Home > Feature

No, Ironman isn’t “selling” slots to the Ironman World Championship in St. George

But, with a goal of putting 3,800 athletes on the start line, the optics aren't good

Photo by: Getty Images

So what’s going on with qualifying for the upcoming Ironman World Championship in St. George? Yesterday we reported on a story from PlanetaTriatlon which implied that Ironman was “selling” spots to the upcoming world championship in St. George. (In case you missed it, when Ironman was forced to postpone last year’s world championship in Kona, it was decided to host the “2021” race in St. George, Utah.)

Ironman moves world championship to St. George in May, 2022; Kona race in October features two-day format

To start with, let’s make it clear why there needed to be a race in May in the first place. Ironman needed to get a 2021 world championship done – they wanted to provide pro athletes with a chance to earn some money, they had athletes who had qualified for the worlds as far back as 2019 who were desperately waiting for their chance to compete at the worlds, and they wanted to have a full qualifying season for the 2022 worlds without having to take care of all the athletes who had qualified either late in 2019, or at events that were able to take place in 2020 or 2021. All told there will be about 6,000 athletes who will have qualified over the last three years looking to compete at the worlds.

St. George, which could guarantee that a race would take place, was a great answer to the problem. But … well, it’s not Kona. Sure, for the pros, it’s a world championship. There’s US$750,000 up for grabs going 15 deep. For many age group athletes, though, the mystique of Kona trumps the mystique of a world championship.

Ironman gets that. As much as people love to rail on the company as a corporate behemoth that only cares about the bottom line, it does have a CEO (Andrew Messick) who is about as avid an age-group athlete as it gets. So they gave athletes the opportunity to defer their entry to the Kona event scheduled for October, 2022. That race was expanded to two days to accommodate the anticipated number of athletes likely to compete.

OK, so let’s get back to St. George.

First off, we’ve already reported that the organizers in Utah have made it very clear that they aren’t trying to be the next Kona.

“We have the greatest honour and respect for the mystique and magic of the race in Kona,” Kevin Lewis, the director of tourism for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, says. “We don’t feel like we’re trying to replace Kona at all – we see this as an opportunity to help out and do something unique. The Greater Zion area will have its own brand of endurance.”

7 stories we can’t wait to follow in 2022

And, when it comes to any questions about athletes competing at the race in St. George, let’s get one thing straight – as an age group athlete, you have always had to pay for an Ironman slot. Even in the good ol’ days of the Ironman lottery, you paid for a chance to sign up for the lottery, paid more for a chance to have a better shot in the lottery, then also paid for your entry if you managed to win one of those slots. The lottery was deemed illegal in 2015 and Ironman “agreed to forfeit $2.76 million” according to Reuters, so the program was turned into a “Legacy” program that offered any athlete who had done 12 Ironman events and had never made it to Kona a spot at the worlds. Once again, you have to pay an entry fee for the race.

A look at the St. George website race right now indicates there are just under 2,300 athletes registered for this year’s race. (That doesn’t include pros – there should be about 100 of them.) According to sources from Ironman, they figure they can accommodate 3,800 competitors in St. George. That’s based on the huge area available for transition (you don’t have to jam bikes on the pier), the new wave starts implemented at the worlds in 2019, and the challenging course that can hopefully split the field up thanks to the numerous and difficult climbs.

Once they had gone through the list of qualifiers and legacy athletes who wanted to take advantage of a chance to race in St. George, Ironman then created a new list of “loyal” athletes and developed a “loyalty and legend” program. That included athletes who have competed in at least 20 Ironman races and have been racing at the company’s events for at least 20 years. What makes these folks different from the legacy athletes is they could have competed in Kona and still be eligible for the St. George race.

Once they’d gone through that list, they started inviting All World Athlete (AWA) gold competitors to the race, which prompted the story that appeared on PlanetaTriatlon.

If you talk to the folks at Ironman, they’ll tell you that the goal here is to provide opportunities to athletes that might not have been available in years past. They’re rewarding loyal customers, and making the best out of a brutal situation that has been brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And I have no doubt that all of that is true.

While Ironman most definitely isn’t “selling” slots to the worlds in St. George, it does appear that it is “watering down” the mystique of competing at the Ironman World Championship. In year’s past the vast majority of the competitors at the worlds had qualified for their chance to start in Kona. In the days of the lottery there were a couple of hundred athletes who had earned their spot through luck of the draw. There were likely fewer than that number who got to take advantage of the Legacy program every year. In St. George, though, if they do managed to get 3,800 in the race, a large number of the athletes on the start line won’t have earned their spot through a top finish at an Ironman.

So, yes, Ironman will be fulfilling a lot of dreams. And, yes, they’ll be rewarding many loyal customers. It’s not hard to argue they will be taking away some of the aura of competing at the world championships, though. Maybe only the most serious of Ironman competitors will feel that way, but whether the company likes it or not, the optics aren’t the best.