By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
After the shortened course and prolific drafting at this year’s first U.S. Ironman in Texas, it’s worth asking: has the gold standard of endurance sports become a diluted accomplishment-for-purchase?
The answer is an unfortunate, undeniable “Yes”.
The sooner Ironman’s new parent company, Chinese conglomerate The Dalian Wanda Group, acknowledges the decline in event quality, the sooner it can be restored. But the problem is real, and it didn’t happen overnight.
Ironman is entirely different today than it was when the race began on the beach in Waikiki in 1978. In the early 1980’s Ironman struggled for legitimacy. By the end of the decade, in 1989, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s “Ironwar” two-up race duel vaulted the event into something even more significant than athletic competition. In 2004 I wrote “The Strugglers”, an homage to the everyman finisher at Ironman you can read by clicking here.
Ironman became legend. It was revered as somehow tougher than mere athleticism. Scott and Allen’s high noon, mano a mano slugfest defined a gritty toughness that transcended other endurance events. Marathon running, once the high bar of the everyman endurance world, took a back seat to completing an Ironman triathlon. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Ironman became modern gladiatorial combat for the masses in a new electronic coliseum.
Emmy winning television production spotlighted the transformation of the everyman to hero status. With spectacle like the Julie Moss crawl to second place, Ironman was depicted as the one-day filter through which a mortal person could pass to achieve super-athlete status. Everyday people arrived at the Ironman start line as caterpillars, left as colorful M-Dot butterflies decked out in officially licensed “Finisher” apparel.
Ironman became big. Then came the internet. And Ironman became enormous.
As internet and social media exploded a universal virtual podium made Ironman status visible around the world instantly. It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.
All that was missing from Ironman was the mass production of this new event-product. It was so well recognized that one trademark defined our impression of a person the instant we saw their t-shirt, bumper sticker or tattoo. That status was bestowed when you crossed the finish line and the verbal Excalibur, “YOU! Are an IRONMAN!!!” touched your shoulder.
A person could earn a college degree, raise a family, beat a terminal disease, overcome a disability or serve in the military. But until they dragged their life story across the finish line at Ironman to earn the M-Dot stamp of significance, it was just average. Just life. At Ironman, it became significant. It became a story. A filter through which we must pass to achieve exceptional status.
Ironman sold. And sold. And sold. Events a year away sold out in minutes. Entry fees went up, travel and lodging costs climbed. You had to earn an Ironman finish, and by the turn of the century in 2000 it took not only a deep aerobic base but also deep pockets to finish an Ironman.
Ironman gave the well-heeled everyman the opportunity to be exceptional. And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman, the heavy-handed branding of the event created a brand more conspicuous than structural.
As prices and participation climbed, the quality of race venues and officiating suffered. The event became increasingly “interpretive”, with swim cancellations, course shortenings, inadequate drafting enforcement and no effective athlete drug screening.
Ironman became pass/fail.
I worked and raced in the triathlon industry since the early 1980s and had a front row for the transformation of the sport. I saw it change from fringe endurance activity to apex life-defining event. Then into a credible athletic sport including Olympic competition. And today into a just-about-anything-goes social media stunt. Cutting courses, drafting and using performance enhancing drugs is more likely to be enforced in the kangaroo court of social media than by the people paid to administer the race.
As Ironman peaked in popularity, the races filled from the back of the pack. Race winning times did get marginally faster among top professionals. But the bigger expansion was at the back of the race. Despite a proliferation of “wind tunnel tested superbikes” triathletes were going slower and slower as a group at Ironman.
In the 1980’s and ‘90’s when I either raced or watched an Ironman event, the volume of finishers after 13 hours tapered off to a trickle. By the early 2000’s the floodgates opened at 13 hours with hordes of everyman Ironmen streaming across the finish line. That influx of participants created more demand for Ironman events. Individual athlete performance and overall event quality suffered. If you could drag yourself across the finish line at Ironman, whether you made the 17-hour cutoff time by a second or nine hours, whether the swim was shortened or cancelled, whether the bike course was long, short, flat, windy or mountainous, “YOU!” were still “An IRONMAN!” There was a distinct lack of standards for what had been a high bar of endurance sports.
The double edge sword of social media that helped immortalize and proliferate the sport has now become its undoing. The event organizers appear immune to criticism and largely unconcerned with maintaining event quality. Today brandishing an M-Dot logo on a calf tattoo, bumper sticker or officially licensed T-shirt doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Ironman has become a sketchy, “everyone’s a winner” attention grab that is low on event quality control and high on licensing fees, entry fees, and official merchandise prices. Until that changes the Ironman motto, “Anything is Possible” has become a decidedly cynical commentary of a once great event.
Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.