Is being a professional triathlete performance dependent?

Lately, there has been discussion about the professional ranks in triathlon. In a recent analysis on TRS, Brian Maiorano wrote that he did not include half the athletes racing in the pro division as professionals “because only in the most twisted definition of the word could someone who earns no money be considered ‘professional’.”

In response, Kelly O’Mara wrote that there are many age groupers who continue to dominate the age group scene, qualify for their elite card multiple times, and do not take their elite card because they want to continue to dominate age group divisions. O’Mara argues that there should be a mandatory upgrade system, in which once you qualify for your elite card a certain number of times, you must take your elite card.

While Maiorano implies that there are too many people racing under the “professional” title who should not be there, O’Mara argues there are not enough people in the professional field. As someone who will be racing with my elite card for the first time this November, I thought it would be interesting to delve into what it means to be a professional and how that translates to the sport of triathlon.

I believe there are multiple aspects to being a professional, but Maiorano only focused on the earning potential, stating that the 500 athletes not included in his analysis were not professionals simply because they did not make money that year. However, professional athletes in individual sports are very much like professionals in the performing arts. An actress, opera singer, or artist may go an entire year without a paying job in their field, and they thus have side jobs to support themselves in between. Not having a paid acting job, though, does not keep them from practicing their trade any less, nor does it make them any less professional. Likewise, PhD students are studying to be professionals in a given field, and yet they still work side jobs on the weekend because the stipend is often not enough to support them. Does needing to work a side job make them not a professional? No, it makes them aware that to carry out their research, they sometimes have to work two jobs. In the same way, a professional athlete in an individual sport may have an injury that takes them out for a season. Does their inability to compete and thus not earn money make them not a professional for that year? What about the athletes who are just joining the ranks and hoping to work their way up? Individuals might claim that professionals in other sports are paid, but the only sports in which individuals get paid when not competing or when just beginning are team sports in which athletes are under contract. Running is similar to triathlon, and many professional runners are not able to make ends meet just off of race earnings and contracts. Individual and team sports cannot and should not be scrutinized in the same manner.

How one conducts oneself, self-reflects, and approaches practicing one’s trade is also an important determining factor for being a professional. In medicine, we are held to a very high standard because lives are at stake. Each month, the cases and deaths are reviewed to see if there was anything that could have been done differently along the way. What can we, as professionals, learn so as not to have the same thing happen again? (Note, I did not use mistake because sometimes deaths are caused by mistake, and sometimes it is inevitable.) I strive to uphold myself to the same standard in my life outside of medicine. I approach each training session with purpose. I look back at previous training cycles with my coach, evaluating what worked and what didn’t work – what can be changed to get more improvement, and what should stay the same? This level of self-reflection is paramount to being a professional in any field.

My problem with Maiorano’s argument is that he is using earnings to disqualify individuals from being called professionals, and in the same article argues that there is not enough money in triathlon. I do not think that lack of earnings automatically disqualifies oneself from being a professional, but instead feel that earnings, conduct, and practice need to all be considered. Furthermore, saying that one is a professional athlete once one earns a living is arbitrary. We all know the cost of living varies from person to person and city to city. The ability to earn a living in triathlon might also be hindered by inability to travel to multiple races. I do not believe there is a line that divides non-professional elite cardholders from professional elite cardholders. I think it is a grey area that ultimately is determined by what the individual believes she is, not what other people view her as. If you feel you conduct yourself at the level of a professional, that you are a professional athlete, then you are one.

I do not consider myself a professional athlete just because I have my elite card. I do not know when I will consider myself one, but I do know that it will be my doing. If anything, I consider myself a professional student.

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