Last weekend, I got to see the sport of triathlon from a new perspective -- as an assistant race director -- as opposed to my old familiar perspective from the back of the pack. As a competitor, you tend to overlook all the massive organizational efforts that go into producing a triathlon, as if some guy just shows up Sunday morning with some bike racks and inflatable buoys. Let me tell you, there's a lot more to it than that -- you need bike racks, buoys and a half dozen permanent magic markers.
No, seriously, there really is a massive amount of preparation involved in staging a major triathlon. You know the bedlam that always surrounds the registration desk about forty-five minutes before the start of a race? Well, that bedlam doesn't just happen by accident -- that bedlam has been carefully planned and thought-out for months.
It occurred to me recently that staging a triathlon is probably a whole lot like directing a major Broadway theatrical production. The similarities are endless. You've got set designers hard at work building the transition area. Crews of unsung course monitors working behind the scenes to make sure everyone knows where to go. Temperamental stars -- in this case, elite athletes -- demanding special treatment and whining when everything isn't set up to their liking. Dramatic story lines, like athletes making miraculous returns from illness and injury. Nervousness on opening day. The only major difference is that we don't have to do eight shows a week, which is a good thing, or else race directors round the world would lose their senses.
In fact, if Broadway ever gets around to producing “Triathlon: The Musical” -- and really it's only a matter of time before they do -- it's bound to be a mega-hit, right up there with “Cats” and “Annie.” First of all, the choreographic possibilities are endless. What other production would allow you to combine the swimming theatrics of Esther Williams, the bicycle ballet of Kevin Bacon (remember “Quicksilver”?), and the athletic dance routines of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, all in one epic spectacle? I can already picture the opening scene: as the first wave of swimmers exits the water, it suddenly forms a wetsuit-clad Congo line and mambos its way to the transition area.
But as much fun as you could have as choreographer, the job I'd want is costume designer. Triathletes already have their own unique sense of style, and each year it seems to get more and more bizarre. Last season, for example, seemed to bring an alarming increase in bleached-out hair and body modification – some races looked like a cross between a triathlon and an Eminem concert. But up on stage you could really take it to the next level. I'm talking gold lamé wetsuits and matching feather headdresses. I'm talking Donny Osmond in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Speedo." One of the important functions of costume design in the theater is that allows you to easily identify the different members of the cast, and this principle applies to both triathlon the sport and "Triathlon: The Musical." At an actual triathlon, for example, I’ve always been amused by the wardrobe differences between the triathletes, and the bikers and runners who are there to compete on teams. The team competitors always stand out like sore thumbs, especially the cyclists. As triathletes whiz by one after another on the bike course, wearing nothing but swim suits and magic marker ink, suddenly you'll see a team cyclist, dressed up like an Arabian show horse, wearing every conceivable item of cycling gear. If the cyclists actually had to get dressed in the transition area, we'd have to pull the curtain and stop the race for a forty-five-minute intermission.
In fact, if the screenwriters for “Triathlon: The Musical” need a storyline, they could just borrow the plot of West Side Story, except instead of Sharks versus Jets, it would be triathletes versus cyclists and runners. There has always been a bitter, simmering feud among these groups, over such issues as who are the better athletes (triathletes), who have the better gear (cyclists), and who lead the least dorky and pathetic lifestyle (three-way tie). Tragically, like the rival gangs in the musical, we just can't seem to see past our superficial differences and realize that, deep down, we all share the same common goal, namely, the complimentary food and beverage that they serve to the cast and crew at the end of the production.