Is it ok to get physical assistance in a race?

The images from the dramatic finish of the World Triathlon Series in Cozumel, Mexico, will surely become some of the most iconic images in sport. The footage has been shared, liked, loved and shared again on social media – Alistair Brownlee physically helping his younger brother Jonny down the final few hundred meters of road, before pushing him over the line to ensure he finished in second place. The effort of the race, reflected individually in Alistair’s gritted teeth and Jonny’s ‘out of it’ look, epitomise much of what is beautiful in sport.  We all love an inspiring, gritty story, and phrases like ‘Brother first, athlete second’ ‘Real sportsmen, real champions!’ abound in comments across the web. It really is a fantastic and inspiring story. But the question I’d like to ask is this – should Jonny’s second place result have been allowed to stand…? 

Is physical assistance from another competitor really fair?

When I first heard about this story, my immediate reaction was amazement and stunned pride. As my emotions settled, logic began to come to the fore, the thought quickly forming that, despite Alistair’s sacrifice (he could’ve won the race himself) and Jonny’s incredible effort, Jonny would be disqualified for having physical assistance and not crossing the line entirely under his own steam. I was very happily surprised therefore, with the decision by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), to allow the result to stand. I was curious as to why though. After a bit of digging, I found the official documentation on the ITU website – Rule 2.2 states that:

2.2. Outside assistance:

a.) The assistance provided by event personnel or Technical Officials is allowed but is limited to providing drinks, nutrition, mechanical and medical assistance, upon the approval of the Technical Delegate or Race Referee. Athletes competing in the same race may assist each other with incidental items such as, but not restricted to, nutrition and drinks after an aid station and pumps, tubular tires, inner tubes and puncture repair kits;

The rules also state that Athletes will:
(i) Practice good sportsmanship at all times;
(ii) Be responsible for their own safety and the safety of others;

(v) Treat other athletes, officials, volunteers, and spectators with respect and courtesy;

I don’t think anyone can argue with those latter points not being adhered to – through his actions, Alistair followed these moral guidelines to the letter and in so doing, exemplified much that is good in sport. The rule states that ‘athletes competing in the same race may assist each other’, but is vague on athletes receiving physical assistance from each other. When you look at the footage, Alistair didn’t carry his brother – he helped him up, and then physically supported him to steer him over the line. Jonny’s legs were definitely moving him forward. But the question could be asked that if Alistair hadn’t helped him, could Jonny have made it over the line at all? Would he have had the wherewithal and the energy to get himself over that finish line, by whatever means his body would allow? The rule is very specific regarding athletes helping each other with ‘incidental items’ like inner tubes and puncture repair kits – so, if during the cycle section of a triathlon, a cyclist is in need of an inner tube and is given one by another athlete, is that form of assistance any more or less fair than what Alistair did for Jonny? Is the athlete without an inner tube able to complete say the remaining 30 miles of the bike section, without that inner tube?

I can fully see why the ITU let the result stand, and I endorse that decision whole heartedly. But how would people be reacting if the ITU had chosen to interpret events a different way…? The parallels between this story, and another less-known one, are striking, both for their similarity and their difference… The story I’m about to relate grabbed me in the gut and has refused to let go ever since…

Finish line at the Wester States 100 miler
The finish line of the Western States 100, the scene of a hugely emotional finish in 2006. By Trackinfo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Are rules there to sometimes be broken?

This blog is all about stories, some my own, some from friends, and some from people I’ve never met, but all of which have shaped me. And the one I’m about to tell is one immensely powerful story, from the 2006 Western States 100 mile race in California, a story along similar lines to that dramatic finish in Cozumel, but with a very different outcome. I first came across this in Scott Jurek’s excellent book Eat and Run. Scott won his first Western States in 1999, and incredibly went on to win the next six in a row! For the 2006 race though, he wasn’t racing, but pacing for another runner, Brian Morrison. In many ultra marathon races, competitors are allowed both crew and pacers. Sharon and Billy are my all-star crew whenever I do an ultra, but I’ve never had a pacer before, generally running with whoever is next to me at the time, or often, just on my own. The role of the pacer for the Western States is clearly laid out in the official rules:

A pace runner, or pacer, is defined as a “trail companion” who may accompany a runner along designated sections of the trail. Pacers are allowed solely as a safety consideration for fatigued runners in the remote and rugged territory of the Western States Trail. Absolutely no physical or mechanical aid may be given by the pacer to assist the runner over difficult sections of the trail (except in medical emergencies), and no food, fluids or supplies of any kind may be carried for the runner.

So Scott, along with another pacer Jason Davis, were trail companions to Brian, and they were all hoping that Brian would win. The race went well, and as they came into the finish at Placerville High School race track in Auburn, Brian was about 20 minutes ahead of Graham Cooper in second place. The crew and pacers began to celebrate, yelling “You got this! You got this!” Celebration rapidly turned to despair, though, when, 300 yards from the finish line, Brian collapsed on the track. 300 yards! His legs, much like Jonny Brownlee’s legs, stopped working and he couldn’t get himself up off the floor. Jason and Scott tried to cajole him up, but Brian couldn’t stand, and so the two pacers physically helped him to get up. Although Brian was now upright, he couldn’t walk, and so Jason and Scott put Brian’s arms around their shoulders and walked him in part to the finish line. This very short video (2 minutes) is painful to watch but shows what state Brian was in as he crossed that line. Does it look as though he got more, or less, physical assistance than Jonny? From what I can see, there’s not much difference between what Alistair did for his brother, and what Scott and Jason did for Brian. The difference, though, is that Brian was disqualified from the race for receiving physical assistance from his pacers. After 18 hours of hard running – 100 miles with 18000 feet of ascent and 23000 feet of descent – Brian fails to finish the final 300 yards under his own steam and so is disqualified.

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions

Should the race officials have bent the rules on this occasion, given the amount of time between Brian and Graham? Could Brian have got medical aid on the track and then made his own way – crawling if he had to – to the finish? Should the result in Mexico stand, or should Jonny have been disqualified also? I’d love to know what you guys think – please comment below and let me know. Like most people, I have an opinion. Personally, I’m in absolute agreement with the ITU, and think that the result in Mexico should stand. The rules stipulate that physical assistance is allowed, leaving some discretion on behalf of the race referee as to how much is fair and what constitutes cheating. There has to be sets of rules within competitive sport in order for them to be fair contests, and those rules are agreed upon, even if they differ for each sport. The rules for the Western States are clear – the pacers can offer ‘absolutely no physical or mechanical aid‘. So, by the rulebook, Brian should have been disqualified. But, the feeling I have in my gut on this is that there are perhaps fair exceptions to the rules. I mean nothing against Graham when I say that, personally, I’d have loved to have seen Brian pick up first place in that race! Ultimately, I believe that when incredible scenes like these unfold at sporting events, there is definitely more than one winner. For me, the Brownlee’s and South African Henri Schoema, who overtook them both to finish in first place, are all winners, in different ways. And the 2006 Western States was really won by both Brian and the official winner Graham Cooper.

The Brownlee’s and Brian may not have won their races, but in doing what they did, they won many hearts. Their acts of grit, determination and human endurance will serve to inspire far more than simply winning the race ever could. Ten years after the 2006 race, Brian Morrison went back to run that race again. The hugely likeable and talented Ethan Newberry has made a brilliant and emotional film about it, A Decade On – check it out on YouTube!

4 thoughts on “Is it ok to get physical assistance in a race?

  1. I’m an indifferent ultra runner: I’ll never be troubling the timekeepers at the sharp end. Whatever: here’s my take on this. There are a couple of issues:

    1) what do the rules say? The Brownlees broke no triathlon rules (probably), so letting the result stand was fair. Brian Morrison was helped by his pacers, which was explicitly forbidden under the rules of his race, so his disqualification was fair.

    2) help from another athlete is qualitatively different from help from a pacer: the other athlete loses something to help a fellow athlete: in the Alastair’s case, the chance of winning. A pacer has nothing to lose: they aren’t in the race. They are also going to be in a better state than someone who’s run 100 miles, so their help can be disproportionate to what you might get from a similarly-fatigued fellow athlete.

    It is moot, because Brian was helped by his pacers, but the option remained for him to receive medical assistence, within the rules, from officials. Heck, if they’d left him sitting there for 15 minutes he’d still have been 5 minutes ahead and might have recovered enough to win under his own steam.

    I can’t see a single reason not to disqualify Brian for receiving help he was forbidden from receiving under the rules, nor for disqualifying Jonny for receiving help (that didn’t, in the end, make a mountain of beans of difference to the championship) that (probably) wasn’t forbidden.

    It’s probably a much less clear-cut decision, particularly in Jonny’s case, than my quick ‘analysis’ makes it out to be, as the rules are a bit vague in his case.

    Fundamentally, we all compete subject to the rules of the game and the rules, as interpreted by the relevant authorities, are binding. Any other way “madness lies”.

    1. I think you’ve highlighted the crucial point David. In getting help from a fellow athlete, that athlete is compromising their own race to help, so loses something in the process, whereas the pacers are only gaining advantage for the people they are there to assist. I couldn’t agree more that rules are rules, and we have to have them, otherwise there would be chaos. The galling thing for Brian and his pacers is as you say – if they’d left him sitting down for 15 minutes, he may have got there on his own. I bet they’ve all lamented that over the years. Painful. Thanks for commenting. Tim

  2. The clip from the Western States is painful viewing but all those talking part, including the pacers are experienced athletes and should be fully aware of the rules. Was he assisted in an effort to win? or assisted because of genuine concern for his wellbeing and to get him to safety?.
    In my opinion rules are rules and shouldn’t be open to interpretation, what one interprets as sportsmanlike another may see as a loophole to exploit and gain advantage.
    However……
    At the sharp end of races, people racing for podium places, yes rules should be strictly enforced but if that exact situation had happened to an age group athlete at the back end of the field should he or she be disqualified? miss out on a medal etc?
    A perfect example I heard recently was the Outlaw Triathlon, rules state maximum time of 18Hrs, however organisers stop the clock at 2 seconds to 18Hrs and allow people still on the course to finish (within reason). This I think is the perfect example of where rules can and should be broken.

    1. I agree Ian, they all knew the rules. Scott says in his book ‘It was a really stupid mistake when I look back on it.’ If they’d just left him for a few minutes, he may have been ok. We’ll never know. It’s a good point you make about the leniency towards the back of the pack. I might be taking advantage of that ‘frozen clock’ in Outlaw Holkham next year! 😉

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