The tragic death at last week's NYC Tri, as well as the one at yesterday's NJ State Tri has led to knee jerk reactions on the part of many observers who have suggested major changes to our sport. While I support the concept of making triathlon as safe as practically possible, the truth is that there is an inherent risk, and many of the well-intentioned ideas of how to make it safer, would in fact negatively impact it.
Many people were complaining about the contact during the swim, and some even suggested prohibiting first timers from doing the race in order to protect them from themselves. Clearly, banning first timers isn't practical. If you don't allow them in the NYC Tri (or almost any other event), the race will cease to exist. Korff Enterprises is a for-profit organization and if you take away the first timers, the race will shrink and lose money, and then go away. The same is true if you take other extreme measures that have been suggested, such as requiring a medical clearance or swim certification.
Ultimately, it is the athlete's responsibility to understand the inherent risks of the sport in general, and the hazards of the swim in particular. If an athlete is worried about the contact that comes with a swim start, then he/she should choose a smaller race (though the wave sizes in NYC are relatively small), start at the back, or take more extreme precautions such as a race with a time trial start or a pool swim. If an adult exercises their freewill and ignores those risks, then they have no one to blame but themselves.
While I encourage and applaud the triathlon's growth, it should not be because of the dumbing down of the sport. More and more the starting line at a tri looks like the Corporate Challenge - with undertrained, unaware weekend warriors deciding that triathlon is their "next thing", and believing that their wetsuits will save them from their lack of preparedness. As we know, if you can't keep running you walk. If you can't keep swimming, you're in trouble.
Perhaps Korff should tone down their "fastest swim in triathlon" rhetoric because while it may be true for certain swim starts, others have little or no benefit from the tide. Promoting it as such a fast swim gives people the mistaken impression that they can float their way safely downstream. (The 1+ hour swim times for the later waves indicates that some folks who have little or no swim ability planned to do just that). Still, the ultimate responsibility is the athlete's.
While the deaths of Mr. Neira and Mr. Hobgood are tragic, to blame the sport in general or the race in particular seems unfair, and to date there is no suggestion that his death was the race's negligent. As athletes and adults, we are responsible for ourselves. If an underprepared newbie enters the race they bear the responsibility. If someone doesn't know or adhere to the rules they bear the responsibility. And if someone chooses to enter a race without having been cleared by their physician, they bear the responsibility. If we over-regulate the sport it will make races prohibitively expensive and discourage participation. That will result in a lack of promoters and races. Personally, I prefer the option to choose what races I do.