I can remember the first triathlon I competed in as a kid.
Half the competitors swam in floaties, a mixture of road, BMX and mountain bikes filled transition, and the course was marshalled by an army of fluorescent pink, green and yellow elastic shoelaces – triathletes volunteering at the kids event before their own race the next day.
The senior race took place in exactly same spirit. Bodies of all shapes and sizes lining up in loose-fitting trisuits, second hand or borrowed bikes, cheered on by family, friends and club mates who made the journey together to watch the race.
If it's a rose coloured memory, I'm not the only one who shares it.
I've spent my brief time in the sport surrounded by athletes and coaches with the same recurring complaints:
Races closing down as fast as new ones pop up.
Age group athletes paying higher and higher entry fees, with no explanation or commensurate benefit.
Events sliding into semi-draft formats raced for personal best times to satisfy the egos of a new breed of 'it's all about me' professional amateurs.
Iconic brands putting their name to coaching courses which are a complete and utter embarrassment.
Race directors spending exorbitant amounts on franchise licences, instead of investing in improved race experiences.
A systematic reduction in prize purses and pathways for professional athletes.
If we delve even deeper at the institutional or federation levels we see a similar under belly of simmering discontent. So how to account for the growing list of frustrations?
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
It's very easy to point the finger at Ironman. However to do so is neither accurate or constructive. By any objective measure they've done an incredible job of building the sport and responding to the demands of their market. At an individual level you'll find the management extremely courteous, intelligent and capable.
Instead, the harsher reality we have to face up to is that it is you, dear triathlete, who is responsible for the current state of the sport.
- It is you who are prepared to pay the 8% transaction fee on a $895 entry.
- It is you who seek out the easy courses to be rewarded with the fast times.
- It is you who stopped volunteering at the clubs or being involved at the grassroots level.
And it is the Pros who are ultimately responsible for having made themselves so disconnected and irrelevant from their core base, that formerly blue ribbon events like Ironman Zurich can cancel the women's professional race (not the men’s) without a whimper of protest.
The submission to the current order of things is not the same thing as satisfaction. We've seen noble but doomed attempts to affect change, but in the absence of any cohesive alternative the result of a divided opposition up against a formidable monopoly is inevitable.
So the question becomes, how to rebuild a fractured sport?
'Brick by brick my fellow citizens. Brick by brick.
It starts by going back to the base.
By reaching out to the triathletes and volunteers who built this sport in the first place. Contrary to received wisdom we do not need 'a big sponsor' or a billionaire investor come in and fix things. What we do need is a community of like minded people who love the sport, want to see it changed for the better and are prepared to work for it.
It means reaching out to the the clubs, the coaches, the race organisers who have been around a long time, have weathered the storms and come out the other side stronger for it.
It means focusing all our energies on delivering higher quality, more innovative events and services for athletes at better prices. With a view not just to the next one or two years, but the next 20. That’s how things change. There are no short cuts.
Spirit Tri Series
Last week Spirit announced a new European long distance triathlon series, which should be seen very much in this context.
Iconic events across multiple countries, which will incorporate professional teams, age group and club competitions. More importantly they are events that have built a solid foundation by remaining true to the core principals of what triathlon is about. Community, health and fun.
- International Triathlon Portocolom, Mallorca, Spain - 14 April, 2019
- EBERL Chiemsee Triathlon, Germany - 30 June, 2019
- TIME Triathlon Alpe d’Huez, France - 25 July, 2019
- TRANS Vorarlberg Triathlon, Austrian National Championships - 25 August, 2019