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When Worlds Collide

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Tue Mar 05 2013

By all accounts IMG produced a fabulous race in Abu Dhabi last weekend. No athletes were harmed in the making of this movie. It’s a testament to our sport, and those involved in its production, that triathlon survives and thrives in cultures around the world, Western and Eastern. Over the past month we reported on races both in a Jewish country—Israman in Israel—and in a Muslim country–Abu Dhabi. It would be interesting to know whether anyone participated in both, particularly if that person is either Jewish or Muslim.

This is all good news compared to what occurred last year at Abu Dhabi, when Andrew Starykowicz was involved in a double tragedy involving him and a volunteer with whom Andrew collided during the bike ride. A lot of readers followed Andrew’s saga over the weeks and months afterward: his 6 weeks of what amounted to house arrest in Abu Dhabi prior to his release after posting a $54,000 “blood money bond” according to tribal judicial custom. This of course separate from the more tragic saga of the woman with whom Starykowicz collided.
Andrew Starykowicz eventually got his bond back, but there are lasting scars and legacies with which he still deals.

It’s understandable what you all thought as you followed Andrew’s saga. It’s a million to one shot. Never could happen anywhere else. At least, not in any Western country.

Who can imagine a more enlightened, fair-minded, country than Switzerland? In the summer of 2011 professional triathlete Mike Aigroz was contending for a win or a high podium spot. No trouble on the swim or the bike. But during the run an elderly woman wandered out and in front of Aigroz. They collided. Aigroz noticed other people tending to her, he contends, at which point he continued on, finished the race in fourth place and then inquired about the person with whom he had his collision.
Now, more than a year and a half later, Mike Aigroz is still involved in what appears to be at least a criminal, if not civil, proceeding. It has literally been escalated to a “federal case.” Whether there is a civil case is not clear, because it’s been like pulling teeth to get any info out of anyone on any side of the Mike Aigroz case.

Particularly sparing and opaque is the response from the race organization. Slowtwitch has reached out several times to the Ironman Switzerland folks, and here is what has come back:

"I can only tell you that accidents with third parties that occur at our events fall under the jurisdiction of Swiss traffic law and are those dealt with by the (relevant) officials," wrote Nico Aeschimann of Ironman Switzerland in an email to slowtwitch. "Our course safety measurements are checked every year by the officials and found to be good. Unfortunately I can't say more about that."

What law, we asked, did Mike Aigroz break, and what are the charges?

"As we have mentioned before, accidents on public grounds fall under the Swiss traffic law, and that [Swiss traffic law] is in the public domain and can be called up online," according to Aeschimann, sent to us in another email. "My contact at the city police Zurich can't comment about this case either as it has been taken over now by the state attorney's office."
At least 7 emails were exchanged, substantially like those above. We were sent the Ironman Switzerland waiver form, "which all athletes sign when they pick up their numbers," wrote Aeschimann, as evidence (apparently) that the onus was not on the race, rather on Aigroz.
This is in some contrast to the degree to which IMG stood up for Andrew Starykowicz, who has held a somewhat variant view of how well IMG stood up for him. But Slowtwitch did talk to IMG regularly during Starykowicz’ troubles, and IMG’s lawyer, who was tasked to help Starykowicz get back his bond, and the help he got, was substantial compared to what has happened in the Mike Aigroz case, at least to the best of our ability to glean facts (and baby we have tried).

We asked what would have happened if Fabian Cancellara would have knocked into a spectator during the Tour de Suisse? Would have been ticketed? Charged with infractions or crimes by the Swiss federal judicial system? Is Cancellara aware that he needs to obey Swiss traffic laws while racing?
This seems a solvable problem or, at least, one that can be mitigated. Every RD must interface with the police and traffic control in every jurisdiction through which the race travels. There is a file, a package, paperwork, that is submitted as a matter of course. It would be an insignificant addendum to add to that package:

It is our view, and our instruction to our athletes, that in such case as an athlete collides with, witnesses, or is involved in a collision or altercation, with another competitor, a volunteer, spectator, bystander, or race official or worker, or anyone, during the course of the race, that the athlete, after making sure that any injured party is in hands as good as his own, is not considered to have left or fled the scene as long as he continues along the prescribed course to the finish of the event. Such athlete should, upon either dropping out or finishing the race, report any such collision in which he was involved to a prescribed party. If you are in any disagreement with the above policy, contact us in writing with the change you require to this policy, so that we may institute this change and relay any new information to our competitors.”

Or something to this effect.
Perhaps this is not going to keep an athlete entirely out of the sort of hot water that both these athletes found themselves in, but it seems intuitive that it would be pretty hard to prosecute an athlete if the RD was to present this document to any charging party.

Further, while USA Triathlon race insurance does cover competitors against liability, coverage is not afforded in criminal proceedings, nor is it available if one competitor brings a civil action against another. It is presumed one’s comprehensive personal liability that attaches to a homeowners or renter’s policy may cover in the latter case.

Had this happened to Mike Aigroz in the United States, the USAT policy would cover him against a civil suit filed by the bystander, but not in a case brought against him by a prosecutor. Same with Andrew Starykowicz’ case, which seemed to be more a criminal than a civil case, although the lines between criminal and civil are blurry in Abu Dhabi.
Based on what we have gotten back from the race organization, Ironman Switzerland has abandoned Mike Aigroz to his fate, whatever that might be. The organizer points to language embedded in the waiver as the notice Mike Aigroz got, though it is still unclear what lesson he should have learned from the text in the waiver. If there is behavior during the bike or run that Aigroz should have exhibited, and if that behavior is prescribed in the rules, it seems the logical place to look is in the text entitled, Rules and Regulations. There is nothing obvious in there that speaks to the obligations of which Aigroz should have been aware.

Should race organizers embed text like that suggested above in the permit package delivered to law enforcement prior to the race, everyone would presumably operate under a common understanding of what ought to happen in case of an athlete collision. In this case, it will help activate that phrase by which most race organizers operate: Our most important goal is athlete safety.

  

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