Thoughts about the future of the Ironman World Championships in a post-Covid World

By Jeff Sankoff, TriDoc Coaching

Photo: Jeff Sankoff

Over the past couple of weeks I have been excitedly watching a delayed Tour de France and this past weekend saw the resumption of some larger triathlons in Europe and in the coming weeks we will see additional races of similar size take place in Australia.

Of course what makes this possible is the fact that those areas have done a significantly better job of managing Covid-19 within their populations than have we here in the United States.

Still, all of these things have me feeling just the tiniest bit optimistic with regards to racing in 2021 though of course so much can happen between then and now so I haven’t exactly booked any flights.

Jeff in Kona, 2018 Photo: Jeff Sankoff

Imagining that racing might come back got me thinking about what things could look like and I have a hunch that the landscape could be in for even more tectonic shifts as a result of everything that has happened this past year.

Now I admit that what I am about to propose is entirely speculation and I have no inside knowledge whatsoever, but, I would not be surprised to see something as big as the Ironman World Championships undergo a big change in 2021 if certain circumstances come to pass.

Think about all of these things:

  1. The Ironman 70.3 Worlds have become a huge success and by all accounts quite a cash cow for the WTC. Splitting the event across two days with a dedicated women’s race has been a boon both for the sport to be able to finally feature the women prominently in the way they deserve and as a consequence, to give more slots to the continually growing segment of men who make up the lions share of competitors in the age group ranks.
  2. Moving the 70.3 WC each year has made for an annual spectacle of worldwide cities bidding for the race and engendering a level of excitement amongst athletes as they speculate on where the race will be held and get excited to go to wherever the final destination is that is selected. That movement has also ensured that the Worlds always has an appropriately challenging course. Akin to the Cycling WC, 70.3 WC can now feature a different profile year to year favoring a different kind of athlete with each change of venue.
  3. As Ironman has surged in popularity, Kona slots have become increasingly difficult to come by because the field is limited by the size of the pier. This has made for a fair amount of grousing among the really good age group athletes who simply cannot get a slot and caused demand for those slots to continue to grow year by year such that there is huge pent up demand. Throw in to this the idea that there is a hot and cold relationship between Ironman and Kona itself as well as the dual issues of the course in Hawaii not being all that difficult, (let’s be honest, it’s the weather that makes Kona hard, not the course itself) and the fact that Kona has become a notorious draft fest on the bike owing to the very similar capabilities of the competitors in the water and on two wheels and you begin to understand why a couple of years ago rumors began to swirl around a possible move of the iconic race to an alternative venue. At the time, those rumors were met mostly with derision but there was a fair amount of support for the idea as well.

Given all that, here is my speculation. My best guess is that if by spring 2021 the island of Hawaii is still restricting travel and if the Ironman World Championships are in peril for 2021 and if other races especially in the continental united states have started up again, the WTC will make the decision to move the Kona event somewhere else.

Jeff running in Kona, 2018 Photo: Jeff Sankoff

At first it may just be a single day event but with more slots because of less restrictions on numbers provided by a different venue. Going forward though, WTC might decide to go a couple of ways.

Maybe they rotate the race the same way as they do for 70.3 WC with Kona being featured every few years OR, and I’m just spitballing here, on the same weekend they hold two events. One event for one sex in a different place each year and the other event in Kona for the other sex with the sexes flipping every year.

swimmers starting at Kona 2019
The pier at Kona is a limiting factor. Photo: Zach Walker

So for example, the 2022 men’s Ironman World Championship would be Saturday in Kona and the women’s would be Sunday in Nice. Then in 2023 the women on Saturday in Kona and the men on Sunday in Arizona.

Of course this could all be completely off base and nothing could change but in this time of pandemic, I need something to distract me and personally I like the thought of this.

What do you think?

Jeffrey Sankoff is an Emergency Physician and triathlete based in Denver Colorado. He is a long-time triathlete with more than fifty 70.3 finishes including 6 world championships and is a 6 time Ironman finisher including one time at the World Championships in Kona.

Jeff operates TriDoc Coaching (www.tridoccoaching.com) and records the TriDoc Podcast where this opinion piece first appeared in episode 48.

The TriDoc Podcast can be found on all the usual podcast platforms or here: https://the-tridoc-podcast.captivate.fm

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