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Posted: July 13, 2005

Multisport: Triathlon Championships of the Small States of Europe Continue to Evolve

From: Paul Grech

Earlier this month in Luxembourg, home athletes Dirk Bockel and Liz May won one of the least known triathlon ranking tournaments. Its lack of notoriety, however, isn’t down to bad marketing but rather to the very nature of the event: only athletes hailing from European countries with a population of less than one million can compete in the Triathlon Championships for Small States of Europe.

The original idea behind the setting up of these championships was that of having triathlon included in the Games for the Small States of Europe which is a mini-version of the Olympics. That aim has yet to be achieved, but the decision taken by the ITU and ETU in 2003 to allocate ranking points to this competition gave it a much needed boost.

Bambos Spanoudis of the Cypriot Federation spells out what this meant, and how much it meant, for triathlon in his country. “The Triathlon Championships of the Small States of Europe is virtually the only chance for the Cypriot athletes to get any ranking points.”

“All other events are either too competitive for our standards or too expensive for our budget to participate in. The whole of our funding is coming from the government and we feel that we should not improvise but enter events with a good chance of producing some results.”

Although Luxembourg has a good number of well established athletes – including this year’s winner May who finished 17th at last year’s Olympics - Jean-Pierre Ernzen, sports director at the Luxembourg Triathlon Federation, feels the same way. “It was a good idea to attribute ITU Points as athletes can promote themselves. As you know to be in the top 120 in the world, you have to participate all over the word, and be competitive enough! So yes it’s true that it is a small help for athletes of small nations”

The impact of this decision has been far reaching as Manuel Azzopardi, President of the Malta Triathlon Association explains. “ITU and ETU recognition has meant that the TCSSE forms part of an elite group of International Races and consequently it is not only athletes who vie to be chosen by their respective Federations to participate in it, but 'states' like Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Guernsey have written to us to seek inclusion for their athletes.”

Inevitably, the championships have helped raise the overall level of triathlon in all the countries taking part. “The TCSSE has helped to improve the general level of triathlon in Malta, particularly in the women's category,” confirms Azzopardi. “In Cyprus last year, Maria Mifsud Bonnici showed that she has the potential to win it when she finished just fifteen seconds behind the winner Jackie Komes of Luxembourg.”

The impact on Cypriot tri-athletes was even more significant. “The increased possibility of a good performance in the Championships and a place on the podium in comparison with the other international events made more athletes change their attitude towards the sport and switch from recreational participation to serious and systematic training and participation with aim to qualify for this specific event.”

There are however, divergent views on whether these championships have made triathlon more popular with the general public. Spanoudis is adamant that they have played a key role.

“The popularity of the sport is gradually increasing in Cyprus and in my opinion a vital role plays the fact that these championships are organized every year,” he says.

“In the early years of the Cyprus Triathlon Federation we attracted athletes from the swimming discipline that wanted to try an alternative sport. In the last couple of years and after the successful Championships of the Small States of Europe and the clear chance to compete abroad with fair chances, more athletes from the running and cycling discipline are attracted and even young athletes with triathlon as their first sport.”

Yet in Malta, it would seem that triathlon has yet to capture the public’s imagination. “Sad to say this but nonetheless true: despite the generous media coverage, despite its Olympic status, triathlon remains a minor sport practised by the few here in Malta.”

“The TCSSE does attract elite athletes from other sports, like David Galea who can switch from cycling to triathlon with relative ease, but popularity remains elusive. If triathlon were to be included on the GSSE programme it would receive more media coverage, which will in turn enhance its popularity.”

From Azzopardi’s words it would seem that a real breakthrough would be made if triathlon were to be included in the GSSE. Triathlon was once again missing from the list of sports to be held in Monaco where the games will be taking place in two years’ time, so are they still hopeful of ever making it?

Yes, says Azzopardi. “I believe so. Certainly not in 2007, when the GSSE will be held in Monaco but I believe that in 2009, when the GSSE will be held in Cyprus, we stand a good chance of seeing Triathlon at last on the programme. Cyprus have a young and promising team and they have the backing of their National Olympic Committee.”

Ernzen is similarly confident. “We have to fight for it. In all the small Nations we have to introduce a letter emphasizing the history and the development of triathlon.”

“We already include five countries - Luxembourg, Monaco, Cyprus, Malta, and Liechtenstein in our championships. In Iceland triathlon is now better known, they held their championships and will take part in 2006 edition of the TCSSE.” So I think we do have to choose a responsible of the different countries that will defend our interest more definitely on Olympic committees.

“I’ve heard that the Luxembourg National Olympic Committee has already taken note of the triathlon federation’s work and results so I’m sure that our request will be analyzed seriously.”

Spanoudis continues in a similar vein. “These Championships started as a test of the ability of the triathlon Federations of the Small States, with their limited budgets, to stage big events and lead the respective federations to come together and work collectively for the inclusion of triathlon in GSSE.

“During the years followed we have proven that with a lot of effort and volunteer work, this dream is not untouchable. Last year, when the race was held in Cyprus, it was put under the auspices of our National Olympic Committee and they have followed closely all the organization aspects and the success of the race.”

“They are convinced that triathlon is a sport that deserves to be in the program of GSSE and they have agreed to campaign for this goal among the other National Federations. In my opinion this is a good step for achieving our aim since the program of the GSSE is decided by the National Olympic Committees.”

“Also during the race in Cyprus, the participating countries agreed to form a confederation with main objective to work towards the inclusion of triathlon in the GSSE. The statute of the new body was formulated and agreed in general lines.”

Paul Grech is the editor of the bi-weekly e-zine Running Malta. Subscription is free of charge and one can apply by sending a mail to pawlu_grech@yahoo.co.uk


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