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Ironman 70.3 Dubai will take place on Saturday, March 5. A bucket-list event for age-groupers and pros alike; the early-season date gives athletes a chance to compete in warm weather and the flat terrain of the course makes it ripe for PRs. But how did triathlon make its way to the “City of Gold” in the first place? Here’s a look back at the history of triathlon in Dubai.
Back in the 1980s when triathlon was gaining traction in other parts of the world, the city and emirate of Dubai was far from the swoon-worthy destination that it is today. A mere shadow of the dazzling metropolitan of modern day, the coastline—now dotted with soaring skyscrapers and seven-star hotels—was lined with squat, beige buildings that all but blended into the dry desert terrain.
It took some time, but Dubai has since become a hotspot for triathlon with events like the Dubai International Triathlon, Challenge Dubai, and Ironman Dubai 70.3. Collectively, these races—and the support of deep-pocketed royalty—have launched a tradition of red-hot racing in Dubai and throughout the United Arab Emirate.
The first sparks of triathlon in the UAE came from a strong push by former Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who aimed to make Dubai the sporting hub in the Middle East. One of the richest men in the world, “Skeikh Mo” (who is now the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE) began pumping money into athletics, including triathlon, in the mid-2000s. His goal: To use the sport as a platform to attract global exposure for Dubai and to make the 13.5 square mile-city a tourist destination for people across the planet—particularly jet-setting triathletes.
But the sheikh would know little about triathlon if it wasn’t for a man named Franko Vatterott, who, as a 20-something Boulder-based entrepreneur, gamely pitched the novel idea of a pro team to the powerful leader in 2004. Vatterott happened to be working on a separate project at the sheikh’s stables when he seized the opportunity to ask him if he would sponsor a professional triathlon team. “The UAE had won their first gold medal in the [Athens] Games and the city went crazy with enthusiasm. I just happened to be there when it went down. It was the perfect time to present the triathlon team concept,” Vattertott shared. “The presentation was done at 2:30 a.m. during Ramadan at one of Sheikh Mohammed’s villas.”
Thus launched the Tri-Dubai team, a dominant squad of the world’s best professionals of the time including Craig Alexander, Norman Stadler, Desiree Ficker, and Lisa Bentley–all of whom scaled the podium at the Ironman World Champs and other major races while wearing the yellow and blue Tri-Dubai kit. Although the team disbanded after just two seasons in 2006, Dubai became inextricably linked to the sport of triathlon.
In the years that followed, other members of middle eastern royalty, as well as the Dubai Sports Council, have backed big-time events with giant prize purses to continue to lure an international field. In 2015, Swiss star Daniela Ryf collected $1 million for winning every race in the Nasser Bin Hamad al Khalifa Triple Crown, which included half-ironman races in Dubai, Oman, and Bahrain. (Ryf has also won Ironman Dubai 70.3 four times; she’s set to race again this weekend along with Tokyo gold medalist Kristian Blummenfelt, who headlines the men’s race.)
While Dubai is now a must-race destination for many elites because of the money and fast times, the thriving triathlon culture has also extended well beyond the best-of-the-best. Case in point: In 2017, the city made history by hosting the first-ever women’s only triathlon in the Middle East, a beginner-friendly race that will celebrate its fifth anniversary on March 12.