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A Texas Sized Problem

As a young man in the 70s I played a sport that was rising in numbers, influence and global popularity. It seemed every town was putting in facilities to accommodate players – and each month were new tournaments, sponsors and prize money for the taking.

Up until the 80s and early 90s it was regularly televised on major networks. The British Open witnessing 3,000 seat sell outs at Wembley Stadium. Former world champion, Janser Khan, reminiscing of the 80s:

“People used to come from all over the world to watch the semis and final. When I was playing my last Open they were selling tickets on the black market for over £100.”

That sport was Squash. Whose sad decline now serves as a prescient reminder as I’m consulted on options for converting disused courts into triathlon gyms.

Ironman Texas

I have long written about the very real problem of triathlon being run as a business by people who either do not understand, or care, about the sport they are supposed to be the custodians of.

Forget the humiliating spectacle of Ironman ratifying new ‘World Records’ in Texas which, the event’s own organisers admit, were short. And not 100m or 200m short. MILES short.

The decision to placate the age groupers and pros bent on recording ‘fast times’ is not surprising. It is only the latest in a series of absurdities that I hope is now brought to a head among the mainstream triathlon public. As it has to stop, otherwise our sport, like Squash and others which have been run with no forethought, will disappear.

Not the Athletes Fault

This will be a recurring theme over the next weeks, months and then into Kona. So let me address it now.

One cannot blame female professional athletes, who are probably riding stronger than most of the males, if they get swept up in a pack of 50 and keep riding. It’s not their intention to draft, but the course architecture and letting the age group men start on top of them with wetsuits are decisions that are completely out of their hands – and totally reversible by the powers that be.

Similarly with the large groups of competitive age group men. They are there and have paid significant money to race. Not just participate. They deserve their chance and shouldn’t be expected to stop every three minutes. It is at core a structural problem, not a moral one, whose problems and arguments are well detailed here.

Fast Times

One of the silver linings from Texas is the corrosive trend towards manipulating courses for ‘Personal Bests’ has now hit the point where they will be viewed, quite correctly, as meaningless.

2017 Ironman Texas Male AG Bike splits:

  • 1 under 4:30

  • 9 under 4:40

  • 29 under 4:50

  • 78 under 5:00

2018 Ironman Texas Male AG Bike splits:

  • 63 under 4:30

  • 178 under 4:40

  • 277 under 4:50

  • 345 under 5:00

The trend towards getting a PB or fast time at Iron distance is a destructive one and serves no purpose in our sport.

Real ‘Iron’ men and women need to forget the faster time mentality and get what the sport is. The harder the course, the more difficult the conditions, the more individual the journey of self discovery – the more honour there is in one’s training and racing. That IS what the sport is about. The tougher and more authentic courses deserve the prestige that is now wasted on the IM Brazil, Florida, Texas’es of the circuit – which should be ignored by all serious athletes.

ironman-recognizes-im-texas-records-admittedly-shortened-course (1)
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Here is Triathlete Magazine’s rundown on the history of the ‘North American Championship’. Which also wasn’t covered on live feed as other Championships are


In 2015, the race saw a large number of DNFs from heat and humidity.

In 2016, county officials pulled approval of the bike course 75 days before the event due to resident outrage. The new route was partially washed out by storms, shortening the bike route to 94 miles…

In 2017, it looked like the race wouldn’t happen at all. And then, somehow, it did.

But 2018 has outdone itself on the drama scale, with an event mired in more controversy and chaos than ever before.

And I’m often asked, ‘Sutto, why do they keep putting the race there?’ Very simple. Money, monopoly and a completely short sighted view. They know they’ll lose the dissatisfied longer term athletes, but for now also know that they can be replaced with the new ones who don’t know any better. Well that strategy won’t last for long. **Which I suspect they also know, but view as a problem for the next owners.

There is a serious need now to come up with innovation and a cultural shift for the long term future of the sport. Where courses and events are chosen on the merits of the race and not brand or ‘chance to get to Kona’ – which is now experiencing its own problems. The explosion of weak, poorly marshalled events by Ironman and the Challenge brands – based on a ‘whoever will pay’ doctrine is a short term strategy that will have dire longer term implications.

With every arm of the putting safety, people’s expectations, the sport’s integrity and fairness to the back of the list – and subservient to the following questions:

‘How much can the host pay?’ ‘How many athletes can we fit on the course?’ ‘How much can we gauge our participants for the privilege?’

The only way to improve it is by people voting with their feet and racing elsewhere. As athletes or people who love the sport we have to start and stand for something. The good news is the sport is growing as part of a world wide trend towards endurance events, and there are other options.

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