De-Link Kona from its Perennial WC Status

The COVID pandemic has been a curse to the world, but there have been small "wins," including inside our own circle. The volume of bikes imported into the U.S. (for sale in the U.S.) had fallen each year since 2012 (a big year), but 2020 imports were way back up to 2012 levels (and would have been higher had we been able to get all the bikes we wanted). Same with running. In a painful irony it took a global disease to shake endurance sport out of its doldrums, and the run and bike booms bode well for triathlon.

About triathlon, we only have one problem: Every time there’s a COVID flareup there’s a race flaredown. This doomed Kona for the third time (October of last year, Feb of this year, October of this year, and we’ll see about February of 2022). This caused IRONMAN’s CEO, Andrew Messick, to drop the following fuel-air bomb yesterday: The World Championship could move from Kona.

Sometimes events just break your way, and if I were running the company I’d blame the pandemic for forcing me into a decision that – happily – makes by far the most business sense. Here are the following reasons why the World Championships should move from Kona.

A roving World Championship legitimizes the title

We already have that for 70.3, and if that wasn’t the best model for IRONMAN they wouldn’t have done it this way. Triathlon's world governing body tried twice to strip IRONMAN of its right to declare its races World Championships, and lost each (in 1998 and 2004, if memory serves). Nevertheless, IRONMAN has been the subject of sniping, as in it’s the “self-proclaimed” WC. Sure. So is every WC. The body legally entitled to bestow the WC self-proclaims its WC. Nevertheless, this and the fact that the race is owned by a “for profit corporation” dog IRONMAN, as if the IOC were purer and cleaner than entities like the IRONMAN. It’s not what you are that makes your race worthy of the honor of WC. It’s what you do with that honor. Treating the full distance WC as it treats the half-distance WC proves the worth of the WC designation.

It internationalizes the brand

IRONMAN will be seen as a U.S.-centric enterprise until it internationalizes the WC. Of course IRONMAN is already internationalized, but it’s only half like soccer, which no country can claim as its own. I'ts also half like the NFL playing football games in London. IRONMAN has done a magnificent job spreading the brand to the world, but it can't escape the fact that every WC is contested at one time on the calendar, in one hemisphere, in one topography, one weather paradigm, in one country. IRONMAN's full distance WC is really only a WC of those who race well in a particular place in the U.S.

IRONMAN makes a lot more money

Kona has something over the IRONMAN. It always knows (well, it thinks, erroneously in my opinion) that IRONMAN risks a lot by messing with success. If the Olympics had remained all these years in Athens, and the IOC had a dead fear of moving it from Athens, who would offer a sweeter financial incentive to host the Olympics? Beijing? Los Angeles? Or Athens?

You inoculate yourself against the sort of thing happening right now

I don’t blame Hawaii one bit for cracking down on travel and canceling large events. Nevertheless, if you are a large event, and you’re nailed to Hawaii, you are swept up in Hawaii’s decisions, and in Kona's proximity to peril. The problem isn’t Hawaii. It’s any one place. If it’s not a pandemic it’s a volcano. Or a city government with a less-rosy idea of what IRONMAN means to its town. (Imagine if the first IRONMAN had been raced in Lake Placid and that was the perennial WC.)

And the biggie: you get to host mens and womens races on separate days

Why don’t they do this in Kona? Because Kona doesn’t want to. Hosting mens and womens events on Saturday and Sunday means a fairer race; a safer race; and more people racing. In fact, you could host separate WC races, in different places. The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials have been contested separately; I don’t see the problem. If a town wants to host both genders on one weekend, great, then you take advantage of the infrastructure you've already set up. If not, also great, you split up the genders and give each its own fully-vested WC. You get to vest each qualifying race with more slots and vest new races with WC slots. You aren’t hobbled by how many bikes you can fit on Kona’s pier.

You still keep Kona

Kona is still Kona and always will be, just as Boston is still Boston and nobody cares that it's not a WC. Maybe Kona remains the World Championship once every four or six years. IRONMAN Kona will do fine. In fact, perhaps Kona will now be sized appropriate to the event a significant cohort of locals want.

This pandemic has been a terrible hardship for millions, perhaps billions, of people. Tough decisions have been made. Some of those decisions have yielded a benefit. CEOs who always wondered what it would be like to have a telecommuting workforce did not have a choice. They were forced into that experiment. Lo! Good workers can be trusted to do their work from home!

Likewise IRONMAN has had to make hard decisions, but sometimes your adaptive behavior, while scary, yields a benefit. There is a moment inside a six-month (or so) window starting soon during which IRONMAN could announce this change. Yes, it's a scary leap, but into an almost-certain brighter future. If IRONMAN had been contemplating this anyway, the vicissitudes of the pandemic make this an easier sell.

There is a robust thread on our Reader Forum for those who want to discuss this.