There are rules in triathlon??

By Dick Donovan – Original Pirate memberdickd

This is a common question when I’m reffing a triathlon/duathlon from beginners.   It seems that many newbies get so caught up in the excitement of doing their first triathlon that they seem to forget that every competitive sport has rules.  It would be absolute mayhem if sports like rugby, ice hockey and many other contact sports had no referees/umpires/officials (call them what you want but it’s what they do that’s key).   Triathlon is of course no different so why these people think the sport has no rules is bizarre.

So what is a referee in triathlon, and what do we do?


We are not race organisers, neither are we race marshals.  Yet it seems that many athletes think we are!   It’s not our job to organise the event, or to marshal it, but we are very proactive in a  race day’s management with a prime responsibility of ensuring that the rules are obeyed, and ensuring that an event is safe and fair.

Let me give you a clue of how to spot us.  If your race has a Triathlon England (TE) race permit, then the race organisers get a qualified TE Race Official on race day to referee the race.   We wear distinctive red and black gilets which has written in big bold letters on the back RACE OFFICIAL.  This also has TE logos on it and we have name badge which tells you our name, and what level we are qualified at (see later).  If you race in Scotland or Wales, then their respective Triathlon bodies follow the same procedure.  And a similar process happens in other countries.

That kit alone should give you a big hint that we are the referee and NOT a marshal or organiser – but it’s quite amazing how many (experienced) triathletes haven’t a clue what Race Officials are or what they do.  Many seem to think we are glorified marshals!

What do we do?

Officially, we are known as a Technical Official (TO) as this aligns with the ITU designation for referees and also allows a clear path to more senior roles.   We are volunteers who have been trained, assessed and passed an appropriate examination.  We offer technical advice to the Race Organisers and competing athletes, based on a set of rules.  TO’s are ranked according to level of experience from Local, Regional, National, Continental to  International (known to us as LTO, RTO, NTO, CTO, and ITO) and the further up the ranks you go, the bigger/more prestigious the event you can officiate at with the pinnacle for many being the Olympics.

At small events you may get just one TO who will (try to!) manage all aspects of the rules; at big, international events, there will be a team of appropriately qualified TOs, each of whom will be designated to oversee just one aspect of the rules – this may be mount/dismount line; swim start; finish line etc.  The bigger the event, the more pernickety we become!!

As said, we offer advice to race organisers to ensure an event runs smoothly, and to ensure athletes have a fair and safe race.  Athletes are probably not aware that we have this level of involvement as they only see us wandering around, shouting at people for transgressing rules.  That is why we are known as TO’s and not just referees as our responsibility goes wider than just what happens during the event.

The rules:

As an athlete you can expect from a qualified TO:

    1. A safe event where you will be treated fairly under consistently applied rules.
    2. Advice and guidance on how to achieve your best.
    3. A better understanding of the rules and why they are in place.

So where do you as an athlete fit into this picture??

For a start, below is a link to the BTF Rulebook.    You need to read it sometime, so why not download it now?   The rule book is in 2 sections –Technical Rules that set out the specifications for equipment and the physical conditions for races; Competition Rules which govern the behaviour of athletes during competition.

“The following rules are intended for the purpose of creating equal opportunity and fair play for all competitors, providing a basis for reasonable safety and protection in an atmosphere of sportsmanship and fair play

This is the 1st thing you’ll read in the BTF rulebook and contains the key points (in bold) that underpin the reasoning behind many rules.  And here is the key message we give all athletes, and which you should take on board.

It is the responsibility of every triathlete to know the rules:

Ignorance of the rules is not an excuse if you are penalized.   A football referee is unlikely to cut a player any slack in enforcing the rules of football, so why should it be any different in triathlon?

Officials don’t have 360 degree vision so inevitably we may (will?) miss something.  Don’t blame us if we do – we can’t see everything and unlike some sports we don’t have a video ref to back us up!

And I would also like to point out Rule 4.4: “Race officials should adopt a common-sense attitude in all decisions.”.   We don’t want to come across as whistle happy little autocrats handing out penalties right, left and centre – we try to adopt some common sense to enforcing them.  For example, why give a complete newcomer a 2min penalty for infringing a rule they weren’t even aware of to start with?   It’s unlikely to mean anything in the overall scheme of a race and more likely to annoy them so they don’t return to race again.  It’s much better we have a word with that person and caution them rather than hand out penalties for the sake of it.    But for those experienced athletes who should know better, we won’t be so relaxed in that view.

And just to confuse matters it’s important to mention that there are different sets of rules depending on which governing bodies race you are competing in.

  • All UK events granted a Triathlon England, Wales or Scotland permit will be run under rules issued by the British Triathlon Federation (BTF) which is the governing body for the UK. Similar arrangements apply in other countries.
  • International events as participated in by GB age group athletes, Elite triathletes etc are run under rules issued by the International Triathlon Union (ITU) of which the BTF is a member (as are most national triathlon bodies). ITU rules are similar in many ways to BTF rules although much more detailed to reflect the standards of most athletes racing, and to provide a single set of rules that can be applied internationally.
  • For those racing Ironman branded events run by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), you will come under a set of rules issued by the WTC. They do vary from the ITU/BTF rules in a number of key areas so it is important that athletes who race BTF, ITU and WTC events are aware of the differences and race accordingly.

In a recent ground breaking meeting, officials from the ITU and WTC met to discuss cooperation in areas of mutual interest, one of which was to look at developing an integrated set of rules that can be applied across the board and to prevent athlete confusion.  It’s early days but we can hope that progress on this front will be made.

That’s enough for now and I hope I’ve given a good understanding of what triathlon referees do.  In the next article, I’ll give some more depth on the rules themselves, especially those that cause the most confusion or aren’t fully understood so until then….

Race strong, don’t be shit, and remember – we’ll be watching you. 😉


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