I’m back, though don’t know for how long or how consistently I’ll post. To get going again, I thought I’d share an opinion piece, after all, everyone has one!
So, Ironman has decided to host the postponed 2021 World Championships in St George, Utah, in May 2022, rather than Kailua Kona, Hawaii, which is the first race venue change since 1981. Considering the first ever Ironman race was in 1978, it’s fair to say that Kona is synonymous with Ironman and certainly since it became the global institution, brand, even lifestyle that it is today. The current plan is to host the 2022 World Championships back in Kona in October 2022, just six months after the Utah race.
Passions are running high and opinions are divided. Online feedback from professional athletes is uniformly positive. For them, the World Championship presents an opportunity to race against the best, on their best day and call themselves World Champion, regardless of race venue. For many others though, the idea of racing in Kona has been a lifelong dream, a labour of love and of blood, sweat and tears. Whether qualifying by placing highly in their age-group, or taking the long road of completing twelve full-distance Ironman races to be eligible for a Legacy spot, for some of them, doing all that to realise their dream, racing in St George, just doesn’t cut it.
The current plan is to race a female pro race on 6 October 2022 and a Male pro race on 8 October 2022, with age group racing somehow split between the two. This format was successfully trialled in the IM70.3 World Championships, held in South Africa 2018. Frankly, I’m surprised this hasn’t become the norm, given what a great showcase that format provided for both Male and Female competitors. For context, could you imagine having both men’s and women’s finals at Wimbledon at the same time, with coverage and commentary switching between the two? I’m going to declare that a point made for the split race format.
The main reason Ironman is splitting the race for October 2022, isn’t for more excellent race coverage however. It’s the sheer scale of the event. The number of deferrals from 2020 and 2021 events due to impacts of the global pandemic, mean there are likely to be more starters than ever before in the 2022 World Championships. Going back to 2019, when Kona was last run, the age group field was congested to the point of a group ride for many of the competitors, as maintaining the official non-drafting distance and legal overtaking moves were all but impossible. At the time and for several years prior, online commentary was highly critical of riders in packs emerging from T1, in search of their place on the hot asphalt.
With more and more Ironman races being held around the world each year, each of them offering qualifying spots, and an increasing number of athletes meeting the Legacy requirements, there are going to be more people racing in future years too. Splitting the male and female races is almost essential if the number of bikes are to fit into the transition area (which is restricted to the area of the pier that forms Kailua harbour). Even so, Kona has other limiting factors that make it a less than ideal location for the World Championship of a growing global sport. The Kona residents and their elected representatives, love the Ironman event but nevertheless, need to put the safety of their vulnerable citizens first. While travel restrictions are being lifted, tracking and monitoring of infections, hospitalisations and deaths is likely to continue for some time. It’s difficult to see how a decision led by data, will ever support inviting 2400 competitors and their supporters into their community, which suggests to me, that come decision time, the October 2022 race may again be postponed of cancelled. Besides, Kona is a difficult place to get to logistically, and the number of hotel beds and vacation rentals is limited, driving accommodation costs to more than double the typical rate during Ironman week. The cost of racing in Kona is beyond many age group racers, resulting in qualifying spots often rolling down to tenth or more, before finding an athlete with sufficient resources to race there.
The Solution? Move it!!
Many major sporting events, beginning with arguably the highest profile, the Olympics, rotate the host venue. The UCI world cycling championship moves from place to place and of course the prestigious Tour de France, while always finishing in Paris, changes its first stages to various cities and countries, to showcase the world’s greatest cycling event and make it more accessible for spectators.
We should not only look at St. George as a solution for the deferred 2021 race, but as a trial for all future Ironman World Championships. I for one, look forward to Ironman World Championships, Nice, Busselton, or Port Elizabeth!
Don’t agree? Happy to hear your thoughts.
GI Tri Coach