Triathlon qui­etly go­ing about its own busi­ness – a $650m one

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Rior­dan

From my desk win­dow I can just about read the yel­low sign on the last short climb be­fore the Glen­cullen cross­roads: IRONMAN, Sun­day 19th Au­gust, ROAD CLOSED, 08.30am – 13.15pm.

There’s a lot of talk these days about sport and par­tic­i­pa­tion and what it means for the health of our na­tion. Some peo­ple like to put a price on it all, in the fi­nan­cial and phys­i­cal sense, ar­gu­ing the mer­its of one sport over the other. Es­pe­cially when it comes to the re­turn on any proper sport­ing in­vest­ment.

And then there is the sport of triathlon, qui­etly go­ing about its own busi­ness – a 650 mil­lion dol­lar busi­ness, to be ex­act. This may be the one sport where you just buy the ticket, take the ride, and try not to count up the cost of it all. Once con­sid­ered a craze, or a sport only for the crazy, there is sim­ply no stop­ping the rise of the Ironman – and of course woman.

In some ways the triathlon has be­come a sort of For­mula One of mass par­tic­i­pa­tion sport, only with­out any of the fame or the for­tune, and with far health­ier re­turns, if only in the phys­i­cal sense.

Nowhere will this be more ev­i­dent than around Dún Laoghaire har­bour and the Dublin and Wick­low moun­tains tto­mor­row morn­ing, where around 2,000 of the fittest men and women in Ire­land, in­clud­ing a fair share from abroad, will be swim­ming, cy­cling and run­ning in very quick suc­ces­sion for just over 70 miles – most fin­ish­ing be­fore a slio­tar is throw-in at Croke Park, not even the rem­nants of Storm Ernesto putting them off.

The oc­ca­sion is the Dún Laoghaire Ironman 70.3, not so much a sport­ing event as a brand, all neatly traced back just 40 years, when the first Ironman triathlon was staged in Oahu, Hawaii in 1978.

To settle an ar­gu­ment over who was the fittest – the swim­mer, the run­ner, or the cy­clist – US Navy Com­man­der John Collins com­bined the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough­wa­ter Swim, the 112-mile Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon.

The first win­ner, 27-year-old Gor­don Haller, con­sid­ered him­self a run­ner first, al­though in ways that ar­gu­ment has never been set­tled; not when the triathlon is still fastest grow­ing sport in the world, de­spite the in­creas­ing costs of it all.

And for­get about any proper fame or for­tune.

For some it’s more about the shorter Olympic and sprint dis­tances, for oth­ers that will be never be enough. The Ironman 70.3 is ex­actly half that orig­i­nally de­cid­ing dis­tance – and in old money too: a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile cy­cle, and a 13.1-mile run (hence the 70.3).

Speak­ing of money, early-bird en­tries to Dún Laoghaire Ironman 70.3 started at ¤275, plus an 8% ac­ti­va­tion fee, and closed at ¤320. Walk-up en­tries are still avail­able un­til lunchtime on Satur­day for ¤340 (plus that 8%), and if any of the 2,000 en­trants aren’t mem­bers of Triathlon Ire­land there’s another ¤25 one-day mem­ber­ship fee.

Train­ing aids

That’s the cheap part: af­ter the zip­ping and strip­ping of ny­lon wet­suits – Orca, 2XU, Zoot – the clip­ping into and dis­mount­ing of car­bon bikes – Cervelo, Pinarello, Can­non­dale – and the light­weight flats and half-naked run­ning – Nike, Brooks, New Bal­ance – no man or woman in Ironman 70.3 will have much change from ¤5,000. Some will have spent twice that, es­pe­cially if fond of the train­ing de­vices and other per­fectly le­gal train­ing aids.

There is noth­ing what­so­ever cheap about the triathlon, ex­cept of course for the spec­ta­tors, who all get in for free. But when most of those are also buy­ing into the Ironman brand by be­ing in and around Dún Laoghaire this week­end that’s all part of the pricey ticket too.

No won­der the World Triathlon Cor­po­ra­tion (WTC), who has owned the Ironman brand since 1978 and now stages at least 250 events ev­ery year around the world, was bought up in 2015 by China’s big­gest com­mer­cial prop­erty com­pany, the Dalian Wanda Group, for that that tidy sum of $650m. The group is owned by Wang Jian­lin, worth an es­ti­mated $30.1 bil­lion, and one the rich­est men in Asia.

Jian­lin, who partly owns Atlético Madrid and agreed a deal with Fifa to start the China Cup, clearly knows some­thing about making money from sport.

Triathlon has no sta­dium costs and events are staffed mostly by vol­un­teers, which helps ex­plain why net prof­its at WTC had been grow­ing by 40 per cent a year.

China also presents a vast un­tapped mar­ket for triathlons, es­pe­cially its grow­ing mid­dle in­come pop­u­la­tion in the 35-40 age bracket, only now wak­ing up to the health ben­e­fits of the mass par­tic­i­pa­tion sports of swim­ming, run­ning and cy­cling – no mat­ter what the fi­nan­cial cost.

The per­sonal in­vest­ment is sig­nif­i­cant in other ways. All 2,000 com­peti­tors in Ironman 70.3 (there is also a re­lay op­tion) will have been train­ing for sev­eral months, some­times twice in one day, to meet the de­mands of the event – which be­gins at 7.0am on Sun­day with that 1.2-mile swim around Scots­man’s Bay at Sandy­cove, fol­lowed by the 56-mile ride from Dún Laoghaire up to­wards En­niskerry and Round­wood and then over the Sally Gap and by back down by Glen­cullen, then a three-lap 13.1-mile run around Monkstown and Sea­point be­fore the fin­ish line at the Lex­I­con li­brary at the har­bour front.

And for no great prize ei­ther, other than the Ironman 70.3 t-shirt and fin­ish­ers’ medal, which can be in­scribed on the day for an ex­tra ¤15 (cash only).

Mo­ti­va­tion

At the very front of the race will be Ire­land’s reign­ing ironman of the sport, Bryan McCrys­tal, the 37 year-old from Dun­dalk, who last month in Ger­many set a new na­tional record of 8:07:37 for the full Ironman dis­tance.

McCrys­tal, a for­mer youth team player with Leeds United, can’t af­ford to stop to count the cost of his sport, not with a wife and two young chil­dren to sup­port and a jew­ellery shop to help run, but he doesn’t cry about it ei­ther.

Be­cause for all the talk about fund­ing in sport, some peo­ple will al­ways find mo­ti­va­tion in test­ing the lim­its of their own fit­ness, and the Ironman brand are making a healthy re­turn on that. For oth­ers it just means rid­ing out from the Glen­cullen cross­roads well be­fore 8.30am.

Triathlon has no sta­dium costs and events are staffed mostly by vol­un­teers, which helps ex­plain why net prof­its at WTC are grow­ing by 40 per cent a year

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