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Comments on the IMLive Kona Coverage

The last few days I spent some time re-watching the IM Live Kona Coverage .. both to “run the numbers” and also to validate my initial impressions. I loved the Kona race and the coverage, but I also think that it could be so much better – both for hard-core fans and casual observers of our sport.

It’s important to me to start by saying that in my opinion the commentators Michael Lovato, Matt Lieto and Greg Welch did a decent job. While they are the “public faces” (or voices) of the coverage and usually the first target for criticism, they have to work within constraints that they can’t easily influence themselves. Of course there is room for improvement (some suggestions below), but I’ll take “not 100% politically correct” banter between Mike and Matt over “corporate PR-speak by trained communication people” any day.

What was shown

One of the most often (and loudest!) voiced complaints is that the coverage is too much focused on the male race. When re-watching I made notes at each full minute about what was shown, beginning with the men’s start all the way to the end of the commentary after the women’s top finishers were in (almost 10 hours of coverage). Here is the breakdown between the categories:

CoverageBreakdown

This shows clearly that the men have received more attention during the race – they received an extra one and a half hours of screen time. A few other observations about this data:

  • I have not done a specific analysis of what was talked about during the race, but it’s probably fair to say that the commentators focused for the majority of time on the men’s race when there was a split screen.
  • I don’t think the Ads were too bad (even if the blocks were often five to eight minutes long), especially since there often was a split screen that showed what was going on in the race (though again, mostly focused on the men’s race). It’s the “price to pay” for receiving free coverage, and I don’t have a problem with that.

It would be interesting to see if improvements have been made in the last few years, but to me and a lot of others the difference in the coverage between the male and female races should be much smaller. Here are some other things that I noticed:

  • Showing the women’s race but talking about the men’s race seemed much more common than the other way around.
  • Towards the end of the coverage, things appeared to be a bit rushed. While all Top 10 male finishers were pictured and acknowledged crossing the finish line, the women finishing 7th to 10th were not shown (Piampiano, Lundstroem) or just “in the background” (Gossage, Lester).

Another ideas for improving the coverage of the female race would be to have a commentator focused on the women’s race (ideally a female). For the last two years they included top female Pros not racing (Linsey Corbin last year, Liz Blatchford this year), but mostly in the form of short interviews. (Sara Gross has a longer discussion about what she would like from the coverage of the women’s race.)

Need More Data!

I may be a bit biased, but this year the data coverage of the Kona race took a large step backwards. At the start of the 2015 season Ironman announced improved coverage for their big races, including a new website and GPS coverage of the races. For example, last year there was a constantly updated GPS Leaderboard that showed at any time where all the Pros in the race were and how large the time gaps between all the athletes were. This year there was only a semi-secret website with “dots on a map”, but no leaderboard with time differences – all the splits in the live blog or on the IM Live coverage were from timing mats or from the spotter network – clearly not good enough for this time and age!

As the Pros are already carrying GPS Trackers and the base data is already collected, I can’t understand why there isn’t a bigger focus on providing a GPS Leaderboard and the advantages coming with it:

  • It would make following Pros that can’t be shown in the coverage much easier.
  • It would make the job of the commentators much easier .. no need to speculate on who might be where in the race.
  • You could have a “race situation display”, like they are showing for the Tour de France coverage (leaders/size of front group – time difference to first chasers – time difference to next chasers etc.), giving viewers who took a break a chance for a quick catch-up.

The lack of a GPS Leaderboard was especially frustrating since it was available last year. Hopefully Ironman can bring it back for next year’s coverage!

Other Ideas for Improving the Coverage

Here are a few other ideas on how the coverage could be improved:

  • Talk to the Picture
    A number of times something happened in the picture that was completely ignored by the commentators. One example that stuck in my mind was a Pro athlete (I think it was Jan Van Berkel) in T2 who was being attended by medical staff – no mention while the picture was shown, no update on his status (Jan is okay and already looking for new challenges).
  • Talk about what’s not in the Picture
    Ideally there’d be more cameras so it gets easier to show more than just the leaders, in the meantime there needs to be more information about how the race is shaping up: How large is the front group, who is being dropped from the front group, what chase groups are there, who received a penalty or had a flat etc. – information that would be easily available with a GPS Leaderboard.
  • Know more than the viewers
    It must be frustrating for the commentators that they have to rely on the same information that’s available to dedicated viewers such as the picture that’s shown, the live blog and timing splits – again a GPS Leaderboard would help. It would also be great if the commentators collected more information about the athletes in the race such as their strengths and weaknesses, previous results, and “soft facts” and stories about them.
  • Improve the split screen
    This might be a small issue, but the design of the split screen results uses very little of the screen. Even though two streams are shown, only 30% of the available space is used to show the race – the rest is occupied by the background (56%), a static “2016 IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP” header (10%) and two race clocks.
  • Offer Recaps of what has happened so far
    As far as I can tell there was only one short recap (showing what happened in the swim). For those that are not watching the complete coverage you could show a quick recap at regular times (e.g. on the full hour) of what has happened so far and what the race situation currently is.
  • Give commentators some “Picture Control
    Often the commentators seemed surprised by changing camera views, having to come up with something interesting to say on the spot, not being able to finish their thoughts to comment on something new, or continuing their discussion even when something completely different was shown. This could be much better either if the commentators could choose between different views at the time it fits or of they have tighter integration with the person who makes these changes.

I’m not an experienced “media person”, so I’m not sure how much of this is possible, but I think that most of these suggestions do not necessarily require major changes or spending a ton of money. I’d love to see improved coverage for next year’s Kona race!

Pros Battling Hypothermia in Non-wetsuit Swim at IM Frankfurt

This year’s IM Frankfurt produced a number of DNFs due to hypothermia when there was a non-wetsuit swim for the Pros because of high water temperatures. This post goes into some more detail on what happened, my best understanding of the current rules and some suggestions for avoiding more occurrences of this issue. I hope that this post can add some details to the discussion that needs to happen.

Temperatures at Langener Waldsee

In the days before Ironman Frankfurt there was a lot of speculation if the Pro swim would be without wetsuits. The cutoff temperature for the Pro race is 21.9°C (71.5°F). As the temperature was hovering around this mark, the final decision would be made on race day morning. I was out at the “Langener Waldsee” on Wednesday when the posted water temperature was 21.8°C. After a few nice warm days it was already at 22.1°C on Friday and on Saturday it had risen to 22.5°C. But Saturday was cloudy and had some rain, so it was a surprise that on Sunday morning the official temperature was announced as 22.6°C (even higher than Saturday) and the race was to start with a non-wetsuit swim.

Among local athletes who swim in the Langener Waldsee on a regular basis it is well known that there are warmer and colder spots in the lake and that temperatures can vary quite widely depending on where you measure. According to the rules the water temperature is to be taken “at the middle of the course and in two other areas on the swim course, at a depth of 60 cm. The lowest measured temperature will be considered as the official water temperature.”

According to ITU rules, the air temperature also plays a role. While I am not aware of any official measurements, air temperature was somewhere around 12°C before the race started and 14°C at the time that athletes started the bike.

There are some reports that the life guards at the Langener Waldsee measured a temperature of 21.5°C on Sunday. After a cold and rainy race day the temperature dropped pretty quickly, on Monday it was posted at 21.0°C and 20.3°C on Tuesday.

Pro Athletes in Trouble

After the decision to not allow the use of wetsuits for the Pros, a lot of Pro athletes were struggling in the swim. The most public case was Daniela Ryf who was leading the women’s race after the swim but couldn’t get warm and had to abandon the race after an hour on the bike because of hypothermia.

There were a lot more athletes that struggled with the cold and DNF’d on the bike. Some athletes even had to be rescued on the swim, close to becoming completely disoriented and loosing consciousness. At least two athletes were sent to the hospital when their low body temperatures raised serious concerns with the lifeguards.

WPro Bikes

(Photo: The lonely bikes of Kristin Möller and Diana Riesler in T1 after both had to be rescued during the swim.)

Brett Sutton has written about the issue as well and included a list of athletes that DNF’d because of the cold – making it clear that both men and women struggled in the water. An even larger number of athlete’s races were affected, here’s a short excerpt from Caroline Livesey’s race report (she went on to finish 12th in the female Pro race) about the end of her swim:

Determination kept me going but coming into T1 I knew I was in a bad way. I couldn’t really think straight so I just went onto auto pilot and transitioned onto the bike leg. I am pretty sure if anyone medically trained had stopped and checked me over I would have been delirious and probably have been pulled from the race. Apparently spectators were wondering out loud how on earth I was going to run a marathon when I could barely run in T1.

It is obvious from the number of athletes struggling that this is not a gender-specific issue and that the official water temperature was not an accurate reflection of conditions on race morning. Racing without a wetsuit should avoid overheating on the swim, but the dangers of hypothermia were clearly much bigger for the Pro athletes in Frankfurt.

Wetsuit Rules

Before offering some ideas on how to avoid a situation as in Frankfurt, it’s a good idea to review the rules as they stand.

The applicable rules for Ironman races state in Section 4.02 (Wetsuit Rules):

(a) For professional athletes, wetsuits may be worn in water temperatures up to and including 21.9 degrees C/71.5 degrees F;

The cutoff temperature was reduced from 76.1 degrees Fahrenheit (24.5 degrees C) in 2014 to align more closely with changes in the ITU rules. These are as follows (Section 4.2 Wetsuit Use):

ITU Wetsuit

In addition the ITU rules have a section (Section 4.3 Modifications) on shortening or cancelling the swim in certain conditions:

ITUShortening

Air temperatures also play a role on how big the danger of hypothermia is – in cold temperatures athletes will be shivering in the final minutes before the race start, and it becomes much harder to dry and get warm once on the bike. Therefore Section 4.3 also contains a table that shows how to decrease the measured water temperature to account for low air temperatures:

ITUAdjustTemperature

However, this table only applies for water temperatures below 22°C and – at least the way I understand the wording of the rules – is only to be used in determining to shorten or cancel the swim, but not for the decision to allow a wetsuit or not.

In order to to deal with special conditions not covered by the previous rules there is a catch-all rule (also in Section 4.3) that gives extra powers to the referees:

b.) If other weather conditions dictate, i.e., high winds, heavy rain, changing temperature, current, etc. the Technical and Medical Delegates may adapt limits of the swim length or adopt provisions about the use of wetsuit.

However,  I’m not aware of a similar provision in the Ironman rules and it was not invoked on race morning of IM Frankfurt.

To sum up, if the measured water temperature of 22.6°C is deemed correct, then the current rules directly imply a non-wetsuit swim.

Suggestions

If the current rules in place put athletes in danger as has happened in Frankfurt, obviously they need to be changed to avoid similar occurrences.

Rethink the Cutoff Temperature for IM Racing

Ironman has much bigger experience in organizing long-distance triathlons than the ITU that is primarily concerned with racing on the Olympic Distance. The ITU rules make a distinction between Olympic Distance swims (1.5k) and those longer, but of course there is a large difference between racing a 70.3 swim (1.9k) and an Ironman swim (3.8k), and the use of wetsuits in Professional long-distance races seems to be an issue that both organizations should discuss and maybe adjust their rulebooks.

Uniformly Adjust the Water Temperature

Rather than simply adjusting the cutoff temperature as discussed in the previous section, my suggestion is to extend the water temperature adjustment procedures and base all decisions off that modified temperature. In order to be used for these cases the table needs to be extended for warmer water temperatures, at least up to 25°C or even higher to make the table applicable for agegroup racing as well. (To my engineering mind, there’s also no clear description on which row/column to use, for example does a temperature of 22.6°C correspond to the row of 22°C or should it be rounded up and then correspond to the 23°C row.) This would still not address situations with large differences between warm water and cold air temperatures (for example 25°C water and 8°C air temperature), so Ironman rules should allow referees to make a call on race day.

If we assume that this modified temperature rule was in place and there was an air temperature of 15°C (it probably was even lower an hour before the start), then the adjusted temperature would be 21°C, clearly under the Pro cutoff temperature. If this adjusted temperature had been used in making the decision about allowing wetsuits, IM Frankfurt would have been a wetsuit race and most of the issues we saw could have been avoided.

Discuss with the ITU, Federations and Ironman

Of course change is not going to happen on its own, so Pro athletes, coaches etc. have to make  the ITU, their local federations and Ironman aware of this issue and encourage them to better address it in the rules. While I have suggested a possible solution above, there may be other (and better) ways of updating the rules. An open discussion about the changes would surely be appreciated by many athletes, especially those that barely escaped without lasting damage from racing an Ironman.

Kona Slots and Why I am #50WomenToKona

There has been a lot of discussion on social media about Kona slots and the fact that there are only 35 slots for female Pros and 50 for the men. A lot of people have been arguing for equal WPRO slots in Kona, spearheaded by the #50WomenToKona initiative which has recently solidified into TriEqual (which I am a part of).

While there are a lot of public statements that deserve a longer reply, I would like to use this post to explain my position and the reasoning behind it in a better way than what is possible in the bite-sized format of Twitter.

General Slot Assignment

When space in a race is limited, there has to be some way of choosing the athletes that are allowed to take part in the race. This is especially true for “Championship” type of races such as Kona or ITU championships.

The way I understand it, the ITU has decided to allocate the same number of slots for their championship races to each age group (further breaking it down to x slots per member federation). Ironman has always had a proportional slot assignment: the larger an agegroup in a qualifying race, the more Kona slots will be allocated to it. This also allows the slot assignment to dynamically adapt to changes in the size of agegroups.

In principle, I think that proportional assignment is a rational way to allocate slots. A fixed number of slots leads to agegroups that are “harder” or “easier” to qualify for – the chances to qualify are mainly a function of how large an agegroup is. With proportional slots, the “bigger market” also gets a larger part of the slots and generally the strength and depth of the field in the championship race will be higher.  As long as there is a reasonable number of participants per agegroup in the championship race, there is a low risk of someone failing to qualify that has a shot of placing very well. (For Kona 2014, only the Physically Challenged, WPRO, F-18-24, women older than 60 and men older than 70 had fewer than 40 participants.) Because the Kona agegroup qualifying system guarantees at least one slot per race to each agegroup, it also has a “built in protection” for smaller agegroups.

Why is there so much criticism about the agegroup qualifying system? To me, Ironman is a victim of their own successful expansion: Because Kona is the main selling proposition over Challenge, each new Ironman race requires additional Kona qualifier slots. (The latest new races in Vichy, the Netherlands and Muskoka each have 50 slots.) Obviously, there is limited capability for growing the race in Kona, so adding more races is only possible by taking away slots from existing races. If I remember correctly, around 2005 Frankfurt used to have 150 Kona slots, it is now reduced to 75 slots. The lower number of slots (the recent IM Taiwan only had 25 slots) means that the protection of the smaller agegroups is stronger than with a larger number of slots, and adding new races requires a constant re-juggling of slots. (With the KPR for Pros, adding a new race doesn’t require any changes to the general qualifying system or points-designations.) Also, with fewer slots luck plays a stronger role in qualifying – you have no control over who actually shows up at the race you choose for qualifying. As Ironman will continue to expand, these systems will only get larger over the next years. Therefore, the agegroup qualifying system needs to be updated. Still, proportional slot assignment leads overall to a relatively fair slots distribution and also has a built-in mechanism for adjusting to shifts in the distribution between genders and agegroups.

Why am I #50WomenToKona?

Having said the above, it might come as a bit of a surprise that I support the #50WomenToKona movement that argues for equal female Pro slots in Kona. Here is the tweet that I sent out on March 21st for the first big #50WomenToKona push on social media:

Tweet50WTK

So why do I support  a proportional slot assignment and equal female Pro slots? I think that proportional female Pro slots are an exception to the the general rule. Ironman and their CEO Andrew Messick think that having 35 slots for the Pro women is actually a good deal for them as a purely proportional approach would give them an even lower number of slots. Here is what Andrew said in a recent interview on IMTalk:

Women professional athletes have an easier path to Kona than their male counterparts.

I strongly disagree with Andrew’s statement; instead the KPR system with a lower number of female slots actually leads to severe disadvantages for all Pro women.

Here are a few observations supporting this position:

  • Female Pros need more points for a Kona slot.
    The 2014 July numbers were roughly 4.800 points for the females and 3.500 points for the male. Simplifying things a bit, a male Pro can qualify by racing one Ironman race and a few 70.3s, while a women needs at least two or three full IMs. Also, women are pushed towards the big points races as winning a normal P-2000 Ironman race isn’t even half of what is needed for a Kona slot.
    Although the rules for male and female Pros are the same, the difference in slots essentially creates two different qualifying systems.
  • Because of the different cutoffs resulting from the different number of slots, female Pros have to race more often than male Pros for a Kona slot, usually resulting in higher costs for them that are not necessarily offset by making more prize money.
    For Kona 2014, the average number of IMs of the male Pros is 2.8, while the female Pros had raced 3.4 IMs.
  • As more racing is needed, it is harder to prioritize Kona in order to have a good performance at the World Championships. If women have to race more often, there is less time to properly rest after their last qualifying IM and also have a focused Kona build. Essentially the men’s Kona Pro field is better rested than the women’s field, creating two different Kona races.
    For example Kona 2014 2nd place finisher Ben Hoffmann wouldn’t have qualified as a women, he would have been forced to do another IM instead of being able to prepare for his great Kona performance.
  • Ironman always stresses that they pay equal prize money to men and women. While this is correct, a large part of athlete’s earnings are sponsors payments – and fewer Kona qualifiers means that fewer women have the chance to use this as their “calling card”. Also sponsors typically pay bonuses for Kona qualifying and representing their brands in Kona. Therefore unequal Kona slots create unequal earning opportunities for female Pros.

These differences are a direct result of the unequal number of slots. They affect all professional female athletes – those that qualify for Kona and those who don’t. This is different from qualifying under a proportional system in agegroup ranks: Regardless of the number of slots a female agegrouper can qualify in one Ironman and then focus on their Kona build.

Summary

All of this discussion supports my main point about Kona qualifying: Proportional slot assignment is basically a fair system, but the unequal slots in the KPR create clear inequalities between male and female professionals. Ironman should create equal professional slots as soon as possible in order to avoid these inequalities. They should also be careful not to introduce the same problems when updating their agegroup qualifying system.

Women For Tri – An Encouraging Start

Ironman and LifeTime Fitness have started the „Women For Tri“ initiative, which was established to grow female participation in triathlon. They have announced an advisory board which met for the first time at the Ironman headquarter in Florida on Wednesday, February 4th.

WomenForTri
(Photo from a Tweet by Christopher Stadler)

There have been quite a few reports of the meeting (for example an article by board member Julia Polloreno on the triathlete website), and a lot of my initial reservations about the initiative have been alleviated:

  1. While the meetings are of course not open to the public, a lot of information about the meeting has been reported. I find it very encouraging that the board seems to be interested in an open discussion of the issues at hand, and isn’t dealing behind closed doors.
  2. While the main mission of the board is to “identify the actual barriers to entry for women in the sport“, they have also discussed the related issue of equal qualifying spots for professional men and women in Kona.

There was a lot of pressure on social media encouraging the board to take up issue #2, and I’m glad that they are engaging in the discussion. I also think that granting equal slots will have a positive effect on improving female participation in general.

In the spirit of public discussion, I’d like to have a closer look at the arguments presented for continuing with the disparate slot count. In her post Julia reports on statements by Ironman CEO Andrew Messick:

His position has been that there are 50 pro men who are competitive enough to factor into the Kona race dynamic and have a legitimate shot at a top finish at the world championship. As an example, he cited pro Ronnie Schildknecht, who was at the bottom of the KPR standings heading into Kona last year but still finished 12th.

While I was happy to see Ronnie qualify and race well in Kona, he is not representative of the male athletes that qualified at the bottom of the KPR: The last 11 qualifiers were Dan Halksworth (DNF), Chris McDonald (DNF), Elliot Holtham (35th), TJ Tollakson (DNF), Harry Wiltshire (29th), Richie Cunningham (DNF), Chris Brader (28th), Justin Daerr (26th), Ronnie Schildknecht (12th), Andreas Raelert (36th and last finisher), and Paul Ambrose (30th). Of course there are some examples of people qualifying at the bottom of the KPR that are still doing well in Kona – the most notable this year was Ben Hoffmann who qualified as 29th male in July (so he wouldn’t have qualified in the women’s field) who finished 2nd in Kona.

The unspoken implication of this argument is that the additional women that would have qualified if there were more slots wouldn’t have played a role in Kona. I don’t agree with that sentiment – so let’s look at some of the women who probably would have qualified with extra slots. The inclusion of Angela Naeth, Amy Marsh, Sophie Goos, Rebekah Keat, Eimear Mullan, or Laura Bennett would clearly have had an impact on the Top 10 finishers this year! A similar example to Ben Hoffman in this year’s men’s field is Rachel Joyce in 2013 when she barely qualified as #34 in the KPR but continued to finish 2nd in Kona.

He says that the pro women’s field isn’t yet deep enough to justify 50 slots.

I have addressed this perception in my recent post „Women’s Field as Deep as Men’s?“. I was able to demonstrate that there is not perceptible difference between the depth of men and women – at least up to #35 where men and women are on a level playing field. ( An analysis up to #50 would require 50 women in Kona.) Repeating that women lack the depth doesn’t make the statement any more convincing.

[G]iven the rigidly static number of available Kona qualifying slots, adding 15 to the pro women’s field would require taking those slots away from other people, potentially the pro men.

This is another argument that is frequently cited: „Kona is full“ (I always hear an undertone of „so there is nothing we can do for the Pro women”). I find that hard to believe:

  • For Kona 2015 qualifying Ironman has added ten more slots by giving the winners of the five Regional Championships a direct Kona slot.
  • Whenever there are new Ironman races, they always come with a sizable number of Kona slots. Most recent examples are IM Muskoka (50 slots), IM Netherlands (50 slots) and IM Vichy (50 slots).
  • Andrew Messick himself has said that it’s not space on the pier that limits the field size in Kona:
    “The big challenge that we have in Kona is not in fact the size of the pier, which is what most people think, but rather the extreme concentration of gifted athletes in that particular race. It creates problems unique to Kona. Last year we had 1,100 athletes get out of the water in a 15-minute period, between 55 minutes and 1:10. That concentration of really strong swimmers, all of whom can ride a bike, is our operational limiter.”
    Adding 15 Pro women won’t have any impact on the congestion in the men’s age group race.
  • Even if the number of slots has reached it’s maximum, Ironman isn’t helpless: It is simply their choice whether to assign 15 slots to the a new race, an existing race or the Pro women. I don’t believe that the only thing on their mind is the less than $10.000 they make from age grouper slots.

Overall, I am encouraged by the first meeting of the „Women for Tri“ board, their discussion and the information that is being shared about it. I hope that the open dialog continues and that there will be changes that help increase participation of women in triathlon while removing unequal treatment of women in our sport.

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