With so much controversy and conversation surrounding Ironman Corporations decision to move the IM World Championships to St. George, UT in 2021. We at 303 Endurance thought we would wade into the fray with a virtual panel discussion. The panel of five is made up of three men and two women, all IM 140.6 and IM 70.3 finishers. Each panelist will share their thoughts on each of 5 questions.
1. What makes it the IM World Championships: the competitors, the course, because Ironman says it is?
For years Kona has attracted the top pro’s because of what it is, but also it was the highest paying purse. But that’s not the case anymore. For age groupers, Kona is the most difficult IRONMAN race to qualify for, so it’s the Championships by default in a way.
But is it really the best of the best? No. Many people race who are not qualified based on how well they did at other races, but rather by other ways of getting in, whether by the legacy program or donations or sponsor entries. Kona is also challenging for everyone to afford to race, so it doesn’t necessarily attract the best of the best. But it’s the best we got.
Unlike most professional sports, IRONMAN (aka World Triathlon Corporation) is a for-profit corporation owned by Advance Publications. And although MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL share tax-exempt status, it would be hard to argue that their primary motivation is not making a profit. The difference is, in all likelihood, your friends and neighbors will likely not be taking the field at Yankee Stadium anytime soon.
With IRONMAN 140.6 and 70.3 events, professional and age-group athletes, compete side-by-side, so the venue matters. Hawaii is the cradle where long-course triathlon was born. It has legacy, both in the course and the competitors that have raced there. Ali’i Drive, the Energy Lab, the “Queen K Highway,” these all mean something special to age group and professional athletes alike.
The bulk of WTC’s revenue is not television rights or branded merchandise sales, it’s entry fees from age-group athletes. Putting emotions to the side, changing the IM World Championships venue with no input from their primary stakeholder and revenue stream seems ill advised from a business perspective.
Because it’s Kona!
If I ask anyone what image comes to mind when you think of the IRONMAN World Championship, the answer is typically “Hawaii” or “Kona”. My first introduction to the IMWC was the NBC feature special in 2007. The IMWC has always been in Hawaii (Kona since 1981). If you have ever been there to race or watch the opening and closing ceremonies, Hawaii was the birthplace of Ironman and therefor it’s soul is in Hawaii. It only makes sense that the World Championship stay in Kona.
The competitors and because IRONMAN says it is.
2. Is it still an “official” World Championship if it does not take place in Kona?
Kona doesn’t have to be the World Championships, it can still the most prestigious race to win, the most lucrative or have the best coverage. But the Championships can be anywhere IRONMAN wants — its their business.
Ultimately, the World Championships are wherever and whatever IRONMAN says. But I think it leaves a great deal of room for argument with regard to World Record times, bike splits, etc. Since St. George is land locked, clearly it is not an ocean swim and not subject to currents, waves, etc. And any run that does not go through the Energy Lab and the subsequent heat and humidity cannot be compared with one that does not. And don’t get me started on the winds on the “Queen K. Highway.”
Yes, St. George is the World Championships, and the professional men and women who win it will be crowned. But I think it is really comparing Apple to Oranges. Or in this case Pineapples to Peaches.
It’s official if IRONMAN says it is, but in the eyes of the athletes, only Kona is the “true” World Championship in their hearts.
Technically, on paper, yes. In my heart, no.
3. What makes Kona special? Versus any other venue or course?
Clearly Kona is special. It’s history, it’s iconic battles and stories. The course is one of the toughest in the world. The pageantry and “racing the legends” with people from all over the world is simply amazing.
Who can forget the Iron War with Dave Scott and Mark Allen battling for 140.6 miles. Or watching Paula Newby-Fraser gutting it out near the finish line on Aliʻi Drive in 1995. These are some of the most vivid memories of triathlon for me and many other age-group triathletes. I can still remember Jim McKay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports commentating on the race, and dreaming about one-day being on the pier in Kona. That’s long before I knew Mike Reily’s name or hearing the words, “You are an IRONMAN.”
The history. Even though the first IRONMAN race ever took place in Honolulu, it’s newer home in Kona makes it part of a long running legacy for IRONMAN. It’s kind of like the Masters. It’s always at the Augusta National, no where else. The IRONMAN World Championships is akin to this type of tradition.
As I’ve said, Kona is hot. Kona is humid. Kona is windy. Kona is hilly. You get ocean currents and swells; you get hills and wind on the bike; and the run is like an oven. I’ve run from the Energy Lab into town. Those 7 miles feels like 17 on the body.
It’s been the home of the IMWC since the beginning.
4. Should the World Championships rotate venues? What impact does that have on the sport and competitors?
The World Championships could most certainly rotate and attract athletes from other areas who simply can’t afford to travel all the way to Hawaii, but are capable of being there athletically. It could be like the Olympics and enhance the growth of triathlon as it moves around the globe. For the pro’s, it’s getting to the point where Kona will become less important to make a living with the influx of better paying PTO events. Recently Sam Long announced he won’t do Kona. Presumably he can race more shorter events and make much more money and appease sponsors. IRONMAN will need to substantially increase the prize purse to keep up. For age-group athletes it’s probably a different story.
I think the question needs to be divided between the professional perspective, the age-group athlete perspective, and the company’s perspective. While I think the legacy and cachet’ of Kona matters, for professional multi-sport athletes I think the prize purse, visibility and sponsorship requirements matter more. For them, and I’m speculating here, it’s a business. If there was a competing 140.6 race with four-times the prize purse and televised on the same day, I think many of them would take that start line for that race, rather than Kona.
I think as an age-group athlete it is a whole different set of metrics that go into the calculation. Number one, you have to qualify for Kona or be a legacy athlete to get a spot on the pier as an age-group athlete. Yes, it’s expensive to get there. Yes, travel to Hawaii is complex and time consuming. But, as Khem said, “It’s Kona!”
Now, from IRONMAN’s perspective, they want to grow the sport and being able to attract a greater swath of athletes is good for business. More age-group athletes, more profits. Pretty simple math for them.
It should not rotate venues. If they wanted to rotate, that should’ve been something they did early on – kind of like how ITU Worlds and Collins Cup Championships has always changed venues. By changing the location of the IRONMAN World Championships, it loses it’s “luster,” that lure of Kona and the traditions, and I speak mostly from an age group athlete perspective. For the professionals, most of them probably don’t care and some most likely prefer changing the venue each year, but it’s the age group athletes that make up the bulk of those racing.
Not a fan of rotating World Champs. I like the idea of rotating continental championships, but my vote is keeep the World Champs in Kona.
If I was to qualify for the world championships, I would only want to go if it was in Hawaii. That being said, Hawaii is getting so overly expensive and hard to get to. I’ve always love St George so that you me is a close second, but personally I can’t think of anywhere else I would spend that much time/money to get there.
5. What is the best thing for the sport of triathlon, as it relates to the World Championships?
The best thing for the sport is to have a true World Championship with the highest of stakes. Ideally this might mean keeping it in Kona, but not necessarily. For age-group athletes, have a race where everyone racing has a legitimate chance to win. In fact, I believe it should be free to race for age-group athletes who qualify based only on the placement in other races and not eligible any other way. It would be great to minimize the barrier to entry and be as inclusive as possible for all top athletes, not just ones who can afford it. For that reason, it might make sense to have a championship in an easier place to travel. Kona can and probably always will be a very exclusive race. As it stands right now, it’s the world’s greatest Pro Am, but is it really the best of the best? For the most part yes, but a championship could move and Kona could still be amazing.
The Masters isn’t golf’s championship but the Green Jacket (and the millions that come with it) are highly coveted. Wimbleton isn’t Tennis’ championship. The Boston Marathon isn’t an official world championship. There are countless examples of how a venue can be highly coveted and celebrate its history and not be the world championship.
Venue matters. Let’s look at it from another sport’s perspective – motor racing. While there are many 500-mile open wheel races that take place on oval tracks, there is and will always be only one Indianapolis 500. Where the winner guzzles a bottle of cold milk with a wreath around their neck in the winner’s circle, while the crowd of onlookers goes wild. Because it has been a tradition at “the Brickyard” that started in 1936 with three-time winner, Louis Meyer.
Or look at it from the perspective of bike racing in Europe. Paris-Roubaix the aptly named “queen of the classics.” This Spring race is 250 km and features 30 sectors of cobblestones, finishing in the outdoor velodrome in Roubaix, France. Because of the cobblestone sectors and the sometimes unpredictable weather, it has another name, “the hell of the North.”
The prize money isn’t all that special. The trophy is a big rock. But winner’s become legends of the sport, and have their name’s inscribed on a brass placard that will be placed in the pre-war cement showers of the velodrome. It’s a big deal, because venue matters.
I think the best thing for the sport is to expand its reach by looking at ways to make it more accessible, affordable and engaging for participants and viewers. But they should leave the World Championships right where they are, in KONA!
Keep it in Kona.
One of the highlights of the World Championships is the Parade of Nations. Watching each country walk the parade route wearing their country’s uniform and waiving their country’s flag. It’s always interesting to see the size of representation by country and how much spirit and energy Germany brings each year.
I 100% think that you should have to qualify to get into the world championships. I understand that limits the opportunity for people who aren’t at that level, but it’s the world championships so I think qualification is necessary.