The post yesterday about Susie Cheetham's protest at IM Austria got me thinking about the scourge that is drafting. Drafting has been in the triathlon media a lot recently after footage of some extreme drafting at races went a little bit viral, IM Texas is the one that comes to mind. IM Austria is just the latest event at which it has reared it ugly head. Given how much it is getting discussed at the moment I thought I would write about it.
So, a bit of disclosure up front, I was penalised for drafting twice over my time racing. I would love to be able to plead innocence here and say it was a mistake on the part of the official, but that wouldn't be true. Both times I was drafting fair and square. The first time was on a very hilly course and so it was hard to get distance from people as you would catch them going up hills, however, while the hills are a good excuse I was definitely working with another guy which isn't on. The second time I got penalised I was in a world of hurt just looking for a lifeline and a draft was what provided it. There you go, full disclosure.
The fact that I got done twice for drafting doesn't mean I condone it. Does that make me a hypocrite, perhaps, but I like to think I am not. Everybody makes mistakes. I know I raced for years completely within the spirit of racing, maintaining the correct distance whether there was an official with me or not.
For me, when drafting crosses a line is where it is a deliberate part of a race plan. A pre-meditated action with the intent of getting a race advantage. When that occurs then that is just plain cheating. When it occurs time and again by the same people then it is serial cheating and a concerning habit.
Like all cheating it becomes normalised with repetition. The more we do it the easier it is justify. Soon it becomes something that is okay because 'everybody does it', which of course it the biggest cop out excuse for cheating that exists. However, no matter what the excuses and the justifications drafting is cheating, plain and simple, just like doping or having a motor in a bike. For most people these later two forms of cheating wouldn't even be a consideration, but for some reason people's moral compass is often a little less certain when it comes to drafting.
Of course on a scale of terribleness I wouldn't put drafting up there with doping, I think the seriousness of doping is probably an order of magnitude worse in terms of cheating. However, I find that the mindset and excuses you hear around both doping and drafting are eerily similar. Both are forms of cheating that people try and justify to themselves and others. While the doping is more serious form of cheating, the sheer number of people who deliberately take part in drafting actually worries me more.
Now I understand that not all drafters are deliberate cheaters. Race organisers have a part to play in all this. When bigger and bigger fields are crammed onto race courses some drafting is going to occur. Sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, unfortunately I don't think those cases are necessarily the majority. I think at some races there is a definite culture of drafting, the mentality that 'I must do it to keep up', 'I am at a disadvantage if I don't cheat too'. Once again the similarity between the excuses used by drafters and dopers is creepily similar.
Unfortunately in the Age Group fields there is very little that officials can do to combat drafting. In the Pro field action can be taken (like we saw at Austria on the weekend) and those actions are to be applauded, but in cases like IM Texas there wasn't much the officials could do other than penalise huge sections of the field. As righteous as mass penalties sound, in reality it would be almost impossible to implement.
So if officials can't stop it what is to be done about the scourge that is drafting. Well really the only sustainable solution is for competitors to make the decision not to do it. If people want to cheat by drafting then they will get away with it 8 times out of 10 and for many people that success rate is acceptable. All that will stop people drafting is the moral fortitude to say "no, this is cheating and I won't do it". Simple as that. Unless people actually make the decision to not cheat, then nothing will ever change. It is up to you.