IRONMAN Open Category Should Be Default, Not Exception

IRONMAN’s press announcement regarding its 2023 rules package is nine paragraphs long. It dedicates the first third of its length to discuss the commendable extension of the PC/Open category to now include Intellectual Disability, which will give greater opportunity to athletes like Chris Nikic to compete at IRONMAN branded events. The fifth through final paragraphs, meanwhile, talk about IRONMAN’s alignment with World Triathlon on transgender women’s inclusion in women’s categories and the running footwear rules.

Buried in the middle is, for my money, one of the biggest opportunities that IRONMAN has ever had: the Open division. Any able-bodied athlete may self-select this category. There are no approvals necessary for competing in it. Just a “hey, I want to race, but I do not wish to race in a an age/gender group.” There are no World Championship qualifying slots.

This category has to be taken into context with the new transgender women’s ruleset (transgender men’s rules are unaffected by the 2023 update). In order to be eligible to compete in the women’s field, transgender women must not have competed as a man in any official triathlon or swimming, cycling, athletics, or cross-country skiing event for at least four years prior to applying to compete as a woman. This is in addition to the continuous maintenance of at least two years prior to competition of the lowered testosterone levels. It’s a category that allows for transgender women to race during their transitory period before being able to apply to enter the women’s field. It also gives space to non-binary athletes.

But, of course, without the awarding of World Championship slots, it’s Plessy v. Ferguson all over again: separate but equal, except not equal at all. It puts athletes into an “other” bucket that says “yes, you’re welcome here, but in this other place where you don't get the same treatment as our 'regular' athletes."

In my opinion, that’s a mistake. And there’s a relatively easy fix for that: make the open category the default one for all athletes.

There are, in general, two types of IRONMAN racers. On one hand, you have competitors. These are people who are driven by some combination of Kona slots, age group placings, speed above all else. (Some would argue that I’ve pretty much described the Slowtwitch Forum audience. You’re probably not far off.) Then there are what I dub “complete-it-tors.” Athletes in this category are in for the self challenge. They care about themselves versus the clock and 140.6 miles and, so long as there is a finish, the race was a success.

There’s nothing wrong or right about either category. I’ve done some races where I’m competing, and I’ve done others where I know success is simply getting from point A to point B. But I also know that, in other sports, if I’m in that latter category, I’m not also being ranked or counted for the purposes of determining the number of slots awarded to my gender or age group for the purposes of World Championship slots.

My proposal is this: make the Open category the default selection for all athletes. During the registration process, you may then select that you would like to compete in your age/gender division. That registration flow will then include an additional $25 fee which goes to IRONMAN/WADA’s anti-doping programs to test more age group athletes. Then, on race day, World Championship slots are allocated based on the number of starters who selected to compete in the age/gender division versus the entirety of the field as is today.

There’s precedence for this. Many age groupers of a certain vintage will recall that IRONMAN used to require you to declare, prior to the race, whether or not you would be racing for World Championship qualification. It used to be at athlete check-in, then was in the registration flow. This would bring that requirement back.

It also eliminates the burden from the everyday athlete to be made aware of the entirety of the WADA Code. Recent guidance from USADA suggests that recreational athletes should not be clogging the system with TUE requests. Instead, USADA/WADA is focused on what it determines to be “national class” athletes and above. Although usually focused on Olympic development cycles, their guidance includes the line that your classification will change “if you are competing in an International Level event (e.g., World Championships)…”

By making the age-group and gender categories the exception, not the rule, you would be agreeing to a.) being part of the age group athlete testing pool, and b.) agreeing to the depths of the WADA code. It would eliminate the standard “but my doctor proscribed it!” argument for athletes choosing to compete in these categories. And then for the Open category, well, you wouldn’t need to chase down whether your inhaler was legal, or if your breast cancer chemotherapy drug technically makes you ineligible to race.

The other thing that I would do, if I were IRONMAN, would be to relax non-safety related rules for the Open division. Famously, our board hosted a long discussion about someone receiving a time penalty because a spectator, wearing a gorilla suit, ran alongside them for more than 15 seconds. It’s overkill for the regular athlete. Let’s kill outside assistance for this division while we’re at it. Heaven forbid a family member gives you something while you’re on the bike or run course that they didn’t offer to all athletes that day.

Let’s make triathlon fun. We wonder why running often grows at a disproportionate rate to triathlon, and a lot of it boils down to this: we overcomplicate our sport. By making the Open division standard, and coupled with a reduced rulebook, it’d help make our sport feel less overwhelming. And it has the added benefit of making the Open division something other than being for “the others.” If inclusivity is as important as IRONMAN says it is, then it’s time for the Open division to be the division for all athletes.

All Photos: Kelly Burns Gallagher