Playing The ITU Game

  • By Courtney Baird
  • Published May 10, 2012
  • Updated Oct 31, 2014 at 4:38 PM UTC

This story appears in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, on newsstands now.

On Saturday, May 12 at 2:30 p.m. PST Jarrod Shoemaker and Matt Chrabot will dive into San Diego’s Mission Bay to fight for their right to compete at the London Olympics.

They will be racing in the San Diego leg of the ITU’s premier World Triathlon Series—a race that is serving as the second and final Olympic trials for American athletes.

For Shoemaker and Chrabot to automatically qualify for London, they’ll need to finish in the top nine and be the top two Americans—a difficult endeavor given the depth of European and Oceanian talent that will likely show up to San Diego.

Given the somewhat odd and unique way the Olympic trials process has unfolded this Olympic cycle, someone could make the argument that Shoemaker and Chrabot should already be on the men’s Olympic triathlon team.

This is because Shoemaker and Chrabot are the only two American men who have successfully played the ITU’s requisite points game—a complicated process that has unfolded over the past three years and requires countries to earn “country spots,” or the right to send one, two or three athletes of each gender to the Olympics.

This is a tough and risky endeavor, and it carries a high opportunity cost for any athlete who plays it and then fails to qualify for the Olympics. Shoemaker and Chrabot are doing everything in their power to ensure the game doesn’t burn them, especially since they are two of only four American men—yes, only four men in the entire United States—who have stepped up to the plate to take the risk.

As of press time, the U.S. has two country spots out of a possible three for its men—two spots that Shoemaker and Chrabot earned by traveling to the far corners of the Earth, racing well in ITU events and collecting precious ITU points, and in the process sacrificing the opportunity to race on the U.S. non-drafting circuit, which is a whole lot easier to make a living from and more widely publicized in the U.S. than the ITU circuit.

Case in point: Chrabot decided last year to skip the Hy-Vee Triathlon, a non-drafting event with a $1 million prize purse, in favor of an ITU-heavy schedule filled with races offering smaller prize purses.

How much easier—and potentially lucrative—would it have been for him to stay in the States and race Hy-Vee in Des Moines, Iowa, a quick flight from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives, instead of flying to China and Japan to compete in two World Triathlon Series races?

“[Last year] I easily could have said, ‘All right, the second half of the year, I’m going to do London [an ITU race], but then I’m going to focus on 70.3 worlds or Hy-Vee, or trying to get into Hy-Vee.’ But I didn’t really let that distract me, because I wanted to ensure that I was one of the guys who gets the U.S. a spot for the Olympics.”

Shoemaker made a similar sacrifice when he gave up his spot on the U.S. team for the Pan American Games this past October. By not going, he missed out on the opportunity to medal at an event that comes around only once every four years—and the potential financial bonuses from his sponsors that come with it. But because of the ITU’s complicated country spot system and how the Pan Am Games played into that system, Shoemaker understood that it wasn’t in the United States’ best interest for him to go, as he had already earned a country spot and, per the ITU’s rules, couldn’t earn another.

While Shoemaker and Chrabot have sacrificed a lot to give the United States the right to send two men to the Olympics, they’ve known all along that it’s perfectly within USA Triathlon’s selection rules for someone else to use the country spots they earned to punch his ticket to London—even if this someone risked nothing and traveled nowhere to help the U.S. pick up a country spot. That is, they know it’s perfectly within the rules for them to go unrewarded—and left at home—despite the effort and the opportunity cost involved in securing the U.S. two country spots.

“I still think the way the rules are written right now, we know that we’re earning a spot for the country by going and doing those specific things,” Shoemaker said.

Over the last three years, only two other American men, Hunter Kemper and Manuel Huerta, have shown a willingness to endure the ITU’s grueling travel schedule and play the ITU points game—it’s just that Kemper and Huerta have come up short and their results haven’t been good enough to secure a third spot.

Indeed, if it weren’t for a pelvic stress fracture and a broken collarbone that kept Kemper out of competition for most of 2010, and if it weren’t for Kemper’s ill-timed bike crash and broken elbow that prevented him from competing in the Pan American Games in October, the United States would likely be where they’ve been for the last three Olympics: sitting pretty with three country spots. Although it is still possible for Huerta or Kemper to earn a third country spot before the Olympics take place, this is unlikely—and it will probably depend on help (i.e. underperformance) from Joao Pereira of Portugal, Ivan Vasiliev of Russia and Kyle Jones of Canada.

In many ways, the unwillingness on the part of all but four American men to race for country spots is predictable. It requires a lot of money, energy and time away from loved ones to travel the ITU circuit, which is mostly based in Europe and Asia, and which is, let’s be honest, a whole lot more competitive than the U.S. non-drafting circuit and thus much more difficult to be successful in. (See Andy Potts, Matt Reed and other American athletes who have left the ITU for greener non-draft pastures.) Despite its status as the toughest circuit on the planet where athletes compete against the best talent, the ITU circuit is also widely ignored by the American media, making sponsorship opportunities limited for American ITU athletes.

“People have to want to go run around the world and do these races, because it’s a commitment. And you’ve got to be really, really good at this point to do these races, and you’ve got to figure out a way to make a living off of them,” Shoemaker said.

This is why the Athletes Advisory Committee, of which Shoemaker is a part, and USA Triathlon’s High Performance team considered incentivizing points chasing in USAT’s 2012 Olympic qualification selection criteria—perhaps by giving an automatic spot on the Olympic team to the highest ranked American during one particular year—and thus possibly preventing the situation Shoemaker and Chrabot, and the rest of the U.S. men, are currently in. If points chasing were incentivized, there might be, say, 10 guys who went around the world chasing points in the years leading up to the Olympics, thus putting everyone on an even playing field and likely locking up three country spots in the process.

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