A jellyfishy story

When you’re swimming in Australia and you see a jellyfish, you have good reason to panic. On top of being home to a myriad of dangerous creatures on land, Australia also has them in the water, including the nasty box jellyfish and irukandji jellyfish, not to mention the notorious bluebottles, which aren’t jellyfish but still pack a painful sting.

Check out these box jellyfish found on an Australian beach:


So, when the swim started in the Ostseetriathlon, at the Baltic Sea in the nice town of Eckernförde, and I stuck my head in the water to see nothing but jellyfish, it was hard not to freak out. These jellyfish were (mostly) not dangerous, but the sight of them, and the feel, made the swim exceedingly unpleasant. It was hard enough to avoid getting an elbow or foot in the face; I really didn’t want to get a jellyfish in the face. To make matters worse, the water was 17°, and all the hardcore triathletes were keen to get as quickly through the swim as they could, at a pace I couldn’t match.

And that kind of sums up the race, which was a short sprint of 500m/18km/5km, made difficult by strong winds and cold, jellyfish-infested water. I couldn’t match the pace, in a 200-strong field that had some very fast youngsters and some extraordinary old people. Quite amazing to see that 12 of the first 40 athletes were either pushing 50 or were over 50. What’s the correct response to this? Applause? Or scratching one’s head?

And that’s why the Ostseetriathlon kind of sums up the sport of triathlon at the moment: a great race, well organised, with lots of supporters, competitive, fun and rewarding. Yet…yet…there’s something about it that’s not quite right. What should be an easygoing amateur race on a Sunday morning is ultra-competitive, incredibly fast, and far from being a level playing field. I’m also sensing a growing awareness between the athletes that some have an advantageous edge, and that the amazing performances (dads and granddads almost as fast as pros????) are more often met with dubious stares rather than appreciate applause.

Which brings me back to jellyfish and the metaphor of poison. Because there were some in the Baltic Sea that were dangerous, and I got stung in minor fashion (nothing that compares to an Australian jellyfish, or the itchy welts that appear after an encounter with a bluebottle). Lots of Baltic Sea jellyfish are not dangerous and are just swimming around doing their thing. But those that are dangerous sting you and give all the other jellyfish a bad name.

A bit like the sport of triathlon: a small part of the field are getting an advantage and giving the sport a bad name. It’s no secret. Some triathletes are on the juice: 19.8% of them. My fear is that this number is increasing, and it really takes the gloss off what is a fantastic sport and what should be an enjoyable day swimming, cycling and running.

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