The Preeminence of Kona

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.]