Why did IRONMAN decide on that controversial Kona split?

News Director

In the first part of our in-depth interview with IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick we got the inside track on how he and his organisation came to the realisation that a two-day format simply wasn’t going to be possible in Kona next year.

Reflecting on that he told us: “The benefits of two days of racing and more people in town and more economic activity at hotels and restaurants and all of that was just not in balance with the impact that many, many, many people felt – particularly on the Thursday.

Two days in Kona a no-go

“We’ve been in Kona for 40 years and we have a very deep relationship with the community and the people there. And if we are not going to be able to look ourselves in the mirror every day and say that we’re good partners with the community, that’s a real issue for us. And so in consultation with the Mayor and the county and different community groups, it just became clear that two days wasn’t going to work.”

Since the announcement many have suggested alternative ways of two days in Kona, but essentially they were all non starters according to Messick: “It wasn’t just Thursday and Saturday that wasn’t going to work. It’s that Saturday / Saturday wasn’t going to work. And that one day in October and one day some other time of the year, that wasn’t going to work either. The pact that we have with the community is that they’re prepared for IRONMAN to come to town once a year.”

Women deserve their own day

But that left Messick in a difficult position which he freely admits: “Where we found ourselves was we made two promises. We promised men and women each their own day of racing, and we promised that everybody was going to race in Kona in 2023. And we realised that we couldn’t keep both promises, and then we were forced to choose which one. 

“So do you have everybody racing one day in Kona or do you have women and men each have their own day, but one of those isn’t in Kona. And ultimately, I think our decision was we felt it’s vitally important in the long term to have two days of racing, that women deserve their own day. And if women are going to deserve and get their own day, then both genders can’t race in Kona in the same year at least.”

I think our view is that two days of racing is the right answer.

Asked to expand why, he adds: “It’s the right answer, really, for two reasons. The first is just women deserve their own day, they deserve the spotlight, they deserve an opportunity for professional and age-group women to really be the centre of attention. And I think we’re on the absolute right side of history on this. 

“If you look at this last year, with the women’s Rugby World Cup selling out Eden Park in Auckland and the European Football Championships for women selling out Wembley. Or the Tour de France Femmes setting records in terms of attendance and viewership.

“In all three of those things people were rewarded with extraordinary competition. Like the quality and the calibre and the skilfulness of the athletes, I think they really highlighted just how extraordinary top-tier women’s sports can be. And we feel the same way in IRONMAN, and we feel that in 2022, it wasn’t just Chelsea [Sodaro] that had a great race, but there were eight or 10 women that tried to win. And it was an extraordinary race. And I think we’re all enormously proud of that. 

“We couldn’t say to Chelsea: ‘Great job. I hope you enjoyed being at the front of the race. It’s never going to happen again, because we’re back to one day of Kona and you’re going to be overshadowed by the men’s race’. That just didn’t sit right with any of us.

chelsea-sodaro-kona-2022-run
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for IRONMAN)

“And then the second reason why I think it’s important to have two days of racing is it’s gotten steadily harder and harder and harder to qualify for Kona. In a lot of age groups, you have to win your age group to get a slot. And I think it’s just slowly but inexorably become more difficult to get to the World Championship. And I think we just don’t feel right about that either. 

“IRONMAN’s gotten bigger, we have more qualifying races, we’ve got more athletes competing than we’ve ever had before. And you can’t feed all the mouths we want to feed with one 2,500 athlete race, we need two days. And it worked for us at the 70.3 Worlds – our experience with the 70.3 Worlds has been immensely successful.”

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Was it a business decision?

Asked how much of that is a business decision, Messick turned the question around a little: “Between IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3, I think we’re going to have 170 events in 2022. And there’s a huge appetite for people competing in these types of races. And we want people to feel like they have a chance, if they really try hard and apply themselves, that they’ve had a chance to qualify for a World Championship. 

“I’m personally not good enough to go to Kona, but I’ve qualified twice for 70.3 Worlds, and you are proud of that. I’m not good enough to ever win my age group, but if I have a really good day and get a little bit of help on the rolldown, I have a chance. And I think that aspirational nature of being in the hunt to qualify for Worlds really matters. And again, as we get bigger and bigger and more and more people from Indonesia and India and different parts of Africa and Latin America and Eastern Europe all race, it adds so much to the event for them to be truly international. 

“But it also means getting to that race, you’re competing with athletes from literally every corner of the earth, which is both sort of exciting and terrifying at the same time.”

So there you have the two over-riding reasons, from IRONMAN’s perspective as to why they’ve made the decision they have.

But there’s still an important aspect to add and that’s the fact we don’t yet know the location of the alternative / parallel venue to Kona, which in 2023 will host the men and in 2024 the women.

Talking venues

Nice in the south of France has been heavily rumoured and while Messick wouldn’t be drawn on confirming or denying that – instead saying all will be revealed in the second week in January – he did provide some more detail.

“I mean, I can’t really talk about this, but look, this all had to come together pretty quickly. Our focus was on communities with whom we had relationships and confidence and trust. We weren’t expecting this to happen. We’ve done the best we can, and I think that people will be pleased when we’re in a position to be able to announce the details.

Andrew Messick CEO IRONMAN Group
Andrew Messick, CEO of IRONMAN Group.

“It’s quite complex and the complexity largely has to do with the venue and open dates in various years in various places. And there’s political events, there’s cultural events, there’s other sporting events, there’s lots of reasons and lots of blocked dates on calendars for communities all around the world. We need to be sensitive to that and respectful of that, but I think we’re trying to thread the needle to the best of our ability.” 

And asked if there’s a clear favourite or a shortlist a smile does cross his face after what has clearly been a hectic few days and weeks: “I think we’ve narrowed it. We’ve narrowed it down quite substantially.” 

And he did underline that whatever the venue, the commitment will be for “a minimum of two years” and very probably longer: “And that’s because we want both men and women to have an opportunity to race in that venue. And whether it becomes permanent, semi permanent, rotating after two years or not, like, we really just don’t know right now. I think that our view is we’d like to be there for a while and then see what happens. 

“We’ve never done this before, and a year ago or two months ago, if you told me what was going to happen, I’d have told you something pretty different. But I believe that we’re going to be in a position to be there a minimum of two years, maybe a bit longer, and then we’ll see what happens.”

That does also beg the question as to whether things could change at Kona in that space of time but he’s not holding his breath: “Our thinking right now is that in our foreseeable planning cycle, there isn’t two days of Kona in the works but if circumstances change, that would be an exciting development. But I don’t think any of us have a ton of confidence that’s going to happen right now.”

So that brings us to the here and now but attention now clear switches to the weeks and months ahead and some awkward questions to answer as athletes – both pros and age groupers – and many others with vested interests deal with what lies ahead in practical terms.

That’s the focus of part three…

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