Simon Whitfield became a Canadian national hero for his long shot Olympic gold in triathlon in the 2000 Sydney Games – and for his amazing comeback silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Throw in his triathlon gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and amazing $200,000 sprint finish win at the 2009 Hy-Vee Triathlon, and you have a man who has made his legend with scoreboard – not his mouth.
However, the ebullient, articulate Whitfield is in a uniquely relevant position to comment on two recent headlines in the world of triathlon. And so Slowtwitch has recruited Simon to offer his Op-Ed theories on the recent resignation of his former coach Joel Filliol from his post as Great Britain's Triathlon Federation Head Coach, and of former short course rival and friend Chris McCormack's announced intent to make the 2012 Australian Olympic Triathlon team after a near-decade as an Ironman.
Filliol left his post coaching Canadian elites at the National Performance Centre in Victoria, British Columbia in March 2009 to take the position of Head Coach of British Triathlon and served in that position for two years. His resignation this month surprised many experts since he was in charge of the Brownlee brothers, home country heavy medal favorites at the 2012 London Games, as well as a few not-so-longshot British women triathletes.
While Great Britain's Performance Director and Filliol made nice in a press release, Filliol gave a veiled hint of his dissatisfaction in a social network entry where he wrote: "Not an easy decision by any means. Standing up for your beliefs can be costly, but I am light on my feet today and looking forward to the future."
As for McCormack's career veer, Whitfield dismissed popular notions that Macca was not serious, playing head games with his Ironman rivals, or that the 1997 ITU short course World Champion was chasing an impossible dream.
Slowtwitch: What do you make of the decision of Joel Filliol, the man who guided you to a comeback Olympic silver medal at the Beijing Games, to resign his post as Head Coach of British Triathlon?
Simon Whitfield: First of all, I have not spoken with Joel and I do not know the background that went into his decision. But I do know a few things about triathlon bureaucracy and its relationships with athletes and coaches.
ST: So you think the issues are endemic to sport's national governing bodies?
Simon: I think more and more in modern sport that athletes are a pawn in what is a modern corporate sports game. It is what it is. Athletes are both expected or hoped that we will simply be OK with a pat on the head and shut up and run. It is like a disease that almost all Olympic sports bureaucrats fall into this classic position: It does not matter how my guys do, so long as it appears that I did all I could to help them. It does not actually matter how athletes perform – so long as the administration makes sure it appears on paper that they did everything possible. If an unpredictable performance happens and it is a good performance, the bureaucrats are all over it taking credit and appearing in pictures. And if it is a poor performance they exit stage right.
ST: There are some exceptions to this rule?
Simon: Simply said there are some good administrators out there and I hope that they can honestly say to themselves they did not just participate in a game of cover my ass. We are very fortunate at triathlon canada, we have very good people working for the athletes but the "admin virus" is all around us.
ST: The British High Performance Director Heather Williams seemed to be very gracious in the press release, saying: "Clearly we are disappointed to lose Joel and I would like to thank him for his contribution to the Performance Programme. We wish him all the best for the future."
Simon: I hope that some good can come out of situations like this. I hope that national triathlon administrators would in the future strive to not just appear to provide service and be judged by actual contributions to performance – rather than take credit when it is hard to distinguish just what contributions they actually make.
ST: Lacking the details but knowing Joel well, what do you think happened?
Simon: I imagine with Joel had a burning passion to have his athletes succeed and I'd imagine, although I have not spoken to him yet, that he ran into the umpteenth brick wall or umpteenth smoke and mirrors obstacle and he finally said, "OK. I am done with it."
ST: The frustration must have been palpable, since he was going into the London Olympics with a hot hand of great triathletes?
Simon: Joel probably would be very surprised if both Brownlees don't medal. Joel could have just said to the federation, you know, "Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir!" and silently ridden to the honor of coaching his 2nd and 3rd Olympic medals.
ST: How good are the Brownlees?
Simon: You have to rank both of them as medal favorites after Jonathan's performance last year. And 18 months from now, that kid will be unbelievable. To date, Alistair is the fastest triathlete of all time, who could absolutely shit kick all who came before him. But that does not guarantee him anything. You still have to perform on the day. But right now Jonathan is a close second and those two represent the new generation of the sport.
ST: And don't forget the British women.
Simon Helen Tucker [Jenkins] is still consistently at the front – you can't bet against her medaling. She is bloody good and she has an excellent chance for a medal.
ST: Although Joel guided you to an impressive comeback Olympic medal in Beijing, you two parted ways in 2009. How do you evaluate him as a coach?
Simon: Joel is the best coach I've ever had – it is not even close. He is the most passionate, most committed, most knowledgeable, best triathlon coach. Starting out in Canada, he ran a full high performance squad without the endorsement of the national federation. Eventually the federation got behind him at the end. But Joel and I and our squad went out on our own when we first started and he did a great job. It was miraculous what he did to walk the line between two extremely different entities.
So why did we part? No one who hasn't gone through it can understand the enormous pressure of national expectations on both of us going into Beijing. Unless you've lived it, you just cannot understand. And afterward we just needed a break.
ST: Many folks in the sport do not take seriously Chris McCormack's statement that he is devoting the last stage of his triathlon career to making the Australian Olympic Triathlon team.
Simon: I love it! But the young guys will make it rough. Brad Kahlefeldt and Courtney Atkinson are proven champs and Brandon Sexton, Jimmy Seear and Dan Wilson are not going to step aside. It will be tough. But it is a Possible Dream. I admire his courage. There is no way this won't cost him a ton of money. And likely he will have to watch Kona from the sidelines if he is taking a serious crack at making that Olympic dream and going for it.
ST: Did he ever discuss this with you?
Simon: I took a ride with him last September in California and he told me "I am going to have a go at the Olympics." I said something like, "Oh well, do it!" I did not think much about our conversation at the time. I am sure there are thousands of other factors he had to consider. But recently he emailed me: "Guess what? I am going to try to take a crack at the Olympics." I wrote back, "It's a brilliant idea! Great!"
ST: People say he is just playing head games with his Ironman rivals, that he doesn't stand a chance, that his 1997 foot speed wasn't enough for today's ITU runners and he will be even slower after a decade of Ironman racing and training.
Simon: That's what I love about Macca. Absolutely, I wish I had this attribute. He could not give a flying f*** what those people think who say this is a publicity stunt or it's impossible. He is immensely talented and is a master of tactics and preparation. So what if those guys are laughing! If I'm Macca, I'm laughing at them as my two Ironman Hawaii victories are still ringing in my ear. I'd say shut up and look at the scoreboard.
ST: Is he too slow after a decade of Ironman racing?
Simon: Is he fast enough? He is so savvy. I mean he will spend the first few short course races smiling and laughing and playing aw shucks. But that won't last too long. He is too competitive. Within a few races that aw shucks demeanor will be over. And Macca will see how hard those ITU boys can ride., He will spend 3 or 4 races or whatever sitting in the pack and hope to stay with the lead pack swim. He will be shocked how fast it all moves these days. And then one day he is going to be in the race. He will get a great swim, and the rest of them will expect just more of that aw shucks attitude. And he is going to wield his weapon – the bike -- and stir it up. Just ask Alistair. I bet he is chomping at the bit. He absolutely loves to ride hard! He just wants it to be as fast and as hard as possible. He is a gladiator and he will be thinking: Bring it on Macca! This will be fun.
ST: Isn't he taking a big chance with his legacy? Is this a misguided attempt to rewrite his failure to make the team in 2000? Won't this quixotic detour end as badly as Brett Favre's final season?
Simon: What does he have to lose? The critics might be right. Odds are they probably are right and he won't make the Australian team. But I love it that Macca does not care what they think. He will find out for himself. Before he retires he wants to give the Olympics another crack. I'm annoyed people in the sport haven't had much to say and that they have not shown his decision the respect he deserves. I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that with Macca there is always a little bit of jealousy. I think in this era it is an aberration to have such courage. And we're all the better for it.