Simply no stopping the rise of the Ironman – and, of course, woman

Ian O’Riordan: Sport of triathlon quietly going about its own business – a $650m one

Competitors enter Scotsman’s Bay in Dun Laoghaire during Ironman 70.3 in 2016. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Competitors enter Scotsman’s Bay in Dun Laoghaire during Ironman 70.3 in 2016. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

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 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 this Sunday 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).

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.

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