Photo by Triathlon.org
Last November BBC Dorset Online posted a story on Harry Wiltshire’s Olympic dream. “The British team is not going to take someone (onto the Olympic squad) unless they think they can either win a medal or help someone else to win one,” Wiltshire told the BBC. So Wiltshire, a phenomenal swimmer even by ITU standards, set out to prove that he could help Team GB win a medal (or two) at next summer’s London Games.
The 28-year-old’s chance to prove himself as a worthy domestique for Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee came at the ETU European Championships in Pontevedra, Spain on June 25. In Pontevedra Wiltshire had a rare chance to race alongside the Brownlees, as well as Spaniard Javier Gomez, believed by many to be the biggest threat to a British gold medal next year. Wiltshire aimed to show that he could sufficiently bother Gomez—a two-time ITU world champion—into having a bad day, and he did just that. The Brit blatantly pushed the reigning world champ off course throughout the 1.5K swim, before blocking Gomez at the swim exit. Gomez entered T1 well back of the leaders (an almost unheard of occurrence) and was visibly flustered and aggravated as he chased up to the Brownlees on the bike. Wiltshire was disqualified from the event by the swim official and no appeal was filed.
A precedent needed to be set in order to separate so-called “team tactics” from unsportsmanlike conduct.
Whether or not Wiltshire’s callous actions had any effect on the outcome of the race can’t really be said for certain. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee finished first and second, respectively, but Gomez suffered severe side stitches on the run and meandered across the line in 40th place. Since Gomez is the last athlete in the world to blame someone else for a bad performance, we’ll never really know if it was a few mouthfuls of inhaled water or a couple of punches to the gut during the swim that caused the reigning world champ to have a bad run. Gomez was quick to condemn Wiltshire’s actions on his blog and Twitter, but was as quick to say that he had no one but himself to blame for his subpar finish.
The big question lingering after video of the swim in Pontevedra made its way around the Web was whether or not the British Triathlon Federation (BTF) had anything to do with what happened, or if it was just one athlete acting alone in a desperate attempt to prove himself worthy of the Olympics. After a month-long investigation, the consensus from the ITU appears to be that Wiltshire was acting on his own accord. After a vote by its Executive Board, the ITU has suspended Wiltshire from competition for six months, effectively ending any chance he had of making the Olympic team. The suspension is directed only at Wiltshire and does not include any sanctions for BTF. Wiltshire will be prevented from competing in any events sanctioned by the ITU or an affiliated national federation.
A six-month ban may seem like a heavy-handed punishment for a first-time offender, but a precedent needed to be set in order to separate so-called “team tactics” from unsportsmanlike conduct. No doubt many who have followed this story will persist that Team GB officials must have been involved on some level and therefore should be punished as well. However, without any proof that Wiltshire was acting on team orders, a sanction against an entire federation would have been excessive. It’s still one of the longest non-doping suspensions ever handed down to a triathlete, and it sends a clear message: these sorts of team tactics will not be allowed going forward. There is no word yet as to whether or not BTF or Wiltshire will appeal the suspension.