IRONMAN Kona analysis: Everybody gets what nobody wants

Chief Correspondent

The spiritual home of the IRONMAN World Championship, Kailua-Kona, is no more from 2023.

Ok, so that’s not the whole picture… but Wednesday’s (official) news after Tuesday’s pretty accurate and widely reported leaks, confirm major changes to the structure of the IRONMAN World Championship.

From 2023, the men and women will race on separate days, likely several weeks apart, in different venues, with the races rotating annually. Or simply put, the women will go to Kona in 2023 and won’t return until 2025. The next IRONMAN World Championship for Pro and Age-Group men, in Hawaii, will not take place until October 2024.

While not formally confirmed until January 2023, the strong rumour is that Nice, France will be the second location (for the men), in September 2023.

Why the major changes?

The lava fields of the Big Island, the tarmac of Ali’i Drive, the Energy Lab and the Queen K have become synonymous within the sport, even for fans who have never been there. Kona is the closest thing to triathlon’s Wimbledon / Augusta National / Champs-Elysées – so how on earth are we at a situation of that history being, at least in part, eliminated?

That’s an interesting one, it perhaps requires separating emotion from reality.

IRONMAN’s grand plan

‘Change is needed’. Those were some of the final words to us from Tim Don, when he gave us his reaction to the news on Wednesday. And the reality is that something HAD to change, and was really the catalyst for these thoughts.

Going all the way back to May 2022, and the athlete press conference ahead of the delayed 2021 IRONMAN World Championship in St George, a strategy was in place. During that, IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick, in his remarks which for those watching closely enough, seemed designed to put some (not so) subtle pressure on the island of Hawaii, said:

“Our belief has been that creating a two-day race has been transformative for our 70.3 World Championships. It allowed us to have deeper fields from different races around the world, a day dedicated to women’s professional and age-group racing, and a day dedicated to male professional and age-group racing and we think that has been an extraordinary success.

“I think as we look at the growth of IRONMAN around the world, the number of qualifying races, I think having two days of racing for the future of the IRONMAN World Championships is going to be critical. We are going to have that, and we’ll have for the first time an experiment where we are going to race on Thursday and Saturday in Kona. We are in discussions now with Hawaii and are hopeful of a long-term solution that enables us to have two days of racing at Kona.”

Messick, and IRONMAN, wanted 2022 to be more than a one-off.

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The strategy unravels

Three years away from the Big Island had, amongst other factors, created a significant backlog of Kona-qualified age-group athletes, which was in part among the factors behind the two-day Hawaii in 2022.

In July 2022, all seemed to be going to plan with the announcement of the 2023 IRONMAN World Championship also going to a two-day format. With the growth in the number of IRONMAN World Championship races globally, the expansion in the number of qualifying athletes – women especially, through designated Women For Tri events – there was no turning back from the desire to replicate the (two day) success of the IRONMAN World 70.3 World Championship. More importantly, two days in Hawaii seemed secured moving forward.

Not everything was perfect – ahead of the 2022 event, there was widespread discussion, even amongst some high-profile Pro athletes, around the increasing costs of the event, That was at least in part driven by the increased demand that the event itself was creating, in terms of accommodation, restaurants and infrastructure. Whether a women’s race on a Thursday was making that a second-tier event was also a question awaiting an answer.

While the cost issue remains, in general, the racing and the format was positively received. On a personal (fan) and professional (media) perspective, being able to follow the Pro races in detail was a huge step forward – and what races they both were.

An event however is about a lot more than a race, which if you’ve ever worked on one, you’ll be familiar with. The impact of the event was too much for the local community to cope with, and those 2023 plans soon revoked:

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said: 

“This year’s epic races were another example of world-class athletic competition held on the traditional Kona-Kohala world championship course. 

“We learned, however, that more than one race day during IRONMAN week is too many for the community to manage.  

“We are pleased that IRONMAN plans to return to Kailua-Kona as a co-host of the 2023 VinFast IRONMAN World Championship and look forward to more exciting events in the future.” 

So now what?

IRONMAN was now behind the eight ball. Far too many qualifying athletes to race on a Kona course on one day (let alone fit on the pier), a desire to continue with the men / women race day focus (concept broadly proven) but a host venue which had now given a firm “no”.

The genie was out of the bottle, but there was no way to put it back in. Quite simply, the bottle had been halved in size.

What actually is IRONMAN?

Another consideration here is ‘who’ IRONMAN is. In relation to this race, they really hold at least two clear positions. For the Pro athletes, primarily, they are a quasi governing body. They set the rules, how to qualify, where the races are.

Happening concurrently, they are also a commercial mass participation event organiser. The ‘IRONMAN is all about money’ line is a regular theme thrown their way. I’m not convinced that they are all about money – but they are a commercial organiser, and like other businesses, making that work financially is absolutely part of the business model. Off the back of a global pandemic when we’ve seen a raft of organiser and triathlon businesses fall to wayside over the past couple of years, I suspect they have been hit perhaps more than anyone.

How do you balance those two? If you were only the governing body, in my opinion at least, the position is clear; if you can only have one day in Hawaii, then you have both Pro races on the same day. Yes, it would be step backwards from “our commitment for a dedicated world championship race experience for women and men to each receive an exclusive spotlight on their race.”

But, would you rather see Chelsea / Lucy / Kat / Daniela / Anne AND Kristian / Jan / Gustav / Alistair / Magnus / Sam all going head-to-head on perhaps the only venue that is as big as the sport – even if it has to be on the same day? I would.

The problem (hat #2, commercial mass participation organiser), is that if you had this scenario:

  • Event One: Kona (Pro Men and Women, all age-group women)
  • Event Two: Nice/Other (All age-group men, no Pro Championship)

Are you confident that the second of those could create a long-term, viable, attractive, commercially successful business that is consistently attractive to your customers? That’s probably not an investment I would be making with confidence.

What’s the solution?

Honestly? I really don’t know. As I said earlier in this article, I don’t know how we got here… but I can see a pathway that might have led here.

There are some positive / potentially positive impacts – highlighted by Mark Allen and Alistair Brownlee in the last 24 hours – but right now, it sort of feels like everybody gets what nobody wants.

Ultimately, I think IRONMAN themselves are in the same boat.

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