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.
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.