DENVER – Imagine qualifying for the Super Bowl of your favorite activity and then finding out you can't go because of…ChapStick.
Denver-area triathlete Matt Smith thought he qualified for the Super Bowl of IRONMAN competition this past weekend at IRONMAN Chattanooga in Tennessee.
"Finished second for the 40-44 age group, by just a couple minutes. In the Top 10 Amateur men," said Smith. "In my age group there were two spots that qualified for the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii."
But a quick look at the race results shows that Smith did not finish second in his age group after the 2.4-mile swim, 114-mile bike ride (normally 112 for IRONMAN) and 26.2 mile run.
"In our sport, this is the Holy Grail, to go to Kona," said Smith. "The head referee came up about 10 minutes after I crossed, once I got my wits about me, and let me know that I was disqualified and my results would be stricken from the record for outside assistance during the race."
Among 26 pages of 2016 IRONMAN competition rules, it's written that each athlete must:
"Compete without receiving assistance from other parties (other than from Race Referees, Race Officials, and other athletes in accordance with Section 2.02)"
What is Section 2.02? Here's the first part:
"Assistance provided by Race Referees or Race Officials is allowed but such assistance is limited to: providing drinks, nutrition, mechanical and medical assistance, and other necessary assistance (as may be approved by the Event Director or Head Referee). Athletes competing in the same Race may assist each other with incidental items such as, but not restricted to: nutrition and drinks after an aid station and pumps, tires, inner tubes, and puncture repair kits…"
"When they originally told me at first, like going through my head is a very long list of words that would probably make a sailor blush," said Smith. "My lips were on fire and getting sunburned real quickly, so my wife, who was spectating, I knew had ChapStick with her. I asked her for a ChapStick.
He said his wife was following his progress on the course each mile.
"My wife was on her bike and she would ride up a mile or so in front of me, stop and cheer and, kind of, let me know where I was during the race, which is a standard protocol if you're competitive in one of these races because you start at different times, so you don't know where your competition is on the course," said Smith. "I was told that there were reports that she handed me other things during the race. I don't remember getting anything other than a ChapStick."
"Is this performance enhancing ChapStick?" asked Denver7 reporter Marshall Zelinger.
"I don't think it has anything performance enhancing in it, other than making me feel good," said Smith. "It does sound a little bit absurd that grabbing a ChapStick would get you disqualified from a race that you paid well over $600 to enter and trained that much for."
Smith said a referee gave him a "Yellow Card" stop-and-go penalty of two minutes after he used the ChapStick at mile 16. He said he was allowed to continue after the penalty.
He said he's trained about 15-20 hours a week for the last six months. This is his seventh IRONMAN.
"I totally take responsibility for the decision because it was a conscious decision that I made asking for it," said Smith. "My wife actually threw the ChapStick on the ground and I picked it up off the ground because we knew that you're not supposed to hand athletes things that could help them, and she was trying to be extra careful."
On Friday, Jimmy Riccitello, head referee for all IRONMAN officials, provided Denver7 with the following account of why Smith was disqualified:
"Athlete Matt Smith was seen being assisted by a woman on a bicycle (not officially associated with IRONMAN), who provided him at least one item (chapstick) that he used during the event. He was cited for Unauthorized Assistance, and issued a stop-and-go yellow card penalty. During the 30-45 seconds that Mr. Smith was serving his penalty, he was informed of the reason for the penalty and told not to continue receiving outside assistance. Prior to this penalty, Mr. Smith was seen in the company of the female on a bike.
Subsequent to this instance, Mr. Smith was witnessed several more times, receiving Unauthorized Assistance from the same woman on a bicycle who was involved in the first situation.
Due to Mr. Smith’s initial Unauthorized Assistance rule violation combined with subsequent occurrences of Unauthorized Assistance, Mr. Smith was met at the finish line and notified of his disqualification.
Mr. Smith also had a conversation with the Head Referee at the awards ceremony, where the reasons for his disqualification were reiterated. It was emphasized to Mr. Smith that his disqualification was for the combination of violations subsequent to his first stop-and-go penalty, and not solely for his initial penalty for illegally receiving the chapstick."
IRONMAN also provided three examples from the policy pecific to the IRONMAN Chattanooga Athlete guide:
- "OUTSIDE ASSISTANCE": Non-racers may NOT ride or run alongside you.
- 11. "No individual support allowed. Ample aid and food stations will be provided. Friends, family members, coaches, or supporters of any type may NOT bike, drive, or run alongside athlete, may not pass food or other items to athlete and should be warned to stay completely clear of all athletes to avoid the disqualification of the athlete. It is incumbent upon each athlete to immediately reject any attempt to assist, follow, or escort."
- 3. NO INDIVIDUAL SUPPORT VEHICLES OR NON-ATHLETE ESCORT RUNNERS ARE ALLOWED. This is an individual endurance event. Teamwork as a result of outside assistance, which provides an advantage over single competitors, is not allowed. Individual support vehicles or non-athlete escort runners will result in disqualification. A non-athlete escort runner includes athletes who have withdrawn from the race, have been disqualified or have finished the race. Supporters of any type may NOT bike, drive, or run alongside the athlete, may not pass food or other items to athlete and should stay completely clear of all athletes to avoid the disqualification of the athlete. It is incumbent upon each athlete to immediately reject any attempt to assist, follow, or escort. It IS permissible for an athlete who is still competing to run with other athletes who are still competing."
IRONMAN also referenced the 2016 competition rules already excerpted higher in this article.
"Whose side should people take?" asked Zelinger.
"After the race, I put something on Facebook, more because I had 50 texts from friends and relatives saying, 'What happened, did you die? It showed you were in second and then all of a sudden you weren't there. What's going on?'" said Smith. "I take responsibility for making, what I would consider, a stupid decision."
On Facebook, Smith wrote:
What a day at IM Chattanooga today! Can say that I'm proud that the result was good after 4 years of IM "break" so the mojo was there. It was AWESOME to have such great friends to share the day with and support from around the world. Unfortunately, the hard fought 2nd place AG finish (with 2 min) won't be on the official IM record books. I made a choice to ask my favorite fan (aka Molly) for a chapstick which is considered outside support. Wrong time, wrong place when the referee happened to be there. I'll choose not to go into details, but when the head referee summons you after a race, I choose to listen, smile and take what's given which was a DQ. I have a personal policy that no matter how bad the call, the refs are there to keep you safe and enforce rules every athlete should know so you NEVER argue a call. In fact, it's one of the things I make every athlete I coach sign off on. Integrity is always better than an award or, in this case, trip to Kona.
"Just out of principal, I've always said I will never argue with a ref's decision on a course, so I chose not to argue with her and accepted gracefully,” he said. "But it's pretty disheartening."
As he wrote in his Facebook post, Smith coaches triathletes and requires them to sign an athlete's agreement that includes this caveat:
"Arguing with a race official, volunteer or another athlete will terminate the coaching relationship immediately with no refund."
"I ask them to sign off that if there is an altercation with an official, that they won't argue with another athlete or an official on course," said Smith. "I believe who you are on the course is much more important than the results."
"How do you not say, 'It was ChapStick, that's ridiculous,'" asked Zelinger.
"I would say it was hard to accept," said Smith. "When I reflected on it, it really didn't cross my mind to do anything other than smile and say 'thank you' for letting me finish the race, this is what I have to accept."