Triathlon has something familiar to any Canadian who watches hockey; a penalty box. And it’s not very popular among the top triathletes at the Olympics who say penalties are ruining their sport.
Triathletes can be penalized for any number of infractions during a race, including mounting their bike too early, racking their bike before undoing their helmet, touching their bike after the swim before fastening their helmet and not putting their helmet in the box before heading out on the run.
All penalties are 15 seconds and the athlete must literally stand in a small square as the seconds tick down. The time must be served during the 10-kilometre run and the athlete can decide when to head to the box. If a penalty isn't served, the competitor is disqualified.
The issue came up Tuesday during the Olympic triathlon in Hyde Park. Jonathan Brownlee of Britain was assessed a penalty for getting on his bike too early after the swim. Brownlee said later it was the first time he had ever been penalized in a race and he added that his foot was on the line. “It was a bit new to me,” he said.
He waited until late in the run to stand in the penalty box. Brownlee was in third place at the time and had built up enough of a gap on David Hauss of France to hang on for a bronze medal.
Canada’s Paula Findlay was nearly assessed a penalty in the women’s race Saturday when it looked like she grabbed her bike before fastening her helmet. However, officials missed the infraction.
Jonathan’s brother, Alistair, sounded off about penalties after winning the men’s race Tuesday. “I think penalties are ruining the sport of triathlon for me,” he said.
While officials have cut down on the number of penalties handed out, Alistair said they are still far too petty.
“For something like, for example, you drop your helmet and it doesn’t fall in your box and ricochets off the edge. To get a 15-second penalty for that is unfair.”
He said the call on his brother was "ridiculous" and said triathlon outcomes should not rely on judgment calls.
“For me, triathlon is a fantastically pure sport. You start and the first person across the line finishes [first],” he said. “To bring a judge’s decision into a sport like that, for me, almost completely ruins it. I think it’s a big shame.”
Javier Gomez of Spain, who took silver Tuesday, agreed.
“Obviously you need to have penalties if there is no fair play,” he said. “But not for things like you drop your helmet and it goes slightly out of the box.”
Gomez said officials should be more concerned about what happens during the 1,500-metre swim. It is not uncommon for competitors to grab each other underwater. For example, Canada’s Brent McMahon said when he tried to move into a gap during the swim Tuesday “someone grabbed me and under I went and then I came up and [went under] again.” No one was penalized.
Gomez knows what it’s like to lose a race because of penalties. A couple of years ago during a triathlon in Austria he was penalized when his helmet hit the side of his box and fell out. The 15 seconds cost him the race and he came second.
“It was pretty disappointing,” he said. “I need to practice my basketball to throw it in the box.”