Representative age-group racing should be celebrated as a great triathlon success story – at its best when those new to the sport realise they have a talent for swim, bike and run and find a route to sporting achievement. With the categories topping out with the 85-89-year-old age-group in last year’s ITU world champs on Gold Coast, it clearly provides invigorating competition, irrespective of age.
It should therefore retain athletes in triathlon for longer, and create camaraderie and a sense of pride in flying the nation’s flag.
Yet its governance is one of the sport’s most thorny issues, and while occasional gripes are unavoidable, sometimes decisions really raise hackles. Such was the case when British Triathlon decreed that age-group competitors wanting to represent in 2019 must buy the latest kit, going against a ruling from the ITU that previous years’ race uniforms would suffice.
It effectively strong-arms qualifiers into forking out upwards of £120 for a new tri-suit, on top of up to £320 for a standard-distance entry, plus a £20 international race fee and minimum £36 British Triathlon membership. That’s before travel and accommodation.
It’s not simply the extra cost, but the impression that a loyal and captivated audience is being exploited. The flames are further fanned because, unlike when taking part in Ironman, a private company known for its aggressive for-profit stance, athletes feel they’re being screwed over by their national governing body – the organisation that should have their backs.
Discussing age-group racing is divisive. Past columns on this subject have been met with a backlash for decrying the achievements of triathletes who work hard to qualify. On the contrary, I salute any athlete who makes the start line, be it aquathlon, duathlon or triathlon. The supporting personnel for the GB age-group team also regularly receive glowing reviews.
But to whitewash the current structure as fit for purpose belies the feeling of many who enter in good faith but become disillusioned with the system. It doesn’t help that few nations put as much stock in age-group racing as Britain, which means events look lopsidedly stuffed with competitors wearing the Union Jack. Look up past world and European races and the individual achievement of securing a qualifying berth is undermined by an excess of British athletes on the start list.
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Despite the high fees, British Triathlon says it makes little profit from this venture and admits it’s a problem that needs addressing. Perhaps the finances simply don’t add up and age-group racing relies on heavy British involvement to function, but it’s time to take stock.
A representative team should reward high-achieving amateurs and make wearing the GB colours something to aspire to. There needs to be fewer racing and more financial support given. Or that mandatory tri-suit you’ve been forced to buy will be all sheen without substance.