Count professional triathlete Sarah True, who finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2018 Ironman World Championship, among the athletes unsure whether they would feel safe racing.
“It’s an ethical decision we are all making whether or not to travel,” said True, who isn’t a PTO member and so would need an invitation to compete. “Where it gets complicated is when you have got a third party tipping the scale.”
As sports around the globe continue to grapple with how to safely return amid the still-surging pandemic, most triathlons have been postponed or canceled. That includes the Ironman World Championship, which takes place every year in Kona, Hawaii. This year’s event was pushed back to 2021 before being canceled for the first time in history.
But triathlons are slowly lurching to life in the United States, with help from Florida, where officials have declined to implement statewide restrictions even as the state’s case count since the start of the pandemic surpassed 938,000. Ironman hosted an event there this month, attracting 2,000 racers. And next month, Challenge Family, Ironman’s main competitor, will stage perhaps the most ambitious event yet.
Headquartered in Almere in the Netherlands, Challenge Family runs two events in the United States: Challenge Daytona, which had its first edition in 2019, and Challenge Miami, which has its inaugural race planned for March. With the Ironman race in Kona canceled, the PTO Championship is now the only 2020 world championship for triathlons longer than those at sprint and Olympic distances.
“We knew we could provide a safe environment that we didn’t believe other [events] could,” Bill Christy, executive race producer and chief executive of Challenge North America, told The Washington Post.
The PTO, a fledgling triathlete membership organization funded by billionaire venture capitalist Mike Moritz, is enticing athletes with the $1.15 million purse. A former journalist from Wales, Moritz reportedly has invested $10 million to $20 million of his own money in the PTO, with designs on making triathlons entertaining for a TV audience.
Daytona’s purse will be shared among 100 invited professionals — 40 male and 40 female, plus 20 “wild cards.” The championship titles will be decided with a 1.2-mile swim, a 50-mile bike ride and an 11.2-mile run, all three of which will be completely inside the speedway.
Considered “essential” workers by the state of Florida, the professionals will not be required to quarantine upon arrival as some amateurs will be. But they will arrive in a state that, like many, has struggled to contain the virus. Adjusted for population, the state ranks 15th in coronavirus deaths. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in late September introduced Phase 3 of the state’s reopening, allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity and large sporting events to go ahead.
“We are in better shape than in July and August, but December could be a completely different situation,” said Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Florida International University. “If I were a planner for that event, I would try to keep things as flexible as possible and be prepared for the worst.”
Race organizers say that the nature of the speedway, an outdoor arena with one way in and one way out, will make it easier to mitigate risks. So, they say, will safety protocols, which were tested by NASCAR in August in an event of more than 20,000 people.
The pros will be tested for the virus before their trips and when they arrive in Daytona. The other athletes will be required to fill out a health questionnaire and, once approved by the medical team, will receive a QR code with a time and location slot for their entry. At health-care tents, where masks will be required, athletes will have their temperature screened and questionnaires reviewed before getting a color-coded wristband.
Those who fail the screening will go to a secondary screening to determine whether they are at risk of having the virus. But that protocol may not catch those who have it and are asymptomatic, which could be up to 40 percent of coronavirus carriers.
Once in the speedway — so large that it could accommodate up to 15 football and baseball stadiums — masks will be mandatory. Volunteers will be tasked with enforcing social distancing. Organizers have stocked 15,000 masks and 8,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and expect around 2,000 to 2,200 people on site each day.
The race’s swim leg will take place in Lake Lloyd, a 29-acre basin inside the track where athletes will be funneled one by one. Transitions 1 and 2 — where athletes get on their bikes after the swim and where they will leave their bike before the run — will take place on a 500-by-120-foot area that can be further expanded.
“Myself and everyone I have talked to feels safe going to the event,” said Naomi Ventura of the nearby Ormond Beach Triathlon Club. “I think they have put the right protocols in place to keep us safe.”
But some triathletes remain unconvinced the event can be pulled off safely, especially as case rates rise.
“Triathlon partially lends well to social distancing — drafting rules require you to be 23 feet apart on the bike,” said Naveen Wall, a New York-based amateur triathlete. “But that’s not the case on the run or the swim, and [coronavirus] transmission is a real risk.”
Triathlete John Tan, who contracted the virus in March, cautioned athletes about taking the risk.
“I would not feel safe racing there, largely in part of how Florida has handled their coronavirus cases,” he said. “It was the worst sickness I’ve ever had. I had respiratory issues for a month afterward. I would get out of breath walking from room to room. Racing isn’t worth it enough for me to risk going through that again or worse — or risk infecting any of my friends or loved ones with it.”
Others wonder about the fairness of staging a world championship in a global pandemic, forcing athletes to choose between their health and a chance at major prize money.
“How can you have a world championship when half the world is not allowed to come?” asked Switzerland-based coach Brett Sutton, who may have two athletes competing in Daytona.
True lamented the idea of “an athlete who may not necessarily travel deciding to travel because all of a sudden there’s something major at stake,” such as a million-dollar purse.
“We have to weigh individual risks and collective risks on one side,” she said. “But also, this is a professional opportunity — and that balance gets tilted when you have significant financial gain possible. Money always changes the equation.”
True has not received an invitation to the PTO race in Florida — and is not sure what she will do if one comes.
“We always have that risk assessment as athletes,” she said. “It’s just the stakes are higher in the middle of a global pandemic.”