Asking For a Friend, Is Anything Possible to Change the IRONMAN World Championships?

Bill Plock

Oct 12, 2022–I promise, this opinion is not rooted in sour grapes. I really think IRONMAN should consider either moving the championship race somewhere affordable with easier logistics, or go back to one day of racing and figuring out how to make it somewhat bigger and equitable for men and women. Much easier said than done.

Some have suggested having the men and women race at different times of year, in Kona, or rotating the men and women every other year. It seems to me keeping this format of a Thursday/Saturday race with 5,000 amateurs competing isn’t sustainable or good for the race long term. And, I suspect it was quite hard on the island despite the economic windfall estimated at over a $100 million. 

The 303 gang on practice swim in Kona

The IRONMAN World Championships is a very unique sporting event. It’s really the most successful pro/am event in the world if you ask me. Sure golf tournaments usually have a VIP pro/am round before the tournament, but name a world championship where the best of all categories compete at the same time in the same venue.

What I fear with the new two day format, by more than doubling the number of participants and more than doubling the cost, the Golden Goose of triathlon will get squeezed too tight and stop laying the proverbial egg which lures age group athletes to dedicate their lives (and pocketbooks) to racing in Kona. And for marginal pro’s with very little hope at a prize and footing their own bill, maybe they forgo Kona and the field shrinks? 

After shopping condos for 2023 at unbelievably high prices, I know 303 probably won’t be able to bring you first hand stories and celebrate the success of our well represented state of Colorado. I”m sure we aren’t the only ones and I would fear, more importantly, if deserving athletes and their families forgo participating because of costs. I know that has happened over the years, but now it will probably become a reality more and more. 

This race, Kona, is way more than a race. It’s a celebration. It’s a lifetime pursuit and a lifestyle. The red carpets are literally rolled out. Age group athletes feel like rock stars. And they are. 

But the race needs folks like us, and volunteers, and fans and industry support. We all know it costs a fortune to attend the Olympics, or a Super Bowl. They are exclusive as well. But they are TV sports and most of the world is happy to watch at home. And those venues take place in large cities and are accessible by car. It’s easy and affordable to be near the venue in most cases and feel the vibe. But not in Kona. You pay to get there or you don’t. No drive by’s happening there. 

This year it seemed to go fairly “ok” logistically from all accounts but no doubt there were complaints. We were supposed to go, but our condo was mysteriously condemned due to “mold” in late July—I’m skeptical and think it went back on the market for double the rate. That’s what happened to pro Joe Skipper who almost pulled out when his condo booking was revoked and they asked for three times more and he vented frustration on his IG account.

I am curious how the two midnight finishes played out and if it was electric like always. I can’t imagine any men racing on Saturday hung out to cheer Thursday. I was sad to miss Mike Reilly’s last call. I was bummed to miss all of it. 

I’m torn because I loved watching the pro women race by themselves and get the attention they deserve and race under more fair conditions without the fast age-group men interferring and having more favorable weather. But as far as a race experience, I’ve heard some complaints about less aid stations because of less volunteers available and a few other minor things.

Said finisher and triathlon coach Lauren Vallee who will be featured on our podcast this weekend to talk about all this, “There was a notable decrease in volunteers, but that’s expected given the demand this event takes on the community. We knew in advance where aid would be and given the opportunity to plan accordingly.  The run aid stations being farther apart certainly impacted peoples days, but I decided to race with a bottle and had no issues with getting anything I needed from one station to another.”

This race is already darn hard to qualify for, now it’s darn hard to afford. With so many more participants, volunteers, and spectators converging on the big island with the same amount of bed space as always, does this just make the sport that much less inclusive than it already is? There is already a correlation between the high incomes of triathletes and participation, does this just makes it worse? It must. 

Condo’s for 2023 have more than doubled in cost to more than $500 per night plus fees for a one bedroom. I booked a two bedroom condo for this year (the one condemned), in the same building, for $225 per night.  And I’m just a guy with laptop. I don’t have race fees (which are going up substantially next year), bike transport and all that goes with racing. 

I really don’t fault the tourism industry, it’s a free market, take what you can get, and during Covid they got pretty much nothing. Thats how it works. And IRONMAN must see a demand of people willing to pay to play, but something has to give, and it will at some point. 

I get the tradition of this race and importance of its heritage, legacy and the aspiration it provides. I get the mentality of “you can’t move the Boston Marathon to Las Vegas and call it the Boston Marathon.” But this is the IRONMAN World Championship. It’s not the Kona World Championship. It could be somewhere else like what happens with the 70.3’s. 

The solution is not easy, nor do I really have one other than being open to changing something to keep it accessible to not only athletes, but to fans, supporters, volunteers and others who want this sport to have the best championship possible. 

I’m just asking for a friend, posing a question of what, if anything is possible. 

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