World Triathlon Series – Leeds: A Volunteer’s Perspective

Part 1: Delivering a triathlon

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The Brownlee brothers, with British Triathlon, and with the backing of Leeds City Council, pulled of a coup in bringing the World Triathlon Series event to Leeds while the usual stop in Hyde Park, London, goes through scheduled renovations. Thousands of triathletes signed up to take on the two transition course, starting at Roundhay Park for the swim, a point to point bike course taking in Headingley, Meanwood and other areas before arriving into the city centre for seven laps, and another four laps for the run after landing at T2. I’d love to have taken part myself, but regular readers here know that I’m way, way off being able to successfully complete even a sprint distance triathlon. So what would be the next best thing, I wondered. It didn’t even need a second thought. I went straight to the International Triathlon Union (ITU) website, put my name and details in the volunteer section. Months passed by, and eventually I got an email back confirming I could apply. A little further down the line, and my spot was confirmed! Anything I could do to be involved.

Rifling through the social media pages for information, I noticed there had been grumbles about the lack of information apparently coming through for the organising bodies. That said, all I had been trying to search for was the info on volunteer arrangements. That came through on email, and we all had briefings the Thursday and Friday before the race, as well as receiving a volunteer handbook in PDF format. I had been listed for two roles on the day – Recovery, which was handing out medals, removing timing chips, handing out food for the open race triathletes, etc.; and Section D, which was some sort of marshalling role somewhere on the course, I believe.

This all sounds a bit foggy, doesn’t it? Well, rose-tinted spectacles, it didn’t stop me wanting to get up, running to Huddersfield at the crack of dawn (aggravating my hitherto diminished groin strain again), and getting the train over to Leeds. It was here. Sunday June 12th, 2016. World Triathlon Day was here at last. It was going to be a blast!

I joined up with the volunteers in a breakout area at The Electric Press, loading up with a cup of tea, a 9Bar (self provided) and a biscuit. We were all sat there initially a picture of modern day society, staring down awkwardly into our phones, but we soon opened up a bit and were in good spirits as we were led down to a marquee where the medals were situated. Word was the first runner was now in the centre, so we needed to get on with things. The team leader took us all to the refreshment area. Here we were required to prepare the post race snacks and refreshments – banana halves, quarters of oranges, and bagels sliced both ways, as well as crates and crates of water. We were busily carving away at these when the racers started to come through gradually. I was delegated to try and keep things moving down at the bottom, asking the open race athletes who were stood around to not spectate around the entry to the recovery zone. It certifiably got busier and busier, with a crossing point set up to filter finishers over to the post-race area. This became a challenge later as waves of runners arrived to lap around the course, with gaps to let runners through at a premium.

I was moved up to the top section, near where the stewards were in place to plug a gap, ie. to stop triathletes coming back through the finish area this proved to be a futile task, and not to the triathletes fault – they can’t be blamed here for wanting information. I started getting questions about the bag collect. Apparently the queues there were big and there were those considering coming back later.  I eventually got on the phone to the team leader and was told 6:30pm. Handy to know, I could now communicate this. One or two of the elites had come through with their bikes for some reason, couldn’t be sure why. The nearest toilets appeared to be a pub behind the grandstand. Why I didn’t question this at the time I don’t know. A few medal chips were coming back. These didn’t seem to be a major problem though, and the vast majority of the open race triathletes looked happy to be reunited with loved ones, team mates, and so on. There seemed a real positive air, and gradually as recovery wound down, with the last finishers emerging, it felt like it could be deemed to have gone well. Except for one last thing. A fellow volunteer was handing out foil blankets. It didn’t strike me then either that surely these were a basic end of race provision, easy to forget when you’re just focused on handing them out, some of whom needed two or three. At one point we ran out – I dashed back to the medal marquee, and there I found some extras. Nobody seemed to know a thing, but I legged it back up to the top and handed out what was left.

The recovery team began to move on. We had our lunch/snack packs, and we were offered an alcohol free Erdinger ‘for the road’, which felt reasonably well earned, even if it was meant for the true stars, the triathletes. Our work finished there, three of us made the decision to move over to bag collect. We struggled to find exactly who was team leading but it became apparent from the other volunteers what to do. Find the corresponding bag numbers to the race numbers held up by the open race athletes. It felt like slim pickings – there was occasional success when able to find a corresponding bag, but most of the time, the bag you needed to find wasn’t there. To compound matters, the delivery trucks seemed to be few and far between, and when they did arrive, they were carrying pallets with no more than, say, fifty bags each. And usually no more than three pallets a time.

Then came the hammerblow. Due to a logistical issue, any race number above 3375 was to go back to Roundhay Park to collect their bags. To soften the impact of this, free shuttle buses would be running to Roundhay. From outside the West Yorkshire Playhouse – roughly a fifteen minute walk from Millennium Square. There was one megaphone announcement of this. From then on, it was down to volunteers to greet anyone arriving with that race number with the news and advising what they needed to do. It was a backwards situation. There was no leadership coming from the event staff. They seemed to be conversing with the odd person here and there, but otherwise leaving volunteers alone in the almost futile task of searching for an available bag, the sight of an incoming triathlete with a hitherto unseen race number the only thing to keep activity going.

This was turning bad, nay, worse. I got a mixture of frustration, anger, and reluctant understanding in some of my interactions, and all understandably so. One lady from somewhere in Europe (I wasn’t too sure where, maybe Spain) gave me both barrels, having waited for 3 hours, now being asked to go back across an unfamiliar city for her bags (a 15 minute walk), and then have to come back for her bike, which she wasn’t allowed to take on the shuttle bus. Potentially missed flights, travel connections etc. What could I say, other than ‘I totally agree’? Eventually one of the blue coats stepped in but it was a difficult situation.

The number of trucks bringing in luggage dwindled, and I was starting to feel like a square peg. I was supposed to be on the mysterious Section D area from 3:00pm. I phoned back to base and was given the number for someone who said he’d meet me. I’d put my orange neck gaiter on my head at this point due to the brief shower. He couldn’t miss me if he turned up. Which he didn’t. I was stood around, with now a few remaining people grudgingly waiting on the sidelines, and I honestly felt as though there was zero communication about what I was supposed to be doing. I just put myself out there but for whatever reason, this person wasn’t coming to find me. Eventually noticed nearly all my fellow volunteers gathered behind the fencing for the bag collect. I regrouped with them. Asking what was happening, I was told we were collecting the elite women’s baggage.

This is going to look brilliant, I thought.

I’d love to go into the good points of my day, but to do that in this post would undermine the point I am trying to make because I really hope someone slightly important reads my piss-ant blog to get a sense of not just what disgruntled triathletes had to put up with, but volunteers too, the ones who gave up their time to ensure this event could happen. I could have spent Sunday with my kids. I’d already given up the Thursday to attend the briefing. That I only saw one of them before setting off was much to do with my clumsiness waking them up. Other than that, I ran to Huddersfield to make sure I could get to Leeds on time. I pulled my groin muscle again as a result to do this!

I expect to do menial tasks such as those described above because that is what keeps things ticking. It doesn’t help when some key post-event basics completely failed. It doesn’t help when there’s a clear lack of leadership from the boys in dark blue. A clear lack of communication. No loudspeaker system. No organised baggage collection. No meaningful goody bag at the end with a foil blanket in place. Barely any food vendors in sight, unless ice cream is your way of refuelling after a gruelling triathlon. Only a handful of portable toilets, none of which I could see, which explains why I could only find toilets in two pubs and eventually the museum. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – one only needs to go onto social media to see the scale of complaints being logged against the organisers, many of which I can’t say I bore witness to. People are asking for refunds. People are even quoting the Trade Description Act!

Somewhere between the ITU, Lagardére Sports, British Triathlon and Leeds City Council, logistically, from start to finish, this actually seems to have been an unmitigated disaster, as far as the open race athletes are concerned. The very people who are the lifesblood of the sport have every right to feel let down, and someone, or somebody, needs to accept full responsibility here. And can I say as a volunteer that, should the event return to Leeds in 2017, would I, and indeed a great many of us, really want to give up our time for that again? Granted, I’m not going to say we were ill treated – we got a decent lunch, use of the facilities, a good description of the basic tasks we needed to do – but really we needed better briefing as to things going on nearby, e.g. how to get to the grandstand, the toilets (if they exist), back into the city, the team leaders to actually lead and communicate with us so we can communicate with the people who need us – the triathletes. We did our damnest to keep this thing going, and thank goodness we turned up to make sure it did. Otherwise, can you really call this a success as you so proclaim?

There is another side to my day that I’ll discuss, and that resonates more for me personally. But the events of Sunday June 12th 2016 were far from a blast. They leave a foul residue that left the open race triathletes made to feel overlooked, trampled on and uncared for, and for the volunteers, not much better. True, we volunteers have nothing to apologise for. I just speak for many when I say that I wish I could have done more. Those of us in the thick of it didn’t deserve this.

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