Elitism of the Non-Elite: A Triathlon Revolution

It seems to me that competing in triathlon, not that long ago, was a casual and mostly unprofessional affair. From what I can gather in speaking with those who were there and observing the culture of the time with hindsight, our sport was merely a novel but challenging activity, and a boast-worthy hobby for a slender minority of the population. This reputation, in Australia in particular, shifted rather quickly as the accessibility of triathlon became greater and the inclusive nature (born out of a combination of swim clubs, running clubs and surf lifesaving clubs crossing over each other) and national series’, and now iconic events, took off. With the inclusion of triathlon in the 2000 Sydney Olympics the sport’s status skyrocketed and with it came the dollars. A huge cash injection saw an unsurprising spike in professionalism in the upper echelons, where the funds were mostly directed. Even though I wasn’t there to witness this refinement of direction (my first ever tri was in the same year that six triathletes stood on an Olympic dias) I was a great beneficiary of this growth of elitism in Australian triathlon over the following decade, as a developing youth, junior and professional*.

With this shift, the pointy end of athletes in our sport improved in leaps and bounds. Across the spectrum of the triathlon scene, Australia (and many other nations) produced and maintained a plump crop of World Champions, Olympic medalists, legends and heroes. The elite prospered. With cash and enthusiasm behind us we innovated and refined our craft. Iron distance champions realised the potential of setting up international bases and relocated homes and families to gain the greater advantage on the racecourse. Training techniques improved with the aid of expert sports science and the equipment that was once weird, wonderful and subjective, became proven, lab tested and conventional. Triathlon, at the top, was truly a professional sport.

With this sharp upward trajectory of the professional ranks, there was a gap forming. The amateur ranks were still all about the participation, the challenge and the socialisation. Of course, there were those who took their age group racing very seriously. But the bulk of the participants at the local club race or the annual pilgrimage event would rock up on the back of the bare minimum of training, have a sweat and a laugh and be rightfully chuffed they survived another one. There was a distinct difference in the appearance, approach,

performance and finish times from the elites to the next step amateurs. This is the scene I grew up in initially as part of, and then observing from beyond, as I progressed in “class”.

Only recently, I’ve begun to notice a new shift in the scene. A closing of the gap, if you will. Across all distances amateur triathletes are getting faster, depth of quality is getting greater, and the best of the amateurs are breathing down the neck of the pros. Some may say this is due to better numbers in the sport or more money behind these athletes but I think it’s something else, and it’s a reason I’m in full support of – the elitism of the non-elite. Elitism can be defined as “the superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite”, and this is where I feel a swing has and is still occurring amongst the triathletes traditionally not dubbed elite. More and more amateur and age group athletes, who are not necessarily in the game for professional reasons or financial gain, are stepping up their attitudes and behaviours to match the pure full-timers. Aspects like seeking out experienced and knowledgeable coaches, employing correct training techniques, learning about recovery and nutrition, and investing in equipment that is best suited to them have meant that a more holistic approach to triathlon (and general wellbeing, for that matter) has swept through the broader triathlon community. And in my opinion, this movement can only be good for us all.

Whether or not this wave of elitist attitudes has been a product of the masses observing the top end athletes reaping the gains and improvements of such approaches, and wanting in, or a natural filtering through the ranks, I am unsure. But it’s fairly obvious to me that the movement indicates a new step forward for triathlon within the wide world of sports. Triathlon is continuing to become more popular on a global level and expanding into new cultures, demographics and is even being used as a vehicle for positive social change. When newbies come to a triathlon and are met with the welcoming and engaging community that has always been present in the Australian triathlon scene, and then experience the marvel that is participating in a triathlon, they will be hooked. Now, from there they will be enveloped in a positive sense of well-rounded improvement. Learning that the right recovery is just as important as the training itself or that the most expensive bike may not actually be the best bike for them, or how even the most novice athlete can improve their run performance (and enjoy themselves even more!) with some basic technique analysis and instruction.

“Just winging it” is out of fashion but that doesn’t mean everyone should become a complete tri snob – living and breathing training and racing, renouncing all non-tri civilian lifestyles and possession to live a monkish swim, cycle and run only existence. The elitism of the non-elite wave has been done the right way – gradually and relevantly. Triathlon, being a relatively young sport means there’s a constant flow of new and more specific studies, techniques and theories on performance development. The true elite knows that big gains are not made overnight and that one aspect of development may take much time, patience and effort. The true elite spends time considering where deficiencies in a daily routine may lie and then more time again researching an ideal approach for them as an individual. Being a sport with three distinct disciplines means there is an endless world of techniques to become more professional, more personal and more purposeful. The true elite understands that any positive change must be brought about not only by identifying areas of improvement and sourcing better techniques but by incorporating these techniques as a habit and dedicating themselves to their nutritionist-prescribed diet, their twice a week pilates routine or their early morning swim squad. The current wave of neo-elites understands that it’s the genuine commitment to the several real techniques that pay dividends – not the gimmicks or the abnegation of a life outside swim, bike and run.

If the term ‘elitism’ has in the past indicated somewhat of a class system in triathlon, then lately an unintentional revolution has been driven from the “lower tiers.” The only difference with this revolution is that the one’s forcing the change aren’t doing it to overthrow the status quo but to elevate the whole lower end to equality with the top. And for this reason, I say “viva la revolucion!”


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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