The man we can really credit with the creation of the International Triathlon Union (now World Triathlon), and who was instrumental in getting the sport into the Olympics, was a Canadian (by way of Scotland) named Les McDonald. McDonald was a fascinating man, who came from the world of Alpine skiing to triathlon, won his age group in Kona five years in a row, then turned his sights on organizing the sport at an international level. An avid Ironman athlete early in his career, his attitude changed dramatically as he sought to put the ITU in charge of the sport. (Those of us involved in the politics of triathlon through the 90s and early 2000s remember the battles between the organizations all too well. In 2005 Ironman even organized its own insurance for an entire year after the ITU told various NGBs that they couldn’t sanction Ironman events.)
That animosity eased off dramatically when Marisol Casado became the president of the sport’s world governing body in 2008 and, by 2017, Ironman and the ITU had signed an agreement to work together on sanctioning, rules and developing the sport.
One thing that used to drive McDonald crazy was that, as he put it, a private company (Ironman) “owned” a world championship. During all my years as the elite athlete representative for Triathlon Canada, and even when I worked for Ironman, I felt McDonald had a point. But, as I would always say to him when it came up, Ironman was there years before the ITU was, so he was going to have to live with it.
Last year the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) and World Triathlon announced an agreement that would allow the PTO to put on the official “World Championship tour of long distance triathlon.” While the PTO is co-owned by athletes, it is very much an entity that is supposed to make money, with investors like Michael Moritz looking to earn a return on their investment at some point. While McDonald likely wouldn’t be crazy about this scenario, he’d certainly applaud the fact that World Triathlon appears to be very involved in this world championship.
I am guessing that is part of the reason Casado referred to there being “tough negotiations” between World Triathlon and the PTO to put the world tour deal in place, but based on her comments, she certainly sees this as a win-win scenario for both organizations.
“When we announced our partnership with PTO last summer, the goal that we had in mind was exactly this: to be able to deliver a brand new Tour of events that have their own ecosystem and that will elevate our sport to new heights across an athlete’s entire career,” she said. “By uniting our strengths, passion and dedication, we aim to bring positive change and innovation to the triathlon community.”
During her remarks at today’s press conference, Casado referred to the World Championship Series that began, surprise of all surprises, in 2008, the year she took over the ITU. Rather than a one-day world championship event, the champion would be decided over a season of racing. It’s not like McDonald wouldn’t have liked that idea – the same thing happens in skiing – and we see it in other successful sports, too. (F1 racing come to mind for anyone?) The deal with the PTO allows World Triathlon to put some real teeth into its long-distance offerings for pros. It used to be that draft-legal athletes flocked to Ironman events after every Olympic cycle. Casado figures that draft-legal athletes could now extend their careers by a decade, and not have to do an Ironman event to still make a decent living. And, they can become a world champion without having to endure 220 km of racing through the lava in Kona or up the mountains in Nice. Along with all that, with the money that the PTO is throwing around right now, they can make a lot more than they did through draft-legal racing, or competing at the Ironman Pro Series, too.
What about the age groupers?
The PTO has always said the main focus is on the pros, and that its business model is based on a small percentage of the revenue coming in from age group athletes. If PTO Chairman Chris Kermode is right that within two to three years “the PTO T100 will be in the top 10 of sports entertainment products in the world,” that might work out. Making ends meet through pro racing is certainly not the way things work at Ironman events, and it seems to me that the World Triathlon races are somewhat dependent on age-group racing, too.
Certainly the allure of Kona spurs on a lot of Ironman participation numbers. Yes, lots of age group athletes compete for their countries at the World Triathlon championship races – sprint, standard and long-distance – but there’s a lot more hype and demand about the Ironman World Championship. I can provide proof of that through experience here at the Mackinnon household – my wife didn’t appear on the front page of the local newspaper after she won her age group at the world sprint championships in 2008. She did when she won her age group in Kona in 2022.
The PTO is offering age group racing, and it is all-too-aware that it’s going to take some time for those races to build. The hype around the pro series this year can’t do anything but help on that front. But is it the age group mystique that sets Kona apart as a world championship? I guess we’ll find out over the next few years.
Great if you can make it
There will no-doubt be some disgruntled pros out there who feel like they’ve supported the PTO for the last few years, only to see the lion’s share of the $7 million up for grabs be available to 40 athletes. That’s going to smart, but at the end of the day it’s still a great time to be a pro triathlete. Ironman pulled out the check book for this year to try and stay in the mix with the Ironman Pro Series – there will be roughly US$6 million up for grabs at Ironman events this year, with a US$1.7 million bonus pool to be split between the top 50 athletes.
As the T100 World Triathlon Tour grows, presumably there will be more opportunities for pro athletes. One would also presume that, down the road, there’s room for a similar qualifying system to the one that World Triathlon does so well – regional events and World Cup races that feed into the World Triathlon Championship Series races.
Sports Entertainment Product?
In the end it all comes down to whether or not Chris Kermode is right and the world is ready to watch long-distance triathletes race for three to four hours. That’s not a question for us lifers and mega fans of the sport. And, as those broadcast numbers build (as I am sure they will), are we ready to embrace a world champion over the T100 distance who is the most consistent over the whole year? As much as we might an Ironman world champion from Hawaii or France? Everyone in my training group can tell you who won in Kona and Nice. I’m not sure how many of them could tell you who ended up holding the World Triathlon Championship Series trophy after the final in Pontevedra. (Beth Potter and Dorian Coninx, in case you were wondering.)
One thing the PTO has is a lot of money. The organization is putting together an impressive sports product and getting the word out. It would be pretty amazing if Chris Kermode has nailed it and lots of people are tuning in to long-distance triathlon races in three years. And we’ll find out how the PTO is doing when a T100 world champ is crowned after the Grand Final at the end of November.