Last year saw a change in the way in which professionals qualify for the world Ironman Championships in Kona. The new policy, including the Kona Pro Rankings (KPR) System is outlined at the following link. http://ironmanpromembership.com/kpr/. As you will see 31 August marked the deadline for qualification, and thereafter the full set of Kona Qualifiers were announced.  Given that a year has passed since the new policies were instigated I thought I would outline my key comments on the system, with suggested areas for improvement. In addition to the KPR system, I have also added some thoughts on other issues, including prize money and timing/scheduling.

We have a unique opportunity to make sure our sport grows and expands, and benefits all who participate around the world. The key here is that all of us -  professional and age group athletes, sponsors, the media, triathlon fans, charities and others – work in partnership with the WTC and other race directors/organisers for the betterment of the sport.  Every stakeholder is valuable, and all should have an input to the way our sport is governed and organized.

Of course, a caveat: I acknowledge the difficulty, and prematurity, in making a final judgment on the effectiveness of the KPR in reaching the stated goals of the policy at this moment in time. We will need years to see the effects on the field sizes and race results, impacts on levels of media and sponsor interest and also any implications on the athletes’ long term health.

And it goes without saying that, people may not agree with all, or any, of what I have written – but that’s fine. My aim is not necessarily to elicit support for my arguments, it is to galvanise discussion and debate and ensure that voices across the board are heard. At this point I would also like to thank the WTC for eliciting input from professional athletes, including in the development of the KPR and by holding several informal meetings in the US over the past few months. It will be important that options are also sought from athletes living in other continents, and that we develop a more formal mechanism for structured, regular dialogue.

Overall, I agree that a new system was needed to ensure that the professional field at Kona is commensurate with it being a World Championship event. That is, the best ironman athletes in the world should have the opportunity to be on the start line, with the concomitant need to also reduce the field size. The KPR is definitely a step in the right direction, but I believe it requires refinement in a number of areas if the system is to truly enable the stated goals of the policy to be achieved. Some areas for consideration are:

  • The KPR system does not necessarily reward good ironman performances to the value that one might expect.  To me, the KPR rewards ‘smart 70.3’ racing, rather than being a ranking of the best ironman athletes in the world.  For example, Mary Beth Ellis won IM Austria (in 8.43) and Regensburg yet does not qualify in the first round, needing to race Ironman Canada to secure her slot. I would not have made the first cut despite winning two Ironman races and a 70.3 before the 31 July deadline.  Kristin Moeller won an ironman, came 2nd in another and reached top 10 in a number of 70.3s but i don’t believe she has qualified.
  • Some may argue that the onus is on the athlete to select races that have the highest points, racing more strategically so that they can accrue the maximum number of points with the minimum amount of effort. Yes, there is an argument for this, but we don’t all have choices about where we can race. Some pros are limited by their country of residence, others by travel budgets or even jobs/family.
  • So, yes, racing ‘smart’ is important, but I still believe that the system should, above all, reward those that win/podium in any ironman race, and whilst 70.3s should contribute to the overall total, they should not be so heavily weighted. At no time should any 70.3 be worth more than an ironman, because the KPR is a qualification system for the World Ironman Championships.
  • From an initial analysis of the data (and please bear in mind that maths is not my strong point, and so would freely admit that my calculations could be incorrect!) it seems that, because the women are competing for 30 total slots, they are having to race more, than the men who are competing for 50. Those at the cusp of the men’s cut off have done far less IM racing than their women counter parts.  In short, some data suggests that the women are racing more to accrue sufficient point to get to Kona. This could lead to burn out and injury amongst the women especially.
  • I believe that 1 September is too late for athletes to know whether or not they have a Kona slot. Contrary to the stated objective, this policy could actually decrease the quality of performances at Kona as the (second cut off) athletes simply do not have the time to prepare effectively.  Also, on the matter of scheduling – if two of the $100,000 races (eg Germany and New York) are not until July-August this could reduce the likelihood that athletes will actually participate, given that they would rather earn points (and secure a high ranking) as early as possible – or the athletes that race these races will go into Kona tired.

Prize Money

  • At present, the low ranking races the prize money is trifling – especially given that ironman athletes cannot race as often as short course athletes, and therefore have less capacity to make a living from prize money (eg the winner of a 1000 point race gets a paltry $4500). Coupled with this the majority of athletes are not getting support for travel or accommodation. Many are actually left out of pocket and unable to actually make a living.  Higher prize purses, across the board, would attract more media and potential sponsors, and will benefit all associated with the sport. The recent 5150 Championship race in Hy Vee is a superb example of how a high prize purse attracts a high class field, and media/sponsor interest.

 Suggestions:

  • I believe that the policy that all athletes, including previous champions, should have to validate their slot with an ironman race is correct and should remain in place. However, the value of an ironman win (especially first and second tier races) should be higher. At the very minimum, winners of a first and second tier IM race should get enough points so as to secure them qualification for Kona. Perhaps the difference between the points for an Ironman win (1st, 2nd and 3rd tier) should also be reduced – a suggested breakdown could be 3000, 2500, 2000.
  • I feel that 70.3s are too heavily weighted, and only 2 should count. And the points from the 70.3 Championships should not count for so much towards KPR. Perhaps the points for 70.3s could be 1000/750/500.
  • On timing, perhaps the final KPR should be published by, latest, middle of August so that athletes can dedicate the time to training and preparation warranted for participation in a World Championship.  It could be argued that there should be no 4000 point races after the first (July) cut off and perhaps the World 70.3 Championships in Vegas should be (2 weeks perhaps?) earlier, giving athletes who also wish to race Kona time to recover and prepare.
  • If the statistical analysis shows that women are having to race more than men to secure a Kona slot, the WTC may wish to consider increasing the women’s field at Kona to 35, to try to limit overracing.
  • The venues for Regional Championships (and maybe) second tier races could be rotated. That is, IM Frankfurt doesn’t always need to be the p4000/high money – or championship level – race.
  • We need a minimum prize money purse – a baseline of $50,000 for Ironman and $25,000 for 70.3 races. The Kona prize purse should be increased which will attract media attention. All prize purses should increase over time. There could also be additional bonuses for World and Course Records, and more frequent allocation of primes.
  • The KPR list should have more than just points. There could be links from each result to the results page of the race those points are from. This is further advantageous to WTC because it builds a connection between races/points/pros. With some infrastructural data connections, the point system would be easier to audit and also more powerful as a marketing tool.
  • It will be important that race start lists (with separate lists for pros) are published, and there also needs to be an agreement from the athlete that they will inform WTC of any non-start within a given timeframe, or incur a penalty (last minute injury/illness may have to be an exception). There needs to be consistency in the enforcement of rules; entry deadlines, attendance at pro meetings etc. Penalties need to be imposed if these rules/obligations are not met (eg reduction in points).
  • Specific criteria need to be published regarding the circumstances under which the ‘Wild Card’ would be used. Further, in the policy document WTC said “We also liked the suggestion of automatic qualification for athletes meeting a point threshold at any time during the season. Since at least one year’s experience with the system is required to set the threshold, this suggestion will be revisited for the 2012 Qualifying Year”.  This issue will need to be addressed in the coming months.
  • Ironmanlive online coverage has improved, but there are still many shortcomings and areas for further growth and development, in line with organisations like Rev3 (video feed, live tv coverage, having factsheets about the pros). The coverage for the recent Hy Vee 5150 Championships is to be commended, and offers a great model for exciting, engaging, entertaining and informative race coverage. Improvements will help raise the profile and help the public can engage more with the pros and our sport.
  • We need to reduce the amount of drafting, especially by the women off the age group (and slower pro) men. One solution would be to send the women off 5minutes behind the male pros and then 20 minutes (at least) in front of the age group athletes.
  • The cost of the one day license still seems incredibly expensive – and prohibitive for many athletes. In addition, clarification is needed regarding the criteria for awarding the license, and whether this then includes membership in the anti doping programme.  It would be useful to see the published list of criteria for determining eligibility for the scholarship membership programme.
  • WTC has said that it “does not determine eligibility to race as a pro athlete”, and that “professional/elite standards are set by the national federations”. But surely consistency is required  – and the WTC should have its own criteria for who can be classified as a pro? The standards for pro level racing need to be tightened and made consistent.
  • And as I said above, I think the majority of professional athletes would welcome a formal mechanism through which they could engage with the WTC, perhaps through a group of (elected) representatives to ensure effective dialogue, interaction and input into future policy development.

So these are my thoughts. My two cents on a system that is changing the face of our sport, and which I believe the professional, and all stakeholders, should have an opportunity to discuss. It will be interesting to review the system after Kona this year, and in the following months and years – a process which should be iterative and inclusive.

My parting comment is to voice the hope that the growth/profitability of the WTC does not occur to the exclusion of other race directors/organizers, and that the latter have the opportunity to thrive and prosper. Thereby enabling a wider variety of people, companies and organisations to effectively serve the ever-expanding market for triathlon events around the world, for long term good of this wonderful sport.