That's the question facing 28 year old paratriathlete Kim Borowicz and several dozen other paratriathletes this year because of a rule by the ITU(International Triathlon Union) and USAT (U.S.A. Triathlon) that states in simple terms you are disabled, but not disabled enough to compete at an elite level.
The rule effects several of the major triathlons in the country, including Chicago and New York.
This is how the rule reads.
P 2.0 TRI 6 ParaTriathlete and Guide Conduct:
The following additional rules apply to TRI 6 ParaTriathletes and their guides:
f) All TRI 6 competitors shall use approved "black out glasses" during the entire run portion (beginning at their assigned space in the transition area.)
In a nut shell, the rule states that Borowicz and other visually impaired athletes are blind, but not blind enough, so they have to wear blackout glasses during the run portion of a triathlon to make them completely blind. Other individual Paralympic sports do not adhere to this kind of rule including, track & field and cycling.
Borowicz is legaly blind and has been her entire life. She has 20/200 vision, her training utilizes the slight vision that she has, the new rule would throw that into a tail spin. " I have been vision impaired since birth and spent numerous hours working with eye doctors, vision teachers, and orientation/mobility specialists to adapt to the level of vision I have. I have never been taught or learned the adaptations specific to people who are blind. These adaptations are very different and specific to the individual. It is unreasonable and unsafe to force me to learn to adapt to total blindness while running in a crowd during a competition situation."
"This rule was made to even the playing field during the run," says Chuck Menke from USAT. "It was a rule drafted by the ITU and something we have to adhere to in our efforts to make paratriathlon a paralympic sport."
Almost all visually impaired triathletes swim with a guide, bike on a tandem and then in the run can run tethered or with a guide next to them, yelling out turns and potential hazards.
Borowicz and other athletes argue that it hardly evens the playing field and because of their inability to see makes things harder. Last years Chicago Triathlon winner who is completely blind beat Borowicz by 15 minutes. There are other ways to even the playing field Borowicz suggests, "it is an inappropriate method of leveling the playing field. I watched the biathlon in the Winter Paralympics this year. To compensate for different levels of visual impairment they had athletes start at different time increments (i.e. the athletes with the most vision started last). Maybe a similar rule should be used in triathlon?"
USAT is ready to announce later this week, that athlete's won't be forced to wear the glasses to compete, however if they are world class and want to qualify to compete in the 2016 Rio Games, they will have to wear the glasses. Great for age groupers with visual impairments, however a hard lesson learned for Aaron Scheidies who had already secured the one male spot on the paratriathlon team, only to have it stripped away from him, when he refused to wear the glasses. "I was heart broken and in complete shock," says Scheidies. " It's not about pride, it's about safety for the athletes, yes it is degrading, but it's even more dangerous, and I won't participate."
Menke/USAT is quick to remind everyone," we are beholden to the rules as they are laid down. The goal is to get para-triathlon into the 2016 games, these are the rules we have to follow." Which is a great for the sport, but leaves Borowicz and other athletes like her in a difficult and embarrassing position. "It's offensive and disrespectful. I do not, as a general rule, pretend to have disabilities that are not my own. I do not roll around in other peoples' wheelchairs, put my hands over my ears acting Deaf, or tie an arm behind my back faking that I am an amputee. Pretending to be blind, as required by the blackout rule, runs the risk of being offensive and disrespectful to people who are actually blind. I can never truly know what it is like to have disabilities that are not my own and there is no purpose in pretending."
The way the rule reads now, anyone who decides to wear the block out glasses can race in the blind division of a paralympic qualifier. Scheidies points out," all of the blind athletes I talk to hate the rule as well, yet nobody seems to hear us or consulted us before making the rule."
Scheidies is the best mens paratriathlete in the world. However by using black out glasses it throws off his equilibrium, which has already caused him to crash several times during practice runs and rides. "People think you're mostly blind what's the big deal, they don't get it. Your body goes into shock, I get vertigo, it's actually doing the opposite of leveling the playing field, because I can't compete."
"I refuse to participate in any triathlons that follow this rule. Last
year, there were only two vision impaired women, including myself, who
competed in the Chicago and New York City Triathlons' paratriathlon
VI/Blind category. So if you do the math, if I quit, then that leaves
one. Resources should be used to encourage more athletes with vision
impairments to participate in triathlons, rather than imposing
unreasonably restrictive rules which will deter them." Says Borowicz.
"The USAT is largest contingent of paratriathletes in the world, if we
rally together as athletes we can change this rule, instead they are
shrug and send the message of let's go hurt our blind athletes."
Scheides says. Borowicz adds "The blackout rule discourages athletes
with vision impairments from participating in the sport of triathlon.
As more athletes participate, it will be possible to separate each
level of vision into a different category of competition, rather than
clumping all VI/blind people together in one division."
Which is another problem that Menke points out. " There aren't enough
completely blind athletes to form their own division, so we have to mix
them. The spirit of the rule is to level the playing field." These
bright side of this predicament is that the sport is growing
internationally and these are the growing pains that come with it.
So now the question is whether to boycott both races or not? When
informed of the new rule, the officials at The Chicago Triathlon's
initial reaction was shock. A spokesperson told The Pace of Chicago
"there is no way we plan on honoring that rule, it's ridiculous."
However, after checking with USAT and the ramifications of breaking the
rule, things got quiet. We have yet to be able to get an official comment on which
direction the Chicago Triathlon plans on going. To turn their back on
the rule would make all the participants a DQ, which would only make
matters worse. However, being the largest triathlon in the world and
turning their backs on the rule, would also make a statement, that may
need to be made?
Will Chicago be the first race to draw a line in the sand? Will USAT
decide enough is enough and bend to the onslaught of pressure or will
Borowicz, Scheidies and dozens like them, have to play along or get
As Borowicz points out, not only is the rule unfair and
humiliating it may be illegal. "Last, but certainly not least, the
blackout rule violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The
ADA prohibits discriminating against an individual on the basis of
disability in the full and equal enjoyment of programs, such as
triathlons. 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). It is our right to participate in
triathlons, and it is illegal to subject us to unreasonable
restrictions, such as the blackout rule. The ADA also prohibits
providing a class of individuals, on the basis of a disability, with an
accommodation that is different from that provided to other
individuals, unless such action is necessary to provide that class of
individuals with an opportunity that is as effective as that provided
to others. 28 C.F.R. § 36.202(c). Therefore, requiring that athletes
with vision impairments bike on tandems is a reasonable accommodation
allowed by the ADA because it allows us to participate with everyone
else. However, the blackout rule is an unreasonable restriction, not
an accommodation, and therefore, violates the ADA."
Where do you stand on this issue? Would you be willing to boycott The
Chicago and New York Triathlon in a show of support for these visually
impaired triathletes, or should they adhere to the new ruling and work
towards the new goal of the 2016 Games? There will be more as the
story unfolds, so make sure to check back at The Pace of Chicago for