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Ironman is expanding rapidly, says Phil Graves, but more races isn’t necessarily a good thing

Phil Graves Ironman Triathlete (Photo: Bob Foy)

Phil wonders whether there are just too many Ironman races these days  (Photo: Bob Foy)

Politics – It runs everything in our lives and, though you perhaps wouldn’t know it, it runs sport too. As I write, the WTC has just bought Challenge Copenhagen. By the time you read this, the event will have been run as an Ironman race – not the Challenge event it was advertised as when 2,000 people entered it months and months ago.

Does this seem fair? Of course not. If I went to the supermarket and bought a can of Pepsi, I’d expect my sugary beverage to be Pepsi when I got home, not to have changed into Coca-Cola five minutes before I was due to drink it. I know that’s an extreme example, but that’s just what’s happened, and if the triathlon world isn’t careful, then a war is going to emerge between the WTC, which owns Ironman, the ITU, which runs the Olympic side of the sport, and the race organisers who are trying to get a slice of the action, like Challenge and Rev3.

There can only be a finite number of races, simply because there’s only a finite number of athletes, and right now we’re approaching saturation point. In the past year we’ve seen the TriStar brand of races fall by the wayside, and it’s disturbing when only five pro women start at Ironman France, in a race that pays up to eighth place. This only highlights how the lure of big money is ruining the sport we all love. Sure, all of the Ironman races are sold out to age-groupers, but when, out of a field of several thousand, I can count the number of pro women on one hand, there’s something glaringly wrong.

The problem is the scheduling. Ironman France was on 23 June, followed by Ironman Austria on 30 June and Ironman Frankfurt on 7 July. If we look at these races from the pro women’s perspective, we see the problem. They need sponsors to survive, as the prize money is appalling. To attract the sponsors, they have to get to the Ironman World Championship. To do that, they need enough points to make sure they’re in the top 30 in the world by the time of the Kona cut-off at the end of August. Frankfurt is a 4,000-point race for the winner so that’s going to be their first-choice race. Austria and France are both 2,000-point races, but they’re going to race Austria over France because the course is easier and if they get the points they need to qualify for Hawaii, they can get back to training faster and be in better shape come Kona.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Ironman has changed the Kona qualification system so that the pros have to race several of its races, whereas in the past they could race just one and qualify via a slot, like age-groupers now. But it hasn’t paid attention to the scheduling, and all of the European races are crammed in. In contrast, the ITU has a programme that encourages athletes and allows them, because of its structure, to race every single race on the calendar, if they wish.

I truly believe we have to go back to the old slot system, which not only made it simpler for professional triathletes to make it to Kona but also allowed more of them to race there. That can only be good for the sport – I find having a field of just 35 professional women go to Kona each year something of an embarrassment. We’re a mass-participation sport, after all. If the ITU can have 70 guys and girls at a World Triathlon Grand Final, why can’t the WTC have the same numbers at Hawaii? is the online home of Triathlon Plus – the best source of triathlon training advice, triathlon gear reviews and triathlon news.

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