Defining advantage: The black out glasses rule

By Ryan 

All TRI 6 competitors shall use approved “black out glasses” during the entire run portion (beginning at their assigned space in the transition area).

This one sentence appearing in the International Triathlon Union’s Competition rules (page 40, rule 14(i)) has stirred up a whirlwind of controversy these past 2 years. The rule is a directive given to all Tri6 racers in all ITU events — Tri6 being the category assigned all blind/visually impaired triathletes by the ITU. As paratriathlon continues to grow as a sport and because of its recent inclusion into the 2016 Paralympic Games, the ITU has set forth specific competition rules for each disability category. The categories range from Tri1 to Tri6 and encompass wheelchair, amputee, visually impaired and Les Autre (other) athletes. Each group has its own unique challenges dictated by their particular disability and, therefore, each group requires specific rules. This makes sense and is rarely disputed. For example, in order for all wheelchair athletes to race fairly, there must consensus on the standards for hand-cycles. Similarly, in the various amputee categories, you will find standardized rules regarding prosthesis and allowable adaptive devices. In the Tri6 category, you will find standardized rules for tethers, guides and tandem bikes. However, this one sentence regarding “blackout glasses” has taken it about 10 steps too far — in my opinion.

What’s the big deal? Why do people care so much? What’s the harm?  Well this is a complex and potentially lengthy argument and I cannot (in a short form) cover all points of this dispute, but I will try.

The rules for Tri6 as they stand, state that all competitors must use a single guide for the entire race, of same gender, who is tethered to them in the swim, rides a tandem with them for the bike portion and can be tethered to them in the run. The guide is there to direct the athlete verbally, and occasionally physically, in a safe manner to the finish line. The guide is not at any time allowed to ‘pull’ or aid in the forward progress of the athlete. For the most part, these rules are accepted. What this new rule is stating, is that as soon as an athlete reaches their transition spot after the bike, they are to adorn “blackout glasses” that will be worn for the entirety of the run. It is the hope of the ITU that this will “level the playing field” among blind/visually impaired athletes. ‘What’s the big deal?’ many may still be asking. The conflict lies within the details that aren’t being put forward by the ITU.

The ITU’s stance is that this rule will eliminate any advantage one athlete may have over another because they may see ‘better.’ They seem to think it is a very cut and dry argument – it is not! Here’s some thoughts on why…

One thing to note, is that almost every Tri6 competitor sees differently and I would argue that not one has the exact same disability as another. Much like wheelchair and amputee athletes have differing levels of disability in their respective categories, such is  also true in the Tri6 category.

The Tri6 has currently three classifications within the category to accommodate the differing visions and ensure racers of similar vision race each other. The B1, B2 and B3 classes exist in Tri6 in order to ensure a totally blind person (B1) is not compared to a person with higher functional vision (B3). These three categories are how the playing field is currently levelled. However, the ITU has several arguments to discount these classes, wishing instead to lump everyone together and implement a quick fix solution.
It is worth noting, that most of the Tri6 competitors don’t generally worry about who sees more and who is getting an advantage or not.  I say ‘most’ — there are some who still feel they are at a higher disadvantage then others. I would be lying, if I said a totally blind person was not at SOME TIME at SOME disadvantage compared to a higher functionally sighted person. This may sound shocking, but just because a person has more vision that does not necessarily equate to an advantage.  As previously stated, no two people’s vision is alike and everyone sees differently. I myself am a B2 athlete, with some functional central vision but little peripheral. I race against totally blind (B1) athletes and certain athletes that have more functional vision (B3). Personally, I don’t find any particular person has an advantage or disadvantage over me. Our bodies acclimate to their current level of vision, using whatever senses it has at its disposal in order to keep us upright and moving forward. A person with some vision may at times be at a disadvantage compared to a person who is totally blind because of issues of glare, blind spots, central vs. peripheral, etc. In any given race, each athlete will have spots where their sight helps them or hinders them.

As you can see, in the Tri6 category you have a range of disability (as with every other class); therefore, what the ITU rule basically says is ‘we don’t think there are appropriate numbers to establish the B1, B2, B3 classes, so we will instead make everyone totally blind to fix it…’ — you can see how this is a bit short sighted (pardon the pun)! Imagine again if an amputee was told their slightly longer remaining limb was an advantage, or a wheelchair athlete that they had 2% more trunk mobility then their competitor, or a “les autre” athlete that their cerebral palsy was less severe than someone else’s?  How in the world would the ITU level those playing fields?!! Yikes, that’s a scary thought!

Within the blind/visually impaired community, I think it is felt that the ITU could not be bothered to educate themselves on the variations of vision among the athletes and figured that by making everyone blind, all would be well and we’d all be super happy to be competing as equals. For the most part, this is not the case. What the ITU failed to recognize is the varied level of compensation each athlete has already made to their own disability. By handing someone with 5% vision a pair of black out glasses, you are essentially throwing them into a world of disarray, danger, confusion and essentially furthering their disability. This doesn’t even touch on the ethical or legal sides of the story either.

It is probably most hurtful to the Tri6 racers that the ITU feels it is acceptable and logical to further disable somebody because they feel it is an easy fix to a problem (Tri6 athletes complaining about inequality within their own group) – a problem that  doesn’t even exist!

On a personal note, I look at it this way: I have a degenerative disease that is slowly leading me to total blindness. Currently I have 6% vision, mostly central, and I am new to the paratriathlon world (2009).  My sight allowed me to race solo for 10 years — taking in the sights and creating a mental photo album of all the wonderful things I’ve seen. As my sight slowly deteriorates, I run out of time to collect the mental images that will stay with me once my world turns dark. I cherish each one and hold tight to it. According to the ITU, even though I have 6% vision, that is 6% too much. That is unfair to my competitors and now I must go to 0%; basically accelerating the progression of my disease and robbing me of the precious images I have yet to collect. I find it rather infuriating and I have pondered walking away from the sport (or any race that demands I wear black out glasses).

The debate goes much deeper and I have simply presented a few of my thoughts on the topic. These are my personal opinions and I speak for myself on this one. I do, however, believe I am not alone in my position and I am comforted by that.
I am all for fair play and as level of a playing field as you can get. However, a level playing field comes with education, respect and understanding of the subjects on which the rule is being imposed. Would the ITU dare “level the field” in the other paratriathlon categories? I highly doubt it….can you imagine the carnage at the time of classification for amputees? A tape measure in one hand, a hacksaw in another?!!!  Sorry to be gruesome but that’s what this feels like.

Let us race…let us “run what we brung” (as they say in autoracing). You will rarely find that we feel unequal among similarly disabled competitors because we all respect each other for what it takes just to get to the starting line.

Image of Ryan and his guide standing beside tandem bike post race.

Ryan and his guide, Syd Trefiak, pose with their tandem bike.

Ryan Van Praet is a Canadian National Paratriathlon Olympic Distance Champion and has 6% remaining vision (and falling).  He is a 6x Ironman finisher, an inspirational speaker and a ParaSport consultant who is determined to make sure nobody is left on the sidelines.  He doesn’t want special treatment as a PC athlete, just an opportunity to compete with everyone else.

www.ryanvanpraet.com

 

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12 thoughts on “Defining advantage: The black out glasses rule

  1. I know this one has caused a lot of controversy. Hopefully we will get to hear from both sides on this forum.

    The black-out glasses seem to make little sense as I would imagine the athletes who are 100% blind are significantly better adapted to running with total blindness… not much of a level playing field.

    Does the IPC or ITU publish any documents or decisions giving their reasoning?

  2. Goalball is designed to make you use your hearing. It is a uneqic sport! However to blindfold everyone cause you cant be bothered to reserch is wrong! we that is vision imparied only have 3 catogories any way why oh why stuff with us? it is happerning in T&F as well all this points crap is killing the sport it is meant to be a leval playing field but this is less n less the case! what the hell is wrong with 3 catogories?

    • Good point! I was trying to figure out last night why the use of black out glasses seems to be more widely accepted in some sports than others but I didn’t have any good answers. But you’re absolutely right – goalball is working off an entirely different model where hearing the ball is the objective. I once tried playing it with a group of (sighted) high school athletes – it was fascinating! Here were a bunch of students who were highly skilled in the own sports but they were disasters at goalball – they had to learn an entirely new set of skills! Very humbling and a lot of fun.

  3. As a coach of a B1 para-athlete and cyclist I can’t agree with you. There is a big divergence between having some sight and no sight at all. Especially within triathlon where a good transition can mean the divergence between winning and no medial at all. A B3 or B2 athlete can see where his or here shoos are, A B1 athlete has to feel them, during a race, with running people and bikes around them.

    But I can agree with you on one thing: The blacked out glasses are an bad idea! It makes athletes more disabled and doesn’t give the B1 athletes an level playing field because the glasses are only worn during the bike an running part and not at the transitions.
    Even my athlete, who is B1, isn’t happy with the rules because she can now be disqualified for losing a pair of glasses she can’t use.

    The ITU is aware that the current system isn’t working and with help form the IPC they are working on a new system. I think it will be a system as being used in alpine and cross country skiing: every athlete has his own ability factor. For example: an B3 athlete has a factor of 100% (his finish time is his race time) and a B1 athlete has a factor of 80% (his finish time will be lowered by 20% to have his race time).
    This is not 100% fair but better than the current situation and the concept is proven by de IPC.

  4. Looking around the glasses seems to be an obvious, and even natural, thing to do…

    When rules are that easy to sidestep, and that difficult to enforce, they really make ZERO sense and become a little embarrassing for a sport.

  5. I disagree with the option to just “buy the smallest pair of glasses and look around them”…. for SOME athletes, this is perfect, however for people with similar vision to me (ONLY central vision); the blackout glasses block out exactly the vision I have remaining. I know that some athletes with NO central but some peripheral vision can quite easily look around the glasses. IN thic case it’s not even a fair method of cheating!! There are just far too many differing types of vision to have any method to make it all work–the ITU thinks blacking out everyone will do, but as per the blog, there are quite a few reasons against it.

  6. Blacked out glasses are absolutely a terrible idea! I don’t need to have a “rule” take away my sight. I think the current IPC classification system could be improved by having only 2 sight classes – B1 and B2, but with a new classification system. Athletes who have such a low level of functional sight that would require a sighted guide in an unfamiliar environment (so basically current B1 and low B2 athletes) should be classed as B1 and yes, wear blacked out glasses to prevent more sighted athletes from dropping down into the B1 class because there truly is an advantage if you can learn a skill with some sight versus little to none. And it would take very observant officials and fellow guides to ensure the glasses were worn properly to reduce cheating (which I know happens). The second class would be for athletes that are currently high B2 athletes and all B3 athletes as often performances with these athletes are pretty comparable. No glasses necessary for this class – use what you’ve got to your best ability!

    The percentage system with cross-country skiing isn’t a bad idea, but I think it does the low B2 athletes a disservice. Some B2 athletes can read large print and get around for daily activities (i.e.: getting to the cafeteria in a Paralympic village) without a cane or guide whereas others couldn’t possibly do it without a cane and/or some direction from a sighted guide. The percentage system doesn’t fairly give these athletes an adequate percentage, but it gives the high B2 athletes who generally function like B3 athletes what I consider to be an unfair advantage over B3 athletes. So the system could be more efficient if it was tweaked. Having said that, I know that at the 2003 IBSA World Championships, a referendum was held asking the athletes if they preferred to compete against other blind athletes of similar sight levels or go to a percentage system. I can’t remember the exact results, but over 95% DID NOT want the percentage system – they wanted to compete against other athletes of a similar sight class. I think going to two sight classes would put people on a more even playing field while also increasing the number of athletes in each class.

    Also a terrible idea is that you must finish the triathlon with only one guide of the same gender. Really? In athletics, a blind athlete can change guides once during any race that is 800m or longer. I have seen more than one situation where a guide wasn’t fast enough to keep up and it’s unfair for an athlete’s performance to be lowered because their guide can’t keep up. Only guides who complete the entire distance are eligible for a medal though. This could potentially be a yet another challenge for female athletes to compete because if there are fewer females active in any sport, the chance of finding a suitable guide will also be lower, reducing participation levels of women with disabilities. Double whammy!

  7. Well one thing is for certain, this is a very tricky issue. Yes in Goalball we wear goggles to level the playing field. Obviously if you can see the ball in any shape, you have a sizeable advantage over someone who cannot see the ball at all. What I have observed over my Goalball career, was athletes who had some vision B2 or B3, were able to learn the technical skills of the game faster than a B1, however, it took those B2′s and B3′s longer to understand spacial relations without site as the navigate the court and the game. Eventually both groups catch up to each other and voila you have a level playing field and the luxury of more teams, which means more athletes to choose from for the national team.

    Rowing takes this notion of levelling the playing field to a whole new level that borders on ridiculous. First, not only do they require all visually impaired rowers to wear goggles, they also restrict the number of blind athletes (maximum of 2 and of those two only one can be a B3) in a mixed coxed four. Visually impaired rowers are the only classification within rowing that is actually “disadvantaged” in the boat. All other classes can use whatever modifications they need to to maximize their rowing ability. To a degree I understand the notion behind the blind rowers wearing goggles, but what I absolutely disagree with is restricting the number of blind rowers in the crew. If FISA is so concerned about the blind folk taking over rowing, they should create a separate boat class of just blind rowers rather than restricting the number of blind rowers in the crew. The result of these restrictive rules, will be countries not necessarily sending their best rowers to the Paralympics, but sending the requisite composition of rowers that meet the restrictive criteria. Eventually this is going to halt the growth of rowing among the blind and visually impaired.

    I think the one thing we can all agree on, is that no Paralympic sport is so flush with athletes that they can afford to turn them away on a technicality.

  8. Using the percentage system, is it actually possible to calculate precisely how disadvantaged a skier is based on the percent of their vision that remains? How do they measure the disadvantage? The glasses seem like a very bad idea. Initially, when I first read about the black out glasses it seemed to me as though it would be a simple and fair way to level the playing field, but after reading it is clear that it is not, by any means, an appropriate solution.

  9. Hmmm… good question Robert. My answer – although someone might have a better one – is that no it is not possible to use the percentage system to determine exactly how ‘disadvantage’ or ‘advantaged’ a skier is. For all the reasons that Ryan specifies in his post it is very hard to determine exactly when and how an athletes will be advantaged/disadvantaged – first of all you have to address the many many variations in vision (some see central, some peripheral, some are sensitive to bright light, some have difficulty tracking moving objects, others have generally low vision…) and then you have to address the many many variables that come into play when you are racing outdoors on race courses that are not standard either (it’s not like we are skiing on an indoor track). I don’t know exactly how the percentage system was originally determined but what I do know is that in cross country skiing a B3 is considered to be 100%, a B2 has a 97 or 98% (depending on the technique being done that day – I guess they assume that because of higher speeds in the skating technique they will be more disadvantaged?) and a B3 is somewhere around an 85% – that means that if a B1 finishes a race in 10 minutes then a B3 has to finish in 8 minutes and 30 seconds or less in order to beat them. What I do find encouraging is that at the highest level – world cups and paralympics – I haven’t noticed a trend in who is wining the races – it seems fairly evenly distributed between the 3 classes. What that tells me is that the system is working to the extent that it allows for competitive fields and no one class has been particularly ‘hurt’ by the system. But as Courtney mentions in her comment is that there is considerable variation within the classes – particularly within the B2 class. Someone who just barely misses being categorized as a B1 usually has much much lower vision that someone who just barely misses being classed a B3. It’s a hard thing to actually no for sure because we don’t know how many athletes get classified as a B2 but are at the ‘low’ end of the B2 class – maybe they enter a few races but don’t do particularly well because they are given 98% when they should be closer to 85% (it’s a huge difference!) and as a result they are discouraged and quit or are cut from the team. The result would be that most of the B2′s competing internationally are actually closer to the B3 category than the B1. Anyway – I guess my conclusion is that the percent system is far better than saying ‘make them all wear glasses’ but it is still far from perfect.

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