The tricycle triathlon

Should children as young as 3 compete in a potentially dangerous sport?

Published August 27, 2009 12:28PM (EDT)

Can kids do everything adults do? And should they? Earlier this week, Amy Benfer wrote about celebrity tots whose parents are launching fashion lines inspired by their children's "unique personal style." Now, an article in the New York Times Thursday Styles section explores the world of kiddie triathlons. Yes, they exist -- and toddlers as young as 3 have been known to participate.

In a well-balanced piece that examines the events' recent surge in popularity, Sarah Bowen Shea interviews parents, physicians and the folks who run the triathlons. Those who support them say that the distances (a 200-yard swim, 6-mile bike ride and 1.25-mile run for 11- and 12-year-olds, for example) are age-appropriate, and volunteers are always on hand to keep kids safe. One parent who was nervous about entering her children found that "the triathlon was about family support rather than winning or getting a medal." In fact, in some competitions, everyone gets a medal, "even the kids who freeze up on the pool deck and don’t get in," said Robert Jones, who runs the Silicon Valley Kids Triathlon.

Even so, there is something distinctly disturbing about inducting preschool-aged children into a sport that, according to the Times, saw 14 deaths in official USA Triathlon-sponsored events between January 2006 and September 2008. While the doctors Shea spoke with said that the distances themselves are unlikely to be dangerous, "improper training" for the events can lead to injury. And Shea points out that even if kids have the physical capacity to participate in the races, "there is also the issue of psychological readiness" to compete.

But the most unsettling aspects of Shea's piece are the anecdotes about triathlon parents. Although some seem to have a healthy attitude toward their children's participation, others sound like the sports equivalent of stage parents. Karen Mann, who runs a kids' triathlon in Arkansas, told the Times that she had "gotten some pressure from a few diehard parents to increase the distance." Jones recalls a mom who asked if her 18-month-old could compete. (His response? Nope.)

The health professionals quoted in the piece caution against starting kids out too early, with most advising parents to begin their children's involvement no earlier than ages 7 to 10. "If you start at age 4, you can easily run out of gas," Dr. Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University (and a dad whose son competed in a triathlon at age 10 or 11), told the Times.

Personally, I find it perfectly reasonable for kids who are old enough for Little League or other sports to compete in an age-appropriate triathlon. And what bugs me about younger children entering these contests isn't the (seemingly negligible) risks to their physical health. I just don't think any good can come of making toddlers who are barely out of diapers compete with one another. Kids have entire lives of competition to look forward to. Shouldn't 3-year-olds get a few more blissful, play-filled years before they have to worry about who's out-running, out-swimming and out-biking them?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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