Time penalties served no purpose in triathlon? Men's triathlon at London 2012 Olympic Games from sports law perspective

Alistair Brownlee yesterday was crowned Olympic triathlon champion in an historic day for Team Great Britain with his brother Jonathan grabbing bronze medal. It was Britain's first-ever medal in the sport that made its Olympic bow in Sydney 2000.

The Brownlees, split at the finish by former world champion Javier Gomez of Spain, are the first siblings to feature on the Olympic medal podium together in an individual event in more than 50 years.


It could have been gold and silver for brothers, but Jonathan completed another piece of Olympic history when he finished third despite incurring a 15-second penalty for a rule infringement (for a technical error in a transition). He was judged to have mounted his bike too early in the T1 (swim-to-bike) transition and was required to serve a 15-second penalty in what the British term 'the naughty box.'


All triathletes must be aware of where the bike mount/dismount line is located and speedy transition could be nulified by a time penalty if someone mount too soon or dismount too late and start the bike course. You can only mount your bike at a certain point after the transition zone. Too early and you could get an advantage as cycling is quicker than running pushing a bike. It's so that everyone covers the same distance on foot regardless of whether their bike is at the front or the back of the transition zone. Otherwise someone whose bike is at the start of the transition zone would be able to gain few seconds by jumping on the bike early. The penalty is triathlon's equivalent of a Formula 1 drive through for speeding in the pits.


The nature of the rule violation will determine the resulting penalty. A time penalty may be imposed for a violation of any section of these rules in which a time penalty is expressly authorized. An athlete may be issued a warning (verbal or a 'stop and go' time penalty) or disqualified for failing to abide by the ITU Competition Rules. All the infringements and penalties are listed in Appendix L of the ITU Competition Rules. Penalty for breaking the rule 39. (Mount the bike before the mount line) is different for Age-Group triathletes - stop and go when amended and for elite triathletes is 15 seconds in the next penalty box.


Jonathan opted to serve a 15-second penalty for a line infraction at T1 through the foot race before the final lap of the 10km run, and he had to dash to the line to protect his bronze medal. He spent anxious seconds looking down the course as the challengers to his bronze medal got closer with every stride. Yet he still emerged from the penalty box with a 12 second gap and just 2.5km left to run. It proved to be more than enough for him to go on to complete a piece of Olympic history. Jonny Brownlee called it 'the longest 15 seconds of my life' as he waited and watched to see if Laurent Vidal would catch him up. It was his first ever penalty in triathlon and a high-pressure situation but still a schoolby error which ultimately cost him one place on the podium. He paid for his efforts, however, as the medal ceremony was delayed while he received an IV drip in the medical tent. Finally he said:'It's the first penalty I've had so it's all new to me. It was all a bit of a shock really.'


Afterwards Alistair Brownlee said time penalties served no great purpose in a sport not known for its cheating. He said: 'Apparently his foot was on the line today - to get a 15-second penalty for that is just ridiculous. I think penalties are a disgrace in triathlon, they're ruining the sport. For me triathlon is a fantastically pure and simple sport: you start, you finish and the first three person across the line wins. To bring a judge's decision into a sport like that, for me it ruins it.'


The brothers had also been warned they would be disqualified if they tried to cross the line together, a practice outlawed long ago in the sport to stop athletes trying to split prize money.


I would even say the penalty helped Jonathan Brownlee gather himself and finish a bit stronger. I don't see a problem at all with the neatness rules in transition of triathlon, because it just adds a bit of professionalism to the sport. It's also a safety issue as the competitors are riding through the transition and running through it. 


Jonathan describes winning Olympic bronze despite penalty