Triathlon is largely an individual sport (with the exception of draft legal racing that can lend itself to team tactics), however, the triathlon family is big on supporting all those who undergo months of training, sacrifice and line up for events all over the world, all year around. For an individual sport it’s full of sportsmanship, comradery and general appreciation for the athlete who may be standing next to you. That’s why this story of Christie Sym giving her bike to fellow competitor, Heather Wurtele after a race stopping bike mechanical issue, is one that makes it tough to read about when all intentions were good, and the show of both sportsmanship and toughing it out are at an all time high…

 

At Ironman Couer d’Alene, Heather Wurtele was in the lead and heading back to T2 on the last stretch of the bike leg when her left pedal stroke felt loose. She recognised the issue, and stopped to try and ‘thump’ the crank back in place. However, with not much luck, she thought she would be able to continue riding keeping an inward pressure on the cranks. It wasn’t long until the other side started to come out, causing friction with the chain and the derailleur, and consequently the left crank arm came flying off. She was offered assistance by a few athletes who had tools, but it was to no avail. Five minutes later, an official vehicle stopped to offer assistance, and that was when Australian, Christie Sym rode past in the opposite direction, citing that she wasn’t having a good day. She offered Heather her bike so that she could continue her race, and Christie would bow out after having a bad day at the office. After ‘exchanging a few choice words’ about their days, Heather squeezed her feet into Christie’s bike shoes and continued. It must be noted that Christie is a lot shorter than Heather, so if you can imagine one of those clowns on a bike – circus style – you might have a fair indication on what Heather looked like. Heather managed to get back to T2 on the miniature bike, and headed onto the run course, oblivious of breaking any rules.

However, at the end of the first run loop, the official referee held up a red card and said that she was DQ’d for;

a) Receiving outside assistance

b) Finishing the bike on a different bike

In the heat of the moment, Wurtele exclaimed that she didn’t receive outside assistance, as it was from another athlete racing, “I wasn’t trying to cheat, I just wanted to finish the race,” she wrote on her website. She continued running and said that she would contest the call after the race – which she also thought was within her rights as an athlete. She also thought that the penalty would be a time-penalty, not a DQ. People on the sidelines including her husband and coach were making phone calls and checking race rules to suss out what had happened, and how she should respond. However, just before mile 21, she was approached by the head race official stating that if she did not withdraw she would face a six month suspension. When her husband rolled up and confirmed the USAT ruling, she reluctantly, and painstakingly pulled out of the race, and Christie Sym was gutted that her good deed was made in vain.

You can read the full account on Heather’s website.

 

So, here’s the deal – In the Ironman Coeur d’Alene Athlete’s Handguide, it states that you must adhere to the USAT rules. If the race was in another country, you’d be adhering to the rules of that country. In this situation, according to her website, Wurtele was given two reasons as to why she broke the rules, and was consequently disqualified:

5.2 Forward Progress. Participants shall not make any forward progress unaccompanied by their bicycle. If a bicycle is rendered inoperable, a participant may proceed on the cycling course, running or walking, while pushing or carrying the bicycle, so long as the bicycle is pushed or carried in a manner not to obstruct or impede the progress of other participants. Any violation of this section shall result in disqualification.

She was also given this reason“Each athlete must be individually responsible for repair and maintenance of their own bike. Assistance by anyone other than race personnel will be grounds for immediate disqualification. Each athlete should be prepared to handle any possible mechanical malfunction.” However, we can’t find this specific rule in the USAT rule book.

According to the specific rule 5.2, Wurtele did in fact break the rules, and was disqualified for the infraction. As harsh as that may be,  as amazing as it was for Christe Sym to give up her bike, and as gutsy as it was for Wurtele to continue on a bike way too small for her in the attempt not to give up, the rule was unfortunately broken. You may argue that because Sym gave Wurtele her bike, she indeed took ownership of that bike, but, that would be clutching at straws.

With all of the confusion, we decided to trawl through some more rules and found the following:

3.4 Race Conduct (d). Unauthorized Assistance. No participant shall accept from any person (other than a race official) physical assistance in any form, including food, drink, equipment, support, pacing, a replacement bicycle or bicycle parts, unless an express exception has been granted and approved, in writing, by USA Triathlon. The receipt of information regarding the progress, split times, or location of other competitors on the race course shall not be considered the acceptance of unauthorized assistance. Any violation of this Section shall result in a variable time penalty. 

Sportsmanship – Belinda Granger and Kate Bevilaqua hug at the finish line of Busso 70.3 Photo – Graeme Gillmer

In this rule, it explicably states that you can’t accept a replacement bike from anyone other than a race official – so that is most definitely black and white, but, the penalty is a time penalty, not a disqualification, which may be where Wurtele was confused, and rightly so.

Additionally, in the same sentence is also states that you can’t accept assistance from anyone (other than a race official) which includes – food, drink, equipment, support, pacing, replacement bicycle or bicycle parts, which leads us to a whole new ball game…

Possibly the most famous time that someone has accepted help from a fellow competitor, was in 2008 at the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships, when Bek Keat gave Chrissie Wellington a cartridge when she was stuck on the side of the road with a flat. Direct from Chrissie Wellington’s site – “Bek Keat, gave me her CO2 cartridge. This encapsulates everything that is truly great about Ironman. Without her help I would probably still be walking back from Hawi. I am truly grateful to Bek for this amazing demonstration of sportsmanship. Bek, if you are reading this. The beers are on me. And then some.” – The world has applauded this moment in sport, however, according to the rules of USAT, which the Hawaiian Ironman adheres to, this was a breach of the rules as well. NB: we can’t confirm whether there has been a change to this rule since 2008. Was it the simple fact that there wasn’t a race official present at the time, even though that moment was captured on video? Who knows? For the record, this is one of our favourite moments in sport as well, and we are simply using this as a high profile example. At the time, we too were unaware that this was a breach of the rules, and loved what Keat did.

 

Some things to ponder:

* If you exchange bikes before leaving T1, is that acceptable?

* Based on only rule 5.2 – what constitutes the actual bike? Is it just the frame, and everything else attached qualifies as a part, perhaps including a crank? What if it was two broken spoke, and an athlete gives another athlete two wheels? We realise in the rules it says that you if you replace bicycle parts you get a time penalty, but in the same sentence is says including food, drink, and clearly there have been cases before when this has been acceptable. 

* Where do you draw the line from accepting assistance from a non-official, as witnessed in the 2008 Kona race, or even last weekend in Japan where Chris McCormack gave Tim Berkel some gels because he had dropped his.

* If we don’t have a form of these rules are we setting ourselves up to have domestiques in the sport?

* Are some of these rules counterintuitive to the sportsmanship that we rave about in triathlon?

 

While some of the above ideas may seem a little silly, there seems to be a need to address these rules. This was a very hard and emotional lesson for Heather Wurtele to learn. She is clearly an absolute fighter, and deserves huge applause for her attempt at finishing, instead of packing it in on the bike course. A mention to Christie Sym for her incredible show of sportsmanship as well. Unfortunately, sometimes rules aren’t brought into the limelight until they’ve been broken. Heather’s next race will be a ripper, we are sure of it.

About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP Serious about what I do, but don't take myself too seriously

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3 Responses

  1. Tom Carr

    Whatever the interpretation after the fact, she should have allowed to finish and work everything out after the fact. Pulling her off the course at mile 21 of the run in order to avoid a contest of the ruling is pure cowardice and lording by the officials.

    What’s the problem with letter her finish? So she’s DQ’d, so what? That’s her choice to keep going.

    At St. George they let swimmers who missed the swim cutoff keep going without timing chips just so they could finish. That’s pre-T1. Why would you pull someone off the course at mile 21 of the run? That’s just mean-spirited.

    Reply
  2. Garonzatron

    Man! What a messy injunction.

    There seems to be some very broad-sweeping wording of the rules and if they [referee’s] are going to get so persnickety as to start pulling people up on minute details and pulling them from the race and/or DQ’ing them, they should respect the time and effort the competitors put into each race and take time to clarify it in the Race Handbook and more specifically be sure to outline the major race/ruling/course differences in the briefing beforehand.

    I personally disagree with the ruling as it seems to be the first in many steps to slowly eliminate the air of sportsmanship out of a sport that has a startling competitiveness to empathy ratio seldom seen in any other field.
    So many people draft and it goes unpunished yet a show of grace, empathy and kindness get’s punished.

    What a major pain for both these women that they were the ones to stumble upon the many potholes in the bureaucracy.

    Reply

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