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Ironman's burden

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Tue Nov 24 2009

Ironman is a "for-profit enterprise" and I've been reminded of this by several officials attached to the federation system over the years, such reminder accompanied by finger-wagging because sport at the highest level is supposed to be pure, and governing bodies and anti-doping agencies never (perish the thought) have the profit motive in mind.

But because of Ironman's status as a—get ready for the insult—business, federations often consider Ironman a worthy entity from which to extract money, but unworthy of the provision of the services these federations provide.

One such service is drug testing. The Hawaiian Ironman is as much a triathlon world championship as anything the ITU puts on, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport has written as much in a consent decree. Nevertheless, the joke for years in the pro ranks has been that Michael Lovato is the token American Ironman athlete in the out-of-competition testing pool.

Not only are Ironman athletes forgotten whenever USA Triathlon and USADA get together to decide who'll be monitored for PEDs, USAT's testing at domestic Ironman events—a pledge that helped bring WTC back into the federation system just a handful of years ago—has been forgotten.

Meanwhile, triathletes, bike shops, running stores, that exist in Wisconsin, Upstate New York, Utah, Arizona, Western Canada, and elsewhere can attest to the effect an Ironman has in their areas. This is not only specific to what happens on Ironman day in their states, but in the short course series of races that spring up like an annual bloom when rain falls. The effect on the multisport economy that Ironman brings is incalculable.

The effect Ironman has on USA Triathlon's purse also defies calculation, at least among those at USAT whose job it is to calculate.

USAT is not alone in misunderstanding the degree to which it has Ironman to thank for its largesse. Most other federations are likewise complicit in taking Ironman's money and returning next to none of it back. Germany and Australia appear exceptions and, oddly enough, provide some cover for USAT: Ironman is unlikely to again bolt the federation system as long as enough offshore national federations chip in on drug testing.

Will USAT lift a finger to help fund drug testing at WTC's events? It may. But it hasn't yet.

USADA has clearly indicated it won't pitch in. Is it sour grapes, because WTC chose the worldwide anti-doping body ANADO to administer its drug testing program instead of (the not-profit-motivated) USADA? I don't know. The fact remains, USADA will be testing almost no Ironman athletes, and at almost no Ironman races unless Ironman pays it to do so.

This is where the new Ironman Pro Membership Program comes in. Pros will pay an annual $750 for the privilege of racing at an Ironman or 70.3, and I'm sure most pro triathletes think this is a way for Ironman to get into their pants pockets and extract just that much more money. They're half right.

Yes, Ironman has its hand in a pocket, but it's not in the pocket of the pro; rather this money is coming out of the pants pockets of race directors. Most Ironman pros have had to pay all, or at least some, of their IM or 70.3 entry fees in recent years. If a pro races two Ironman events and two 70.3 events, that $750 is going to feel like a bargain. The only additional fee the pro will pay is for entry to Kona or Clearwater.

It's the Ironman licensee who's getting pinched. The RD who puts on Ironman races in Brazil, Austria, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere; the 70.3 licensee who puts on any of the roughly 40 events Ironman doesn't own; won't be able to get that pro entry money. But they'll still be obliged to pay out the pro prize purse.

Except they won't have to pay pros who fall outside 8 percent of the winner's time and, if you want to know where this new rule arose, look to the licensees (according to those I spoke with). This appears the gift given back to them to help assuage the lack of entry dollars.

Ironman's argument: The licensees should be happy, because they now get a drug testing program Ironman is underwriting to the tune of about a third of a million dollars a year.

The licensee's argument: Thanks but no thanks; the last thing we want is a positive drug test at our event. Not all licensees are this shortsighted. But Ironman is taking the long view on behalf of the licensees that just can't see past the immediate horizon.

What may yet happen is that national federations and anti-doping agencies around the world will see what a friend they have in Ironman, and money will spring forth to help Ironman fund its drug-testing program. If this happens, Ironman must decide what to do with the money it's raising from its pro athletes. I reckon this to be in the neighborhood of $750,000 annually, and of course this is my own, rough, estimate. Half of this will come from the $750 per roughly 500 worldwide pro payers. That's the obvious half.

The less obvious half will come from the new Ironman race. "What new Ironman race?" you might ask. The other part of the Ironman Pro Membership Program includes paring down the field at Kona and Clearwater, in an "... effort to maintain a quality professional field at the World Championship events." If Kona consists of 100 pros on its start line instead of 160, those 60 slots on an already crowded pier will be filled with age-groupers, 2500 of whom will gladly and eagerly fight over these newly available slots at St. George, Utah, or some other domestic Ironman to be determined.

I don't blame Ironman a bit; I would do the same thing. Of course I, like Ironman, am an evil merchant.

Nevertheless, if this money is going toward drug testing, what happens if the money is provided by the world's anti-doping agencies that finally "get it" about the value Ironman provides them? Or, if Amgen—the EPO maker that has been appropriately sponsoring a large cycling event—has a come-to-Jesus moment about its obligation to our sport, and underwrites Ironman's drug testing program?

If something like this happens, I have it on good authority Ironman will put the now-redundant money into the prize purse. According to my math adding $15,000 to the pro purse at every Ironman race worldwide, and $10,000 to every 70.3, ought to just about do it.

If the prize purses don't go up, that's a good indication most of the world's federations are happy cashing Ironman's checks and providing little in return.


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Drug testing? 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Jim Vance, Nov 27 2009 7:45PM

Good article, but what credibility will the drug testing have when the athletes get to choose when to be entered into the random testing pool, as little time as 4 weeks before the event? There is nothing random about an athlete getting to choose when they can be tested. to

nice article, but... 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: andy, Nov 26 2009 8:43PM

Lets the honest here. Only the top three ITU olympic distance athletes from the the US including the top 3 men and top 3 women are in the the RTP for USAT. Added to that are the top one or two iron distance athletes from the US. Therefore USAT includes at least 1/7 of their RTP athletes from ironman. Making that pool larger will be expensive. Ask the question of your readers...."are you willing to pay double or triple the amount per year for your license fee so that we can include all ironman professionals in the USAT RTP." I'd be shocked if you had a positive response.

Ironman as a World Champs 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Liam, Nov 25 2009 1:17PM

The Hawaiian Ironman is NOT a World Championship race. It is definitely a race where many of the best Ironman athletes race, however it is more of an invitational. To be a true World Championship countries would need to have equal ability to send athletes.

At the moment it is an American race with a largely American field. While there is nothing wrong with having creating the races in America and favouring them for qualification, it is unfair to characterize the race as a true world champs. It should be classified as the Ironman Championships.

I do agree with the article though, Ironman should be fully recognized by USAT although they should not expect everything to be handed to them.

Ironman's Burden 2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Courtney Ogden, Nov 24 2009 7:00PM

I would like to refute the assertion that it is the licensees and not the professionals funding the drug testing program.
I guess the proof is in the bottom line.
As a professional, if I want to race the "Ironman" branded events in 2010, I will be $750 worse off than I was in previous years. No better proof than that.
The licensees will be cutting their expenses in relation to the professionals to make up for the fact that they have to fund the entries of approximately 15 athletes that probably should not be on the start line in the first place.
For example, IMG, the organiser of Ironman Australia, has reduced both their professional appearance fees as well as the pro prize purse for 2010, which was $60000 last year, to the standard $50000.
The fact that IMG even give out appearance fees shows respect to what the pro's bring to their events, and have been put in a difficult situation because of WTC's attempts to shirk their responsibilities.
Despite WTC's "for profit" status, like any company, there is a moral responsibility to make sure their products are safe and legitimate.

great article 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Ben Greenfield, Nov 24 2009 3:43PM

nice rundown dan.