Triathlon Swimming Deaths: An Easy Fix

The following is from Shane Sanders, an economist at Western Illinois University.  Sanders has published a number of economic articles, including a paper in the Journal of Sports Economics (with Yang-Ming Chang) that indicates that pooling revenue in a sports league reduces competitive balance.  This discussion focuses on triathlons.

According to a 2013 article by Bonnie D. Ford (ESPN Outside the Lines), there have been 52 participant deaths in U.S. triathlons since 2007.  Forty-four of those deaths came in the water, seven on the bicycle, and one during the running segment.  Ford states that “specific stress of the swim start and the swim itself can trigger life-threatening heart arrhythmias or other issues.”  One of those other issues is drowning.  Congested triathlon swims can invoke significant contact between participants.  After receiving an inadvertent kick to the head while already confronting human-generated and natural waves, it may be difficult to avoid panic and regain a normal breathing rhythm.  The beginning of a triathlon sometimes appears more akin to rugbythan to its intended cousin, the lap swimming race.

An easy fix for the triathlon would be simply to adopt a {run, bike, swim} sequence rather than the popular {swim, bike, run} sequence.  Re-sequencing the race would space out participants during the swim, while at the same time causing triathlons to become more meritorious.  With running as a starting portion, contact would become much less of an issue.  Unlike our amoebic forebears, humans are much better at maneuvering on land than on water.  With the benefit of less contact, triathlons could more effectively separate contestants based upon merit in running, cycling, and swimming (rather than in absorbing and doling out contact). More importantly, it stands to reason that such a fix would save lives.

As simple as it is, this idea can be classified as a form of mechanism design.  Mechanism design (sometimes called “reverse game theory”) is a field of study that is currently sweeping the fields of economics, mathematics, and computer science.  In traditional game-theoretic analyses, game theorists solve for equilibrium player strategies taking the structure of the game as given.  A traditional game-theoretic analysis of the triathlon might ask how a player will distribute his or her efforts between the three events given that the sequence of events is {swim, bike, run}.  Mechanism design turns the problem on end and asks how the game can be designed to elicit the most desirable outcome.  A mechanism design question would be:

How do we sequence the three events {run, bike, swim} to minimize casualties? 

Of course, the designer could ask other questions depending on his or her interests.  The standard sequence of the triathlon may have formed to address an alternative mechanism design problem at the inception of the triathlon:

How do we sequence the three events to make this strange hodge-podge of mobility sports entertaining? 

In the early era of the triathlon, there were many fewer contestants, and the race wasn’t nearly as competitive.  The sequence {swim, bike, run} may have been just the solution to this latter design problem.  In fact, this popular sequence dates back to the early days of the triathlon.  For example, a 1934 triathlon race in La Rochelle, France reports this sequence.   Such early races were much shorter in distance and hosted fewer competitors.  However, times have changed, and people are likely dying unnecessarily.  It’s well past the time to try a different sequence.

- Shane Sanders

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