes will begin to make their travel arrangements. WTC has run into the problem of causing their participants to lose big money on plane fares in the past, and the last thing they want is to deal with complaints about termination fees on hundreds of international flights. Having the participants’ best interests in mind is about more than just their security.

Endurance sports have landed in the Middle East during a turbulent period. But with Challenge Bahrain and the Tour of Oman becoming such high profile events it is unlikely that regional conflict can either force them out or that race organizers can afford to stay away. Both the risks and the rewards appear high, and the latter will continue to encourage businesses to dare the former.

Archaeological tourism, soccer and motorsports have navigated their own paths to success through violence, and all indications are that endurance sports will profit along the same lines. It bears noting that the aforementioned industries have had their own brushes with political violence along the way. Injury and death have always been a part of doing business in the Middle East, and endurance racing is a business like any other. Security will always remain a priority for event organizers of all sports, but only as a guarantor of profits. Event organizers may not always have the same criteria for acceptable risk as their participants.

In the meantime, individual athletes planning to attend the race need to make the same considerations for themselves that organizers and staff do for the event. Look for your country’s Turkish embassy information and ensure they are aware of your travel plans (links here for US, UK, and Canada). Also read through their specific warnings about other tourist pitfalls and take reasonable precautions. Whether an event makes the decision to go ahead is not always the best indicator of its safety, and you are always your own best security advisor.

To read more from Jim Gourley about security and triathlon, click here.

photo credit: Manifestación en Bilbao por el cierre de la central nuclear de Santa María de Garoña via photopin (license)

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.

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