That damn Tim Carlson
by Dan Empfield 8/25/00
(www.slowtwitch.com)

I got an email yesterday from our editor at Triathlonlive.com, Katherine Williams. It said, "Carlson got to Sutton."

This past spring, Katherine and I mulled over the idea of interviewing Brett Sutton, the coach responsible for the success of so many of Australia's top athletes. Problem was, he had sex with one of his female athletes early in his career and now he's a persona non grata.

At the time, we decided to hold off. Too hot. But just this past week Katherine and I revisited the subject and decided it was time to track down Mr. Sutton and write the story. One day later came Katherine's email.

As to the question of whether we think it's a good idea for triathlon's press to give Sutton any airplay, obviously we don't have a problem with it. The only reason we didn't carry the interview was because Carlson—senior correspondent for Inside Triathlon and perhaps our sport's best writer—was astute enough to get there first.

There are circumstances that make the continued persecution of Sutton a less clear-cut issue. The girl with whom Sutton liased—15 at the time—is now almost twice that age, married, and is more or less on Sutton's side.

Also, Sutton is contrite. That might be the only subject about which he is humble, but it's really the only one that matters.

He's also paid a price, both professionally and personally. You cannot be more persona-non-grata than he is in the world of short-course triathlon. Not only has he been booted out of Triathlon Australia, his athletes have been the subject of persecution as well. Both the ITU and TA have made it clear that if you, as an athlete, are coached by Brett Sutton you do so at your own peril. Sutton has drawn the particular ire of Les McDonald. Any mention of Sutton seems to elevate the already volatile ITU chief to a point just short of apoplexy.

It is just so very inconvenient for the anti-Sutton brigade that his athletes have a nasty habit of winning almost everything they enter. The trickle of athletes toward Sutton is in danger of becoming a flood. Siri Lindley failed to make the U.S. Olympic team, and all of a sudden she's winning World Cup races after joining Sutton's Switzerland training camp for a few weeks. Andrew Johns was an M.O.P. pro, and after Sutton got hold of him he's a legitimate medal threat in Sydney. He's already got a medal favorite in Loretta Harrop. He coached Jackie Gallagher to multiple world championships. And on and on. Go to Sutton's Swiss camp and emerge triathlon's version of a Kenyan distance runner. It's almost not fair.

Sutton is our sport's Pete Rose. I think two questions must be asked. First, is he a threat to prey on any of his current athletes? Nobody can legitimately answer that question without first seriously investigating today's Sutton. If the answer turns out to be Yes, then you can stop right there. No need to continue. But if the answer is No, then can we ban him for life from plying his trade? Is it our place to engage in vendetta? Is there a finite limit to his penalty? Do we have the right to make him continue to pay, ad infinitum?

I don't know the answer. But I think a few more of us ought to start asking the question. I don't think I'm comfortable allowing Les McDonald the right to adjudicate the future of Brett Sutton on behalf of an entire sport.

On another note, Katherine and I have to step it up a notch. Not only did Carlson get to Sutton—clearly the most compelling non-athlete in triathlon at the moment—before we did, he conducted a masterful interview.


NOTE: Several letters were written in response to this OpEd piece, and can be found here.