Give Scott Tinley the task of beating up on a gaggle of pro triathletes on the race course and he's more than capable. Ask him to organize those same professionals into a union that will represent their best interests and you might as well ask him to raise the dead.
Tinley is the latest in a long line of those trying to form a pro union with the traction and momentum to stick around. He wants an organization that can stand up to the International Triathlon Union, World Triathlon Corporation and others who are either causing--or watching--the erosion of any control pro athletes have over their own destiny. No one doubts that the pros have been their own biggest enemies by being too short-sighted to seize opportunities handed them by Bill Leach, Scott Zagarino, David Yates and others. Still, one wonders where the sport would be today without Tinley, Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Julie Moss and other pros like them who hoisted the sport onto their backs to help make triathlon popular and newsworthy enough to become both an Olympic sport and a tradename worth enough to propel Timex to the sports-watch stratosphere. Is it fair that--for all the hard work and accomplishments made by pros before them--the pro triathlete of today has less charge of his destiny now than ever before?
Each day this week Slowtwitch.com will chronicle professional triathletes' efforts to "form a more perfect union," or, failing that, any union that would give pros a piece of the decision-making pie. Results have been mixed and, in the wake of the pontoon plot and the Florida fiasco, the clarion call is again being sounded. While there will be no test on the subject matter below, there will be a gathering on the weekend to paint signs, rehearse "We Shall Overcome," and practice the secret handshake.
Longtime pro and world-champion masters triathlete Bill Leach helped organize the Association of Professional Triathletes back in 1982. It was the first and best chance the pros ever had of making such an association stick.
"It actually started with Team J David," Leach said. "The team's athletes were George Hoover, Mark Allen, both Tinleys, Kathleen McCartney, Scott Molina, John Howard, and others. We had three of the big four. Right after the Ironman in October '82 came the Malibu Triathlon, which was billed as the national championships. People complained, 'What right do you have to call it that?' Plus the fact that it came about three weeks after the Ironman, which was too soon.
"It was good that there were new, big races, but it was a made-for-TV race, and there were problems. Like very little traffic control. We were zipping through signals thinking that everything was under control, but it wasn't."
A month later International Management Group (or IMG, a large sports agency conglomerate) conducted the first Nice Triathlon. It was November and the athletes weren't enamored of a race in the beginning of winter. The next big event came in March, again organized by IMG, in Marbella, Spain. This would have been the third marathon run trailing the swim and bike since Ironman. The J David team balked at going because it was too early and the distances were too run-oriented.
"But we wanted it more our way," Leach said. "Barry Frank from IMG came out, they picked him up with the J David limo, we were all in the offices, and he said, 'What's it going to take?' We said, 'We're not going to come unless you equalize the money, men versus women, you change the date, and you make the distances more fair.'" The athletes got what they wanted.
The experience galvanized them into forming a union--the Association of Professional Triathletes, or APT--which would protect their interests and the interests of those less powerful.
"We could have just worked as a team and done our thing," Leach said, "but a sort of an altruistic attitude came out of the organization. J David was a complete scam, of course; financially, it was all a ponzi scheme, but we didn't know it, and we developed a lot of high ideals, like, 'Hey, you guys, continue your education, save your money, this isn't going to last forever.'
"Plus, there was no track record of women's inequality, and none of that bickering that some sports have with separate men's and women's organizations and events, like pro volleyball, pro surfing, that still holds those sports back. We had a 'Let's get it right' attitude."
Leach was president, but they needed a marketing specialist. The group was introduced to Larry King (not of CNN fame; this King was a tennis promoter and Billie Jean King's husband).
Said Leach: "He came over from Kauai to see us. It was a great interview; he had great connections with sports world, with the TV world, knew everybody, knew Barry Frank. He was an endurance athlete himself; he had done Western States five times. So we hired him, sort of on a contingency thing, he wasn't getting paid on a regular basis, but J David put up the money. Some went to expenses, and I took a leave of absense from teaching and the team paid me to start this up. Larry's job was to try and get TV to cover events. The way he envisioned things, it would be like tennis. If all these athletes banded together and went to one event, it would make the event big."
The APT also had a ranking system, arguably as good as any that has been contrived since then. It stood against appearance money, and several times the athletes declined start money to have it thrown into the prize purse instead. Membership in the APT cost nothing at the time of joining, but an athlete had to pay the organization 10 percent of prize money earned at an APT race.
But suddenly J David folded, Jerry Dominelli began serving a "dime" (as they say on crime TV), and the athletes were worried about money. This coincided with the rise of the sports agent in triathlon: Murphy Reinschrieber, Charlie Graves and others. They asked the top pros why APT should negotiate with a race when an agent could get a lone high-profile athlete a lot more. Then came the crushing blow. Mark Allen signed a deal with IMG right before the '84 Nice race. That was the beginning of the end of the APT.
"We were at the race hotel during the 1988 Bermuda Triathlon," said Scott Zagarino. "Julie Moss and Mark Allen came up to me and said, 'We're going to start a pro association, and we're going to have a meeting at the pool. Can you come?' The issues were the same as today, 'Race directors are abusing us,' stuff like that. But as usual the athletes were themselves too busy to take responsibility for any of the day-to-day stuff. So they asked, 'Who's going to organize it?' Julie said, 'How about Scott?' So they voted it me in. No pay, of course.
"I set about talking to all the people who would be affected by an organization like this, and I sensed that they wanted a lobbying arm more than anything. But I had to find out what the athletes would be willing to do if push came to shove. What if the athletes had to boycott a race? From my casual observation, the only one who I could be assured would walk the walk was Erin [Baker].
"So I went to the ITU and said, 'These are the athletes' concerns and here is how I intend to represent them.' Les McDonald said, 'We intend to have an athletes' commission; this sounds like a good vehicle for expression, so you can address the next congress.'"
IFET, the International Federation of Elite Triathletes: The name itself gave the newest pro union a lot of leverage because it was a federation, just like USA Triathlon or any other national federation. But they considered themselves the federation without a country--or, to put it another way, they were from the country of Athlete.
Said Zagarino: "Various sops were thrown to the athletes by different federations: 'We'll form a committee;' 'We'll address your concerns.' Our position was that we don't want our feelings presented, but that, this is a list of things that need to happen. Period. Like out-of-competition drug testing. This was Point One of IFET."
The new union got together with Mark Sisson, who is now treasurer of the ITU but was unafilliated at that time. Sisson wrote up the entire drug-testing protocol--the collection process, which labs would do the testing, everything down to what kind of adhesive would seal the containers. USAT (TriFed at the time) was very keen to adopt the system set up by Sisson. Within a year of the protocol development the first out-of-competition testing was performed in San Diego.
As is the case with any such organization, IFET's success was built on the fact that every high-level pro in the sport was a member. Not everyone in the political scene was against or afraid of IFET. Les McDonald, then and still president of the ITU, was in large part supportive. His own organization's athlete committees are offshoots of IFET. The relationship was strained when it became political but, as Zagarino puts it, "When Erin marched in to the Avignon [during the 1989 triathlon world championships] organizers' meeting and said, 'We aren't racing unless you make the prize money equal for men and women,' Les said, 'You go, girl.'"
Truly, it does seem that although the athletes are constantly upbraided for their inability to install a union for themselves, the IFET experience at least left a legacy of accomplishments.
"It has always bothered me that people say that none of the pro associations ever did anything," Zagarino said. "Now, wait a second. Complete drug testing protocol; ten full-page ads in Triathlete Magazine with the headline, 'Triathletes Against Drugs.'" Add to that the athletes committees in both ITU and USAT, equal prize money for men and women, and IFET has made a lasting difference, most or all for the better.
But without an adequately funded administrative structure, the athletes were having a difficult time communicating effctively. It is the nature of pro athletes to be spread out and on the move, and it was difficult for members to reach a consensus on anything. David Backer, at the time an influential board member of TriFed (USA Triathlon, America's national governing body for triathlon, was formerly called "Triathlon Federation," or TriFed for short), invited IFET to be an organization under TriFed's wing, giving IFET the infrastructure it needed. Backer met with an IFET representative group that included Ray Browning, Zagarino and others. IFET was to become an athletes committee under TriFed and would be called USPAC (U.S Pro Athletes Commission).
IFET's price for joining TriFed was the installment of four new TriFed by-laws: that a reasonable percentage of the board had to be elite athletes chosen by their peers; that any successful resolution involving the pros could only be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the board; that any money coming into USAT from the U.S. Olympic Committee had to be distibuted by USPAC; and finally, that these by-laws could only be overturned by unanimous vote of the board. Points one, two and four sailed through unobstructed.
"David Backer hit the ceiling when we got to item number three," Zagarino recalled. "USAT was always an underfunded organization, and although triathlon was not yet an Olympic sport, it was apparent that Olympic status was coming and there was no way he was going to let the pros get hold of the USOC money that was just around the corner."
Backer had side meetings with several of the pros on that day, prevailing upon them to relax their demand on issue three. Zagarino thinks the pros gave in too easily, but several of the pros remember feeling that USAT's control over the money was a desirable thing. The absence of the "heat of battle" has diminished the strong feelings Zagarino once held on the subject. Along with a sense of accomplishment, there are some lingering regrets. "Ray and I had a shouting match that still dents our friendship," he said.
Backer prevailed on point three. IFET became USPAC, gaining three of the four points on its platform. Several of the pros thought that the structure and organization USAT provided made it a better financial steward and that it should husband both USPAC and USOC money. Others were outraged that these funds, earmarked only for pro athletes' use, would be controlled and disbursed by entities other than the athletes themselves. The most notable and vocal critic was Murphy Reinschreiber, agent to many of the world's best pro triathletes.
"Murphy was apoplectic about the coming of the Olympics and the uniforms the athletes would have to wear," Zagarino said. "If you're going to trade off having to wear a federation uniform, then by God you better get the USOC money. This was Murphy's view, which was reasonable. Exactly what Murphy said has come to pass--you've got athletes getting three plane tickets while the federation gets a half-million-dollar check. The athletes stay in barracks--look at where the federation executives stay."
Even with only three-fourths of its slate carried, USPAC had the best deal in town. A pro organization inside a national governing body with this much power was almost unprecedented. USPAC eventually underwent a name-change--becoming the U.S. Professional Triathletes and Duathletes Committee--to make the organization's name more descriptive of the athletes it represented. The USPTDC was largely in control of its own budget, made many of its own funding decisions, and was therefore under only partial control by the USA Triathlon board.
But when funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee became imminent, the non-pro members of the USAT board sat the pros down and told them that the USOC would not admit USAT as the national governing body, or NGB, for triathlon--and therefore would not make USAT eligible for USOC money (potentially totalling millions of dollars)--if pro athletes retained such a great deal of leverage over their own destinies. They would have to give up the power they had taken so long to get. And they had to give it up freely, since the board could not take it from them without a unanimous vote.
Ron Rowan, a legal counsel for USOC for 18 years, was the liaison for the USOC's membership committee when sizing up USAT for membership. "You have to understand that an organization wishing to become an NGB has to go through the membership committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which reviews the info relating to the application and checks to see if the NGB meets the requirements. I was the staff liaison for the membership committee; we reviewed the info with respect to USAT's becoming a Pan-American member. Triathlon was the only sport I can remember that first got on the Pan-American agenda and in almost no time got on the Olympic agenda. When the membership committee first reviewed the organization, it spotted a few items which were problematic."
It was a USOC tenet of faith that an organization seeking NGB status must have in its executive makeup at least a 20 percent athlete representation (meaning an athlete recently on--or currently capable of serving on--a national team representing their sport in high-level international competition). A proposed NGB also had to be free of ties to any secondary or ancillary group that might keep it from acting independently. Ironically, the pro's organization was seen by the USOC not as a group that would ensure athlete representation but as an entity that kept USAT from being independent.
The athletes took at face value statements by those with whom they spoke at USAT and USOC that they needed to choose between giving up their rights freely--thereby clearing the way for USOC membership--and keeping their rights and risking the possibility that the USOC would not allow USAT to have NGB status. The athletes, along with the rest of the board, unanimously voted to suspend the rights given to the USPTDC. A new group with new rules of play was formed, named the Athletes Advisory Council--and the name says it all. Athletes who refused to race in triathlon's first world championship without the promise of fair and equal prize money distribution begot, in the end, an association that has the power to utter suggestions but not ultimatums.
Jimmy Riccitello has been as involved in this mutating organization as anyone, from its early days as IFET, through USPAC, USPTDC, and has been a board member of USA Triathlon, representing pro athletes off-and-on during this time. In fact, on the 29th of November, 1999, he was informed that he had again been voted to sit on USAT's board as AAC representative. He has surprisingly kind words for his national federation, considering the bumps and bruises that come with political service as long as his. "No other country listens to their athletes as well as ours," says Riccitello. "This is largely because of the AAC. Also, USAT has been pretty good at working with us. The AAC's recommendations regarding pro/elite issues is taken seriously."
He has been less impressed with triathon's world governing body. "The ITU will argue that they have an athlete organization, and athlete representation. It is true that the athletes now have a voice within the ITU, which is more than we used to have. Unfortunately, for the most part, that voice falls on deaf ears. Rules are set to keep groups such as ours from having too much say or power."
Riccitello is also critical of USAT's myopia when it comes to multisport activities in which there is no significant championship agenda set forward by the ITU. "USAT has been the best thing going for a few triathletes. Those who want to go to the Olympics. However, USAT's current direction does not do much for the future of most professional triathletes. Some athletes want to go to the Olympics because they think this is the best way for them to make money or get free stuff. In a few cases this may be true, but it is very narrow thinking. These athletes are not looking at the big picture. As a boardmember it was these two issues that I tried to blend: the interests of the triathletes chasing the Olympic dream, and the interest of the triathlete trying to make a living. My goals are to make sure the future of pro triathletes is being looked after, and the sport itself remains sound for everyone. We pros can have a lot to do with the success of triathlon in the future--for all athletes, not just pros."
Pro triathlete Rob Mackle called for a meeting of athletes at what is now the Marriott Suites hotel in Solana Beach at the end of 1992. Mark Allen and Julie Moss, Tinley, Newby-Fraser, various Europeans including Simon Lessing, were all there. Too many athletes to count. A who's who of the pro triathlon world showed up.
Mackle proceeded to outline a proposed new pro triathlon union. It was to be funded and run by Peter DeGeorge, who became a millionaire through the sales of affordable custom housing. DeGeorge's ties to the triathlon world were chiefly through his wife, a top age-group tri/duathlete, and the DeGeorge racing team, which included Mackle and others.
Triathletes are fiercely independent. Pro triathletes are also quite proprietary. Even in a sport this small they prefer to be the masters of their own destinies, preferring "ruling in hell" to "serving in heaven."
Heaven is what Mackle proposed. DeGeorge would negotiate on the athletes' behalf with race organizers. He would handle sponsorships. He would, in fact, be granted almost power-of-attorney status. And he would fund the entire operation himself. Mackle proposed a series of races backed by the union, much like the model set up by the APT a decade earlier. Athletes would have to attend a significant number of races each year.
Mackle didn't get far into the pitch before some of the athletes began piping up. Tinley said he was doing fine, and wanted to know why he should give up his power to DeGeorge. Lessing said that this was an American problem. "American's have screwed up the sport for themselves, but things are fine for us in Europe. And we don't intend to make the same mistakes there that you Americans have here." Englishman Glen Cooke agreed.
The meeting devolved into a rift between America-based athletes on the one hand and Europeans on the other. But other factions became evident. Long-distance racers complained about the unfairness of having to compete in the same number of races as would short-distance athletes.
DeGeorge as a triathlon union was dead on arrival.
The smoldering feud between the International Triathlon Union and the World Triathlon Corporation erupted into full-scale warfare during the winter of 1997/98. WTC's use of the term "Ironman Triathlon World Championship" had been a festering sore to the ITU, which bristled at any "unauthorized" use of the terms "world" or "championship" by any triathlon promoter. The sides were far apart on any accommodation, and from WTC's prospective, ITU was retaliating with a low-level guerrilla war designed to erode the value of the Ironman as an event and a marketing property. WTC was preparing to sue the ITU for unfair trade practices, and the ITU was engaged in a separate battle with Pacific Sports Enterprises of Australia, the owner of the rights to ITU's Triathlon World Cup. It also had to contend with the competing International Triathlon Grand Prix (ITGP), which staged a series of short, high prize-purse, inventive-format races which attracted many of the name pros away from the ITU's races. This seemed like the perfect time to engage the distracted ITU on another front, and the Professional Triathlete's Guild was formed.
Twenty years ago Alvin Chriss was steeped in athletes' issues and rights while serving as special assistant to Ollan Cassell, who was then executive director of America's track-and-field's national federation (later USA Track and Field). It was Chriss who pioneered the TACTrust system that allowed runners to keep their prize money earnings (and maintain Olympic eligibility) in a trust, drawing only for living and training expenses. Chriss quit USATF in the early '90s and involved himself in a variety of ventures involving triathlon, making the acquaintances of athlete agent Murphy Reinshcreiber, WTC president David Yates, and others.
Chriss witnessed the attempt by the Deutsche Triathlon Union to stop Jurgen Zack from competing in the Hawaiian Ironman because of his participation in the Koblenz ITGP race. He saw the national federation of Brazil warning athletes of their banishment from Brazilian federation events should they compete in the popular Santos event, a non-sanctioned, big-purse Brazilian race. Chriss approached Yates and asked for his help in starting a pro athlete organization.
The Professional Triathlete Guild hit the ground running with a gaggle of top-named athletes on the board, including president Mark Allen, and World Champions Jackie Gallagher, Simon Lessing and Greg Welch. Chriss found the new e-newsletter Triathlon Digest the perfect vehicle for spreading the gospel of the PTG. Chriss and Digest editor Katherine Williams first met when she was a journalist in 1982 and Chriss was working for Cassell. They renewed their friendship and found their goals offered a profitable synergy.
Williams remembers the beginnings of the PTG: "[Its] first public statements came just before Hawaii in 1997-- PTG initially posted directly to the Digest. Then Alvin got his own separate mailing list going, though there was considerable overlap. I was just pleased initially because the PTG postings were the meatier parts of the Digest in those days, and people loved reading them for the 'inside story' of what was really occurring in triathlon. Alvin loved tossing his darts and watching them land. He really did. He would relish that, and speculate how he imagined ITU would react and respond. He spent his days trying to out-think Les McDonald. It was truly a battle of wits."
The PTG reached its zenith in April, 1998. At the pre-race briefing of the ITU world cup opener in Ishigaki, Japan, the competitors were handed an "athletes contract" specifying exactly how their competition uniforms would be allowed to read. Among other things, athletes' sponsor logos were to be subordinated to the ITU's (as then nonexistent) sponsors on the front of their uniforms.
Greg Welch faxed the contract to Reinschreiber, who was at Ironman Australia on that very weekend with Chriss. Both were trained as lawyers, and commenced advising Welch how to scratch out certain clauses prior to signing. Nick Munting, working the press room as media coordinator for Ironman Australia, remembers, "Mark Allen and Alvin were together most waking moments they were not working on other things, with Murphy riding shotgun. I was working the fax machine. Thanks to Alvin's efficiency there was not much to do. But it was also clear that the people from Triathlon Australia were quite nervous that all this was unfolding on their turf!"
The ITU was counting on the element of surprise. How could athletes, who'd already flown to an event in a foreign country, on another continent, in another time zone, on a weekend, and therefore out of touch with representatives, do anything to combat the fait accompli the ITU presented them? But Chriss and Reinshcreiber were in Australia, virtually the same time zone as the athletes. The powerbase of PTG was all assembled: braintrusts in Australia, athletes in Japan.
Not since 1989, at Avignon, had the ITU faced an athlete revolt. But while the battle was then simply against the French federation, on issues quietly in line with the interests of the ITU, in this fight the athletes were taking on the ITU itself. The ITU backed down. But, as Williams remembered, "While PTG may have scored a hit on that day, it wasn't enough. Alvin proposed that a sit-down strike at the starting line of ITU World Cup-Sydney later that month would be in order. But that definitely didn't get the support of the PTG athletes who would be most affected-- namely, Greg Welch and Jackie Gallagher. That's when they got scared. That's when they said, 'We have to race, whatever ITU puts over on us. We need the prize money, the points, etc. We can't go against our federations.' By then, Jackie was under huge pressure from Triathlon Australia to cut ties with PTG, and with the Olympics in her sights, she backed off."
To her credit, Jackie Gallagher was one of the few athletes who really did work at it. She remembers of her experience, "It was too negative and too aggressive towards certain groups, i.e., the ITU. I said that many times within the group. This aggressive stance alienated a lot of pros from supporting it." Gallagher has taken a more conciliatory approach now, working withing the ITU's athlete committee. "The ITU isn't always the bad guy everyone makes it out to be. There are reasons behind what they do, more often than not. Unfortunately, like in anything, those who criticise the most don't know the full story."
All PTG efforts came to an abrupt stop when Chriss was diagnosed with brain cancer in early May, 1998. It was a rapid decline for him, only about six weeks between diagnosis and dying. While the athletes were the front-men and -women for the organization, Chriss was the workhorse, ironically reminiscent of the way Les MacDonald would wear out everyone in triathlon's fax machine in the formative years of the ITU. "You could say," says Williams, "that when Alvin died, so did PTG. He was very proud--as he should have been--of having called attention to pros' issues."
Chriss was probably the most connected man in triathlon. He amusingly chronicled in January 1998 for Tri Digest readers what Williams remembers as "the delightful avoidance dance with the [process] server: the three-week-long escapade of the server trying to give [WTC lawsuit] papers to Les. The server provided all the notes of his attempts to WTC, Alvin got ahold of them. Alvin also cultivated much support privately-- like the Bray brothers in Australia [owners of the ITGP]. And eventually Alvin also got through to David Culbert at PSE. I'm not sure who all of Alvin's sources were, but he was getting fed ITU stuff that just amazed me."
PTG had something that any successful athletes' union seems to need: funding from a well-heeled source. It just wasn't very up-front about it. It wasn't driven by athletes' beliefs, it was driven by the WTC. Chriss was paid by WTC as a consultant, and he was the attorney who drew up WTC's complaint against the ITU. That was the facade that no one knew about, that while the PTG appeared to be the biggest athlete threat ever to the ITU, it was mostly the work of WTC. Maybe this was the PTG's undoing, that the work, the vision, the funding, was handed to the athletes on a silver platter. All they had to do was to take the ball and run with it. But they didn't. So many of the athletes were so esconced in their Olympic dreams that they wouldn't rock the boat, at any cost.
Where The Pros Go From Here
Our series began by referencing Scott Tinley's recent call to arms. Leading up to this year's Hawaiian Ironman he suggested a meeting of pro athletes on the island. Tinley's plea might stem from the plain, indisputable fact that a pro triathlete's bargaining power is at its lowest ebb in history. And that was before the ITU floated the pontoon idea, and before a recent Florida race set what many people believe is the worrisome precedent of staging an Ironman that offered no prize money.
If you are a pro triathlete, one of your problems is that there are many more of you than ever before, covering several multisport sub-specialties. That fact alone diminishes your ability to distinguish yourself as somebody special. There is also somebody always ready and willing to take your place on the starting line should you decide to stage a boycott. And, frankly, everybody knows you won't stage a boycott because "management" expects you to react like those who came before you: You'd rather carbo-load on grubs and bark beetles than risk the possibility of management calling your bluff.
This was always to be expected. For every resolute, well-spoken, value-added professional like Dave Scott or Paula Newby-Fraser there were ten others who called themselves pros but were--from a business point of view--simply amateurs who carried a pro card. Historically, most pro triathletes were like pros in other sports: Many barely finished high school, if that. Most have never worked in a professional field or spent time under a corporate mentor but were simply victims of their own talent, so gifted they could enter the field of professional sports while still teen-agers. Is it a wonder most pros didn't, and still don't, understand the concept of payment commensurate with value delivered? Can one truly expect them--as a group--to have internalized the virtues which often only spring forth after time served in the corporate world: loyalty, strength, and the value of a promise kept?
The inescapable truth is that pro triathletes are unable to govern themselves, nor can the majority offer a value to match the money they are paid. Twenty years of history proves this point. Many pros realize this, and therefore have chosen the best course apparently available to them--having a seat at the table of their "employer," which in this case is the national or world governing body. But when push comes to shove, when the two sides are at cross-purposes, who will win that battle? If we draw conclusions based on 20 years of history, is it not also prudent to consider the past 100 years? The fact is that since the Industrial Age, workers and management have often existed as two sides in detente--but as two sides nonetheless. While this was often the case in industry, it has been absolutely the case in all vibrant pro sports.
The pros have been sliding through the '90s in pretty good shape, all things considered. While as a group they have not been particularly crosswise of anybody, they've prospered by hunkering down--under the line of fire--and watching others battle it out for their services. In the world of supply and demand, you're in pretty good shape when WTC, ITU, ITGP and other acronyms not here named feel that a pro presence at their races is mandatory. But prosperity only came in an environment of enmity. Now everybody is getting along.
If the pros do come together, it will only be when and if they can find a strong source of funding, enough discontent to cause a critical mass of name athletes to band together, and a business talent who'll take the job as executive director. The enterprising candidate for the latter must understand governing bodies, sponsors, race promoters and the media. He must be smart, tough, hard-working and a hell of a salesman. He must know the sport inside and out. (Slowtwitch's own candidate for the job is former USTS chief Mike Plant.) That still leaves the problem of funding.
PTG's source of funding was WTC. But as we now see, that organization is as big a concern to pros as is ITU or any other organization. Under former president David Yates WTC had an ironclad policy that every race bearing the name "Ironman" must offer a minimum $50,000 prize purse. Obviously that's not the situation now and--for the present time--amateurs don't seem to notice.
It seems the money would best come from a source outside the triathlon establishment. Start-up funds might come from a consortium of sponsors loyal to triathlon, preferably from privately held--and therefore privately controlled--companies. Mrs. T's Pierogies comes to mind. Not many companies in triathlon compete against Tim Twardzik's maker of pasta-party favorites, and he's well-known and loved by almost all pros. Few would mind his brand gaining exposure at events associated with a pro tour. Such a strategic move could net Twardzik a presence at every large pro event.
But the pros must start to think about the services they deliver. The DeGeorge and APT models were probably correct: a series of events, a tour, that pros must patronize. Pros must make themselves more available to race promoters and media, to sponsors, to charities, to youth sports programs, and to their governing bodies. They must take the lead in cleaning up their sport. It is astonishing, for example, that no pro triathlete has taken the initiative to proactively publicize his or her own hematocrit levels, even though many pros routinely have such tests conducted. What a boon it would be to this sport if its athletes were the first to do so, of their own accord!
Were such a group to form it would likely be among the long-distance athletes. They are more well-known, earn more money, and therefore have more clout and staying power should it come down to a fight. WTC, cementing its grip on the de-facto title as the only long-distance enterprise that means anything, would feel the heat from its sponsors and licensees if Ironman's star athletes declined participation without an increase in Hawaii's prize purse and a minimum cash-purse standard at other Ironman events. ITU athletes, on the other hand, are too many to count, earn less than Ironman athletes, have their qualifying points to think about, and, frankly, the ITU has no pressure point. Since it currently has no strong sponsor base there is nobody to pressure. Most triathlon governing body money comes from Olympic committees, which aren't beholden to public opinion.
Scott Tinley recently finished his final Hawaiian Ironman. He regretfully related that, "You know that Dave Scott doesn't hold any weight in Kona anymore when even he can't get onto the pier to greet me at the finish of my farewell race." There is a theory that everything goes in cycles. That is the one hope that pro triathletes have. In terms of power this is certainly their low ebb, and there is nowhere but up.