Dear Mr Jenkins,
As four-time World Ironman Champion, this letter is in response to your 17 September ‘Evening Standard’ article regarding the ITU World Championship event, held in London on 11-15 September.
My response is structured around your main assertions and comments, as highlighted below:
“I am all for London serving as an occasional venue for such public events”.
It would be useful for the reader, politicians and sports’ governing bodies if you could elaborate on the criteria that would, in your view, make for a worthwhile public event.
The Notting Hill Carnival is held annually, affecting West London communities – yet is also rightly valued as a cultural celebration that is of immense social and economic importance. Equally, the annual Wimbledon tennis championship takes place over two weeks – with the Men’s and Women’s finals being held on separate days – and causes traffic congestion for those living in South West London but is, again, hugely important as a sporting spectacle, and an economic and social win for the majority. Football matches cause inconvenience for some local residents on a weekly basis. The annual London Marathon results in closed roads and diversions, but it’s an amazing spectacle and one of which London can be rightly proud. We need these public sporting events to normalise physical activity, enable local people to watch it live and facilitate participation.
The ITU World Championships formed part of UK Sport’s Gold Event Series aiming to bring 70 of the world’s most prestigious sporting events to the UK. (I welcome the fact that you corrected the earlier mistake that described the International Triathlon Union – the international governing body – as the International Telecommunications Union). As a former London resident I’m fully aware of the potentially negative impacts of such events, but also see the value of living in a city that proudly hosts such an array of national and global sporting and cultural spectacles. Yes, triathlon takes place over a larger geographical area and requires more infrastructure than many sports. In this way, it’s somewhat similar to the Tour of Britain, which you (rightly) welcomed. I acknowledge that some people and organisations may be inconvenienced by such events: people may have had to walk instead of driving, a few cycle lanes may have been closed, and this may add a few minutes to your journey, but I believe that the bigger picture is always more positive than the short term inconvenience that such events may cause to the few.
What is clear from your article is that event organisers, sports governing bodies, politicians, councils, local organisations and businesses must work together to find a solution that works for all and causes the least disruption possible – whilst also highlighting the wider gains to the economy and society at large.
“Obscure event called the ITU World Triathlon…….Triathlon is a minority sport even within athletics”.
In 2011, the equivalent World Championships were held in Beijing on the same course as the 2008 Olympics. This was part of the Olympic legacy, and the same goes for London. I was proud that the city was selected to host the ITU World Championships, and able to welcome the 8,500 athletes that competed, together with their friends and families.
I know of few sporting events that can boast they attracted 8,500 athletes; and estimates suggest that, in total, around 100,000 people took part as athletes, spectators and volunteers. With competitors from 83 nations, the event boasted the largest number of international participants for any mass-participation event held in the capital. You may wish to be aware that a record-breaking 210 para-athletes from 26 nations competed in London ahead of triathlon’s debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games; nearly double the field from last year’s World Championships. A wonderful legacy indeed.
These figures do not seem to support your assertion that triathlon is an ‘obscure’ sport. In fact, triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. There are well over 500 affiliated triathlon clubs in England and Wales. Triathlon England had 15,274 members in 2011/12 (up from 6,400 in 2004/5). There were 856 registered events in England, Wales and Scotland in 2012, with 149,308 race starts. These statistics are also reflected in many countries around the world, as indicated by the 83 countries that took part in the ITU World Championships.
This growth is fuelled by the success of British elite athletes. Great Britain has male and female World Champions across the range of triathlon distances, from the Olympic to the Ironman. The reigning ITU World Champion is Non Stanford – a British athlete – as is the woman ranked 2nd in the world. Britain’s Alistair Brownlee won gold at the Olympics and is two-time World Champion, and his brother Jonny was 2012 World Champion and the bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics.
It is worth noting that, at the recent ITU World Championships, the home team was responsible for three medals (one gold) in the elite races, 15 (six gold) in the Paratriathlon and three (one gold) in the U23 and junior races. Add in the age-group races and Great Britain comfortably topped the medal tally with 76 medals, 30 more than the US, who had the second highest medal count. In addition, Shirin Gerami became the first Iranian woman to ever compete in an ITU Triathlon World Championships on Sunday. I know first-hand how hard the organisers worked to enable this to happen. This is surely something to be celebrated.
Great Britain truly is a powerhouse in global triathlon, and is helping to take the sport from its minority position into the lives and psyche of the majority.
“Its road closures caused five days of congestion and delay across west London, culminating in total chaos as the royal parks and Hyde Park Corner were shut over the weekend…..Why close the parks for seven days, for what amounted to two races?….. a decision was taken to hold the men’s and women’s races not one after the other but on separate days”.
The event was held over five days. The elite men and women’s races were, as you correctly state, held on different days. However, the full schedule also included other ITU World Championship races over that five day period including: a sprint distance, paratriathlon, aquathlon, the amateur (age group) race, Junior and U23 events and also a race that did not require qualification, but was open to the public to enter.
The event organisers (Upsolut) or the British Triathlon Federation could provide more information about the numerous course configurations that were used over the five days in order to contain the majority of the events within the park as much as possible, thus minimising the impact on the surrounding community. That’s not to say the event was perfect and improvements to event organisation can always be made: consultation and constructive feedback is always important in this process.
Of course, events like this couldn’t take place without the help of volunteers – many of whom were enthusiastic and willing London residents – and who made this city a welcoming place for all the athletes and their families. That is to be celebrated by all.
“There was no press coverage”
The media is crucial in helping to grow and develop the sport, provide role models and increase grassroots participation – for the overall health of our nation. As a media representative at the event I was fortunate to witness first-hand the hundreds of journalists, television and radio reporters who were covering the races. Whilst the governing bodies and event organisers can help to assist the media in effectively covering the sport of triathlon, the media itself has a huge role to play in ensuring that such coverage is done professionally and I would welcome your – and other’s – help in achieving this end.
“…..and few watched the event that I could see, despite frantic promotion by the BBC”.
There was live BBC coverage on both Saturday (women’s race) and Sunday (men’s race). On Saturday it was live on the Red Button and Sunday live on BBC2, as well as Radio BBC 5Live. The Sunday programme peaked at 2.1 million, and was the most watched terrestrial programme at the time. It may also be worth mentioning that 15.11 million viewers watched the Olympic Triathlon, organised on the same course last year. You may also wish to be aware that the following countries all had networks broadcasting the event: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Macao, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Middle East, New Zealand, Pan Africa, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Solomons, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Surinam, Thailand, and the United States.
“I saw one competitor was obscurely penalised for not folding her wetsuit properly, as if this were an offshoot of fashion week”.
You will be referring to the penalty awarded to an athlete for not putting their wetsuit in the box, as is required by the ITU. These rules are, quite rightly, in place to ensure that equipment is not left on the ground causing a hazard, and potential injury, to other athletes. You may wish to note that, in overcoming that 15-second penalty, the British athlete Non Stanford won the Grand Final and was crowned ITU World Champion. She had come back from a broken arm sustained only 6 weeks earlier and became the first woman to win an Elite ITU World title a year after winning the Under23 World Championship. She is an inspiration to those who know her and her story.
“Yet the cost in inconvenience and lost business to those living and working in central London must have run to millions of pounds”.
I would be interested to know how this figure has been calculated. Of course, any costs must be balanced against the probable gains. Estimates suggest that around 100,000 people watched the various races on-site. I have spoken to overseas athletes who spent over £1,000 while they were there, and this figure can be multiplied by the 8,500 athletes: indicating a significant contribution to the local and national economy.
“People who want to swim, cycle and run long distances can do it in plenty of places that do not inconvenience thousands of others”.
You may be aware, as Chair of the National Trust since 2008, that many triathlons take place on National Trust land as a result of successful and long term partnerships between event owners and your organisation. These include the Brownlee Triathlon that took place last weekend in Fountains Abbey –initiated by the men who were gold and bronze medalists at the 2012 Olympics. I sincerely hope that this event did not inconvenience too many local people.
In your introduction to the National Trust’s 2012 Report you noted: “The task next year is to remain a popular destination in a competitive market. It means more exhibitions and events and better catering and shops. The plans are in place and we must deliver them. The other drive is to find ways of making our landscapes more accessible and appealing. This means more imaginative approaches to car-parks, visitor centres, hiking and coastal activities”. Triathlon is clearly a source of much-needed revenue for the National Trust, enabling it to increase its popularity and providing the opportunity for many more people to enjoy beautiful parts of the country whilst doing physical activity.
To conclude, professional and positive media coverage has a vital role to play in helping to promote sport at the elite and grassroots level, galvanise participation and facilitate commercial investment. Whilst I respect your views and acknowledge the impact the recent ITU World Championships had on your personal life, the sport of triathlon – and the National Trust – does not deserve to be negatively impacted by the poorly researched, disparaging and inaccurate journalism that you displayed in your recent article.