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Sports deaths...who is to blame?

Thought I'd add a little PS for those of you who want to see what the fuss is about Escape From's footage shot during last weekend's race by a guy with a camera attached. 

The whole topic of who is to blame for the football head injury scandal is too big for my tastes--all I know is that I would have serious reservations about one of my kids wanting to play the sport. But once you get to the college level, there are freethinking adults involved, money at stake, millions of fans watching, and a host of other complicating factors.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the steroids scandals in baseball or cycling. It's not black and white and there is plenty of blame to go around.

So I've been watching with interest as the triathlon community tries to debate who is to blame for participant deaths at races. Triathletes loves to overthink things and have an altogether more intense attitude about life than, say, the running community. While a death at a marathon tends to be analyzed for what underlying health conditions athletes have that can be accounted for, deaths at a triathlon tend to be more criticized.

Some of that comes from the fact that most triathlon deaths are during the swim leg of the race. Some of it comes from multisport being inherently more complicated than even a difficult single event like marathon. There are equipment, environmental, health, personal, even technique factors that just aren't present in other competitions.

If you want to know more, I suggest reading the USA Triathlon Fatality Incident Study to start. And then a few articles over at Slowtwitch are a good followup...including this one today in response to the swim death at Escape From Alcatraz.  I disagree with much of it. But a few of the older pieces about making the sport safer are food for thought before I give my two cents.

I actually think today's Slowtwitch article is simply coming at my point from the other day about the Chicago Marathon in a different way. Mainly, that people come at the sport in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. And the entry into the sport has different meanings for different people. Ask someone in the endurance sports community whether a marathon or Ironman should be a novice's first race and you'll get a variety of responses.

But it all goes back to how seriously a participant takes the challenge.

And that's the difficulty for races and race directors is that it's a mixed bag of athletes showing up to the start line. Some will be very, very familiar with how the event works, the conditions, and their own ability. Some will not. The safety demo before takeoff with the fake seatbelt, fake oxygen mask, and speech about the seat cushion being a flotation device comes to mind. How many of you listen? How many of you tune it out and read your magazine?

I'm strongly in favor of making sure participants are safe at endurance events...but the question is what level of personal responsibility we have for ourselves. A marathon or Ironman isn't a family picnic you're signing yourself up for. It's a difficult, possibly life-threatening day if you do it wrong.

Race directors can't hand hold or wrap athletes in bubble wrap. They can communicate better and setup guidelines and rules to be followed. I'm strongly against the idea of qualification or not being welcoming to first timers though. As much as it will be debated, I think the community shouldn't look down at newbies who want to embrace the 140.6 mile distance for their first tri. Or 26.2 for their first running race. Enthusiasm for the sport comes with a mix of benefits and problems--ask the Chicago Marathon about the registration scandal--but that's better navigated by where "serious" athletes choose to spend their entry fees.

And, note, I don't mean elites or even the hardcore types who tackle races nearly every weekend of the year. I mean even for the casual racer, the marketplace can pretty easily guide them to their local, no pressure 5k "fun run" or let them know that the brutal heat of the mid-August Ironman Louisville course may require a little more prep.

When it comes to difficult events like Escape From Alcatraz, beyond warnings and setting up a reasonable amount of on-course support, the true responsibility for safety is the athlete. You know you and what you are capable of. Don't be stupid. No suing the race organizers because you failed to hydrate, train properly, or push yourself too hard for difficult race day conditions.

In the end, you sign up for this. (It's supposed to be fun, right?!) It's no different than skydiving or other risky hobbies. You expect the plane to not crash during your jump. But you also know best whether maybe that heart attack you had last year means you shouldn't go. And it's your duty to make sure you know how to pull the cord.