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The Preeminence of Kona

Written by: Jordan Rapp
Date: Fri Sep 02 2011

I was asked on the Slowtwitch Reader Forum, "At what point would I shift my focus from races like IM Canada to Kona".

In my most ideal world, I'll never have to shift my focus to Kona. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't race Kona, or even make it a priority, but I believe that the singular focus of this sport on a single race that is controlled by a for-profit entity that makes decisions based on that status is a bad thing. In other words, WTC could decide to do basically anything with that race, and no one could say anything.

Look at this way: The only race that really, really allows one to "make it" as a long course triathlete is a race, late in the year, in relatively hot relatively humid conditions, that's relatively flat and relatively windy, with an ocean swim. What I mean is that it never changes.

I can think of several corollaries in other sports: The Masters, which is always played at Augusta. Or the Daytona or Indy 500 or Le Mans in auto racing. Or Wimbledon/US Open/French Open in tennis. But in every other case where there is a single event that is of significance, it is neither the overall championship (in the case of NASCAR, Daytona is one of the first races of the year, and has no special impact on who wins the overall series) nor is it the only "championship" (such as with golf with the four Majors or tennis with the Grand Slams).

Simply put, I think the way our sport exists currently, with all roads leading to Kona is a very bad thing.

I would be unhappy if I never raced Kona. However, I would not at all be unhappy if I never raced The Ironman World Championships in Kona. In other words, I think that WTC should make Kona the equivalent of the Daytona 500, and that the World Championships should be held, sometimes in Kona, sometimes in Frankfurt, sometimes in Canada, and so forth. Or they should make it like Wimbledon, with equal calibre races at Germany and some other locations, and perhaps not necessarily have a "World Champion" for pros.

Right now, if you win Kona, you get huge media attention. But if you finish 2nd or 3rd, you basically get nothing. You might get some attention if people think you have a good chance of winning the next year, such as Andreas Raelert, but look at Cameron Brown, who's been on the podium four times. He's finished 2nd twice and 3rd twice. But, especially in 2005 when he finished 2nd, I think he got very little exposure from that. And I think it's because people didn't seem to have the same sense that they do with Andreas Raelert that it was "inevitable" that Cameron would win.

Simply put, WTC has far too much control over the trajectory of a successful long course pro career. And I do not like that, in large part because they haven't necessarily shown that they make decisions with very much regard for how that influence affects pro athletes. Obviously, the ITU also makes drastic decisions—such as the shift to the WCS system—that can have huge impacts as well, but in that case, you have an IF that must respond to NGBs. There's a formal and normal and logical way to protest and address grievances. There’s a system in place with some checks and balances.
Little of this exists with WTC. WTC decided to drop the number of pro slots to 50 men and 30 women this year. There was some very minimal discussion, and I use the term loosely, but, basically, they decided that this was the way it was going to be and that was that. That same sort of decision couldn't happen with something like the ITU. National Federations would protest. And they have leverage. I have zero leverage.

Right now, everyone complains about this, but in the end, the best athletes all go race Kona. But what if they didn't? What if Crowie and Raelert and Lieto and Vanhoenaker all decided to work with Felix Walschoffer and to all race Challenge Roth. And to not race Kona? Sure, Kona still have the right to be called the World Championship, but tell me who you think the best athlete in the world would be? Many folks say, for example, that ITU LD World's is not a meaningful World Championship because the best long distance athletes don't race it. But whose fault is that? Some if it falls on the ITU, for not making it a race of significance. But some of it falls on the athletes for not making a race of significance.

Dan Empfield and I had a conversation along these lines a while back. He wrote something to me that I hadn't considered really. He said that Kona is the birthplace of this sport, and that WTC wasn't just the owners of that race, they were stewards of it. And that, as stewards, they had an obligation to leave it better off than they found it. And I think that's true. And I don't necessarily think they've done a good job of that. However, I also think that, as a person who makes his living as a result of this sport, I also have an obligation to leave this sport better than I found it. And I don't believe that just putting that typical focus on Kona is doing a good job there either. I think Challenge is leaving this sport better than they found it. I think Rev3 is doing the same. I think Lifetime Fitness is as well. And I think WTC has the most enormous ability to do so if they choose to.

But in my ideal world, I'd like to see this sport—for pros—grow beyond a single race on the Big Island in October. And if I can facilitate that in some small way, I'd like to do so.
[Addendum: the entity "WTC" that I refer to above is the Providence Equity Partners-owned entity. The history of WTC and the Ironman brand, from a business standpoint, is as rich as any history of the races themselves. So for those who point to the long history of growing the sport that WTC has to it's credit, I agree, but that is not the WTC that exists right now. This current "iteration" is the entity that I believe has not necessarily been making decisions that are in the good interest of stewardship, but it's also this new entity that I believe has the most potential to do so because of the size and power they have achieved.]


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Great Opinion...for the pros 5 out of 5 stars

My rambling two cents worth.

Reviewed by: Tanner Hunt, Sep 9 2011 8:58AM

Jordan, I couldn't agree more with what you are saying about making their be "majors" for the pros. Kona will always be Kona - even if it is not always the World Championship. Pebble Beach will always be Pebble Beach in golf, regardless if it is hosting the US Open that year or not. Having multiple events throughout the year that bring a complete field of pros and serve as a "major" would be great for the world of triathlon.

However, as an age grouper, I love the idea of Kona. For the amateurs, it is kind of nice to have a "holy grail" to strive for. Most of us don't have the time and money to race multiple big races in a year, and it is nice to have a lifelong goal. Runners have Boston and triathletes have Kona.

Now do I think WTC is doing a good job of being a steward of the sport? No. It costs nearly twice as much to race in their races and more often than not, they don't seem to be run as smoothly as some of the smaller, local races. There are more than a few people I know that won't race a WTC event unless they are specifically trying to qualify for the worlds.

Preeminence Kona 4 out of 5 stars

Jordan Rapp

Reviewed by: Marc Evans , Sep 8 2011 7:05AM

As the ITU in 1989 was forming I strongly advocated (I was the USA Triathlon head coach of the Elite Team at the first world championships in Avignon, France) for the inclusion of an Ironman distance race. I remember Les McDonald (ITU president) sitting across from me in a French café with the sole mission of making triathlon an Olympic sport. And to do so he intransigently felt it needed to be draft legal for what was then known as the Olympic distance (1.5km, 40km and 10km). I remember wincing at the thought as I’d come into the sport with a traditionalist view. And to be sure, he was successful and almost single handedly brought triathlon into the mainstream. But all these years later I still hold to the vision (and have written about this in articles) that the current ITU style of racing is should not be what the public understands to be, “triathlon” but rather, a discipline within triathlon (draft legal triathlon). Much like swimming has an array of pool distances and open water events. Or, Olympic skiing has combined, snowboarding, downhill within Alpine, Freestyle and Cross Country disciplines. Now, Jordan’s article brings into another compelling reason for ITU to consider a multiple of distances at the Olympics. And that is to achieve what Jordan seems to be advocating. An event that is not driven due to it’s for profit interests. And to that, I still believe the ITU and member federations would be well served to put into place the process of multiple disciplines within the sport of triathlon at the Olympic level and World championships. For example, there could be a “Draft-legal” Olympic, a “Non-Drafting” Olympic distance and similarly for other distances up and through the Ironman distance. I did many years ago believe that an Olympic Ironman distance competition would become one of the most highly anticipated races. Now, that’s something for professionals to consider and strive for in earnest in my view.

Nice but ... 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Jim H, Sep 7 2011 11:50AM

Although I understand the perspective that Jordan expresses here, I really can't agree with most that he has to say. Some of it strikes me as somewhat reactionary to not racing in Kona and the perceived stranglehold that he, and others, think WTC has on "Iron" distance pro racing. Although it's never been easy, qualifying for Kona as a pro is even less easy than it was a year or two ago. I can't help but wonder how much of his desire to race in Kona is part of his wish to see the World Championship moved among the various venues thus enabling folks who can not or did not qualify to race on the Kona course. There's absolutely no shame, or lack of talent for those who cannot qualify under a strange point system as a pro or under hyper competitive slot allocations as an age grouper. It just means you didn't qualify, nothing more and nothing less. Personally, I could no longer qualify for Kona if I was still trying, even taking my best times ever into account.

As for WTC, they are not the be all end all of this business. For age groupers they sell an experience. That, apparently, is what the vast majority of age groupers want (no matter what those on the ST forums might think)as the races sell out consistently. For Pro's there are other venues and the list of athletes who for various reasons decided that chasing another Ironman World Championship slot just wasn't worth it is not inconsiderable (Hillary Biscay and Belinda Granger are two that pop into my mind right off the bat.). Finally, it's only a world championship in name. It's no more the deciding race than the world series is for baseball. It's just a race with a big purse. As some one who lives on the Big Island though, I personally don't want the race to be changed to 'just another' Ironman race. If WTC decides to move their "world championship", I'd just as soon have them leave town. Then maybe Challenge or Rev3 can put their own Championship race out here.

Other things to consider 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: forever a triathlete, Sep 6 2011 4:52PM

I don’t disagree with your basic premise of moving the world championships while keeping the Kona race special during the race season. However, how would you propose moving the venue? A selection process could be created but can you imagine one year the event being in Canada in August with the next year slated for Australia… wait a minute summer in Australia is Canada’s winter… does that mean another world championship in 6-months??? I know you are going to say that Sydney held the Summer Olympics is September so what’s the difference. The difference is that all qualifying events for the Olympics are scheduled to fit the Olympic calendar every four years. So let’s say Canada was hosting the Ironman World Championships in August. How many pro triathletes would race Lake Placid, Frankfurt, UK, Switzerland, etc… Would a pro race (full distance) one month out from the world championships with the expectations that their body would be just as good as the pro that used the final month to build for the world championship??? (hmmm… PEDs anyone) On another note... Globally triathlon is a niche sport and bringing value to a sponsor may be very difficult as venues change… (could a sports marketing guru weight in here? It would be great to read your perspective…). How do you keep a niche sport viable and grow (consistency is my guess). Is Providence willing to take their billions in support of the Ironman brand moving around the world. Ironman brand by itself is not powerful enough to dictate to a sizable sponsor like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc… have the ability to do. How about this… Hey Subaru thank you so much for your years of dedication… guess what, Penticton gets to host the world championships this year! We know that you will have to pay triple the sponsorship fee and that your strategy doesn’t really align with Australian or German markets, but we thought it would be fun because it will put Penticton on the map!!! We understand that it is only one year and that our race sells out anyway. How would sponsors react??? Would it kill relationships that have been built???

Like I said I would like to see the event move from destination to destination while holding a special place for Kona, but wonder if at this point in time it is viable. If your idea doesn’t work I’m afraid the ramifications would be great.

Ironman is Kona 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Theodor Seiz, Sep 4 2011 12:16PM

The problem is, that only about 10 triathletes in the world are at the level of athletes in more established sports (marathon running, cycling). So making a "grand slam" would open the door for people "sharing" the important wins, without a race ever happening. I don't care how many times somebody wins New Zealand or Austria, if no other athlete of those 10 shows up.

While in tennis or golf the top athletes can play a major tournament every month, triathletes typically do less long races. So the current format guarantees, that the best meet at least once a year. I see no other chance for that to happen.

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