Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination Now In Triathlon

It’s been variously reported that, as of this evening, IRONMAN Lake Placid can proceed if pandemic conditions do not worsen, and subject to the following restrictions: a reduction in field size by 20 percent; and the vaccination of all athletes, coaches, officials, vendors, staff, volunteers and spectators in designated event areas. At least one communique said that those in these groups will be required to provide “proof of vaccination.”

Triathlon now appears set to onboard a sensitive imperative required by a host community. We have had technical disagreements in triathlon that seem almost political in how people feel about them: disc versus rim brake; clincher versus tubeless; and the grandaddy of them all, no-draft versus draft-legal. I think it’s fair to say that the vaccine passport – if it’s acceptable to call it that, because it seems that’s what the Lake Placid community is requiring – is yet more emotionally charged than drafting. We polled this of you all last month, and this was the question we asked: “If select races could occur in 2021 if a COVID vaccine was required of participants; and if a vaccine was widely available to most or all participants pre-race; would you be in favor of a "vaccine passport" system for such races?”

Among you who answered (1,214 took our poll), 68 percent of you said “yes,” 27 percent said “no,” and 5 percent answered “unsure.” The Reader Forum discussions about this brought out the political divisions. Let’s look at the mechanics of this.

It seems to me that the vaccine passport takes care of the reduction in field size. First, there’s always a large contingent of Canadians at this race and many are in a tough spot. The pace of the vaccine rollout in Canada may disqualify certain entrants from participating in the 2021 event. Second, if 20- or 25-percent of the entered field in Lake Placid balk at presenting proof of vaccine, they should be allowed to defer their entry to the 2022 edition of the race, or whatever deferred options IRONMAN deems appropriate and fair. If that doesn’t thin the field enough, a number of entrants just won’t have had enough swim time underneath them to compete in this race.

Given this, it would not shock me if 25- or 30-percent of IRONMAN Lake Placid’s registrants elect deferral, and I would also not be shocked if IRONMAN fills the field right back up to its host-imposed limit within 72 hours of reopening registration.

Vaccine hesitancy has always been with us, but so have vaccine requirements. We’ve had vaccine passports in triathlon already. For decades. In New York, even. (Let this be a riddle for you; and you have to be an old timer to remember when this was the case.)

They have not (in large measure) been considered an infringement on rights, nor on privacy. All 50 U.S. states have statutes on the books requiring vaccines for schoolchildren, and only 15 states allow for exemptions because their parents object on philosophical grounds. Vaccines are required for travel to many of the world’s countries; and with very few hard-to-obtain exceptions, vaccines are a requirement for those serving in the military. This is about hosts. If a host community (Senegal, or Harvard University, or the U.S. Navy) invites you, but wants to protect itself from you, then you oblige the host by getting vaccinated. Reluctance to vaccinate has been honored, but it hasn’t caused hosts to abandon their vaccine requirements.

The communities of North Elba and Lake Placid are now the hosts. IRONMAN, and triathlon in general, is now in a position to show how it treats its hosts. We triathletes have generally been good guests, notwithstanding our inglorious years of left-behind GU wrappers and our speedo-clad shoppers in supermarkets. IRONMAN has not replied back to me on this topic, except to say that they are, “looking into this.” My assumption is that IRONMAN will agree to these conditions, but I don't know for sure. Assuming IRONMAN would agree to the host's terms, it and we should honor the hosts with a serious, transparent and fulsome process. No honor system passport. Something that acts like an actual vaccine passport. (And by the way, Lake Placid may not be the only community asking for this as a condition for permits.)

IRONMAN has been a great visitor to towns and demonstrated in both Tempe and in Florida how the U.S. could and should reengage in mass participation endurance events. As the premier producer worldwide in replicated mass endurance events, this is what IRONMAN knows how to do. However, let’s be clear. IRONMAN’s recent events have taken place – and one could say the same of Challenge’s recent events – in locations temperamentally favorable to events like ours. The U.S. Northeast is different. Further, one might say that that the better the venue for triathlon, the harder a triathlon is on the folks who live full time in that host town (e.g., Kona, Lake Placid), and the more sensitive we – the visitors – need to be.

It’s reasonable for a small resort town to fear a scene like last year’s Sturgis. This year, more than any other, triathlon needs to show its manners. The Lake Placid vaccine mandate needs to be met with a serious effort to ensure only the vaccinated attend. IRONMAN needs to make it clear that the presentation of fraudulent vaccine docs mean a lifetime ban; and USAT needs to back that up with same. Those who have a problem with this policy should be respected, and should be given the opportunity to defer entry to a future event.