Thoughts on USAT Race Official Staffing

Race Directors have a tough job – there’s no doubt about that.  They have to balance putting on a quality event, while still making it work financially.  Triathlons are far from cheap events to put on, instead of just one sport – there are three.  This means three times the amount of space/area/roads to close, three times the complexity and in many cases – up to three times the insurance costs.  So many races ‘scrape by’ from year to year, with Race Directors putting them on without making much, if any money.  The vast majority of race directors do it because they love the sport and the community it brings.

This post is not about them.

This post is about the other end of the spectrum.  This is about high profile, high numbers of athlete races which do make money…sometimes lots of money.  There are really only a handful of races that fall into this category each year in the US and abroad.  And for this specific post, I’m actually not talking about Ironman or Ironman 70.3’s.  Instead, I’m talking primarily about Olympic distance races.

See, it’s these races that offer the biggest ‘bang’ for the buck.  Many of these higher profile events are charging upwards of $200-250 an athlete for the International Distance event.  And many of these races have upwards of 4,000-6,000 athletes, combined with major and minor sponsors.

With that, there’s an interesting trend developing amongst some races (but primarily high profile races) of not staffing enough USAT officials for the event.  In fact, some upcoming major races are actually only staffing USAT officials for Elite or Elite-like waves.  This despite collecting race fees from everyone.

In short: If you’re not racing elite…your race isn’t really being officiated.

Now – one might ask if this is a question of money.  After all – aren’t USAT officials paid?  Yup, they are.  But for an USAT Official at the Oly/Sprint distance the fee is only $85.  Meaning, it would take a 43 cent increase in price for every 200 athletes to cover this.  Often motorcycles are covered by local motorcycle clubs which do it on a volunteer basis.  There can be additional hotel costs for races that have to pull officials from a different area – but largely speaking, major races near urban areas (cities) don’t have this issue.

Next you might ask – what is the recommended USAT ratio of racers to Refs?  Well, it varies a bit – but roughly speaking the minimum suggested number of ref’s is 1 per 200 racers.  So, an event with 1,000 people would have at least 5 refs out on the course.

Finally you might ask – why not simply charge everyone an extra few bucks and add more refs?  Well, that’s a Race Director decision for the most part.  In some cases the Race Director’s would say that the course becomes unsafe with the additional motorcycles.  Ironically, it’s these same races that are trying to cram 5,000+ people onto a course that’s realistically not fit for 5,000 cyclists trying to compete, let alone an extra 10 or so motorcycles.

But triathlon racing in general is a business, not a charity event.  Thus, most of the companies putting on larger races do it to make money.  Their two choices are usually either raise the number of racers, or raise the price.  Though it seems the popular ones actually utilize both techniques.

The issue here isn’t USAT or USAT officials – they just staff based on race directors requests.  Meaning, USAT doesn’t decide how many ref’s to assign to a race.  They simply ‘fulfill an order’ from the Race Director.

Now – the real question I have is: Does it bother you?

Does it bother you that you’ve paid your $250, but your race isn’t actually officiated unless you’re in that Elite/Elite-ish wave?

I know it would for me.

So I’m curious: What are your thoughts on it?  Should Race Directors ensure that races are adequately staffed with USAT officials – or is a token presence good enough to do the job?  And if increasing the staffing to ‘keep it safe’ means decreasing the number of racers on spot-limited events – is that OK?  And are you willing to pay an extra 50 cents or a dollar to have a full staffed event?


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  1. MCooper

    I think that an understaffed triathlon is not a race that I would prefer to compete in. That being said, I have competed and will continue to compete in races that are understaffed. It matters to me, but not so much that it’s a deciding factor.

    I do think that having the proper amount of officials on the course allows for a better rehearsed tri, especially for those (speaking of the Oly distance) that are relatively new to miltisport.

  2. Wes

    A race official or lack there of rarely affects my performance or enjoyment of the races I do. If I was more competitive in my age group, then maybe. In reality, not so much!

    What about the shortage of USAT qualified officials? I know they are still working on filling their ranks.

  3. JP

    First, let me say I have never competed in a race with that many participants or with that high an entry fee.

    That being said, I would much rather have my $$, (even if it is a dollar more) go to keeping the event true to the rules that are laid out ahead of time.

    It is frustrating to watch groups of people pass you in a paceline and then look at the results and only see one or two penalties assessed for the entire field.

    If we are paying the same entry fee – we should get the same product.

  4. Here we go – another USAT related post where I defend officials ;)

    1)There is a HUGE need for more officials to begin consideration of staffing larger events in a manner that would give something like a 200:1 ratio. It is hard enough to get 3-5 officials to work an event, let alone 10+.
    2)On crowded courses, where people are already complaining about too many bikes, you cannot safely add multiple motorcycles with an official onto the course. Putting officials out on the course is only going to make it worse for participants. Races should know what they are signing up for (crowded courses) when they register for large races like these.
    3)USAT officials are there to ensure a fair race. In large races, the Elite waves comprise the portion of the race where prize money is handed out, thus the focus on ensuring that portion of the race is fair. That is the priority. We also still officiate other aspects of the race besides the bike (transition, swim, bike in/out, run), though you may not see us.
    4)The vast majority of people out there racing are not racing against anyone other than themselves. Officials should not be considered an end all be all savior. People owe it to themselves to read the rules and follow them. But at the end of the day, most people’s race results will be determined based on how well they did against their previous times or expectations for the race.

  5. I agree with Wes. If your ethical and know the rules, officials shouldn’t play a part in your race day.

  6. You could not have picked a BETTER day to post about this!

    On Sunday, at the “world’s largest triathlon” (8,000 participants and an expensive entry fee), I only saw 2 officials ALL day. They were both during the bike portion on motorcycles. The bike was a DISASTER of epic illegal drafting and blocking proportions. Along with that, probably 10-15% of ALL the triathletes on the run were wearing headphones. My Dad even saw one guy on the bike with them on. WAA?!

    Just last night, I checked out the penalty report, and among the 8,000+ participants, there were only TWENTY penalties.

    That’s RIDICULOUS. I don’t care what they need to do to staff it better… but it needs to be done. People are getting hurt because of carelessness.

  7. i am new to this sport this year. This isn’t what you asked but there was or I guess there still is a small (not sure what small or large are there were about 2000 people in the 70.3 with Chrissie and Andy Potts winning) triathlon just down the road from me that was sold to Ironman this past year and lots of people had lots of things to say about it. there was not the home town feel that people loved about this race….I saw the race officials go out on the motorcycles, there were 6 I think for 2000 bikers

    there was a great letter to the editor in either running times or runner’s world about registration fees and non profit vs profit racing companies.

  8. I am going to compete in the Nations Tri in a couple of weeks. One thing that i am concerned about is the sheer volume of people that will be out on the bike. I haven’t done this race before, and have no idea how well staffed it is, or how busy the bike leg will be. i hope i don’t see a lot of drafting or unintentional blocking.

    I’d be happy to pay a little extra if it means more a consistent environment for all. There’s always a lot of races to choose from. Finding a race with a good combination of a great course, a fair race for all, and at a decent price can be a challenge.

    We often pay a large administration (and largely un-necessary IMHO) fee just for signing up for a race – I’d rather they put that money into a pool for USAT officials.

  9. My issue is that rules are a two way street – athletes must follow them and the race officials must as well. I raced a recent USAT sanctioned Oly distance race where the race management made the decision to not follow USAT rules concerning age group categories (they used age on race day vs. end of year age per USAT rules).

    I was not smart enough at the time and later researched the rules and found that they were wrong – I emailed the head USAT rules guy and he verified this.

    The lesson learned – athletes must know the rules.

  10. I think this should be dictated by USAT themselves. If a race is USAT sanction then they should dictate a minimum number of USAT officials per # of participants. The designation “USAT Sanctioned” is one triathletes look for when choosing a race regardless of the distance. Also I wold think the USAT insurance policy would also have a condition for the race organizers to have a minimum number of officials simply for the safety of the participants. Are the rules simply to make the race an equal playing field? No, many of the rules are for the participants safety.

  11. Woody

    Character was best described to me as “what you do when no one is looking.”

    If I see someone trying to catch a draft or cut a corner, I pity their soul and pray they aren’t raising children, not call out for an umpire.

    Plus, no number of officials is going to sort out the chaos caused by the organizers of the Nation’s Tri/DC Tri who jam 25% more people on the course as downtown Washington, DC can safely handle.

    I’d rather pay an extra $10.00 to have a cool finisher’s hat.

  12. Yes, it bothers me. More officials doing their jobs correctly would likely mean less drafting- a huge problem in racing today.

  13. Ditto on the botheration. Nation’s Tri has already been mentioned; Columbia is another unsafe one. But our team has also been having a discussion about this set of issues over the recent Luray weekend which is a smaller duo of races; motorcycles failed to appear, officials weren’t out on the course, and the behavior right through the middle of the pack (that was as far up as I was able to get after a sucky swim!) was the worst I’ve ever seen in 5 years of racing. Some people were committing multiple violations all at once.

    I was surprised to hear Lesser is More provide the justification that the Elites are where the prize money is. I must have missed the memo where triathlon became only about elites and the money. Ironically, this is precisely the image problem that USAT has been trying (by its own acknowledgment) to combat for the last couple of years. I was also surprised to learn that the rules are all about ensuring a fair race. Quite a few of them were–I thought–there for safety (having your chinstrap buckled while riding through the race area hardly impacts the fairness of the race, for example).

    USAT needs to have the power to refuse to sanction an overcrowded race, that’s one thing.

    But it is clear from every race that I’ve done recently (with Luray just being the worst example) that a large portion of people don’t seem to have event he dim awareness that there are any rules to multisport. And I don’t know what to do about that.

    And before the inevitable response of “just ignore other people and race your own race” comes along, that is what I do. But that only works as long as other racers aren’t doing their best to kill you.

  14. I know in the Houston area we are short on USAT officials. I wanted to take the course, but it was offered in conjunction with a race I was already signed up to compete in and I would not be able to fulfill the practical component of the course. Also, I would not have gone on to get a spot on the podium at the race.

    I do not mind paying extra to have enough officials on the course. I do have a problem with paying a crazy amount of money for an Olympic distance race and then have it be wheel-suck event. I can think of one specific race that is kind of Olympic distance but not really and there is a lottery just to get into this event. The cost is near what a full Iron distance race would be and I would hope that some of that money is spent of having enough officials. But I kind of doubt it.

  15. I care. I may be out there doing my own race, but it is still a race, and everyone needs to abide by the rules. While my results don’t “matter” in the context of prize money, USAT All-American points, or (mostly) podium spots, they still matter to me. I entered the race to compete.

    The objection that adding more officals will overwhelm an already overcrowded course has an obvious answer: if there are too many bikes on the course to attempt to enforce the rules, there are too many bikes on the course. Either change the course, limit the entries or really stagger the starts.