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An All-American World Championship?

The 2021 70.3 World Championship will seem much more red, white, and blue than usual—we look at why.

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This year’s 70.3 World Championship will be weird. 

Of course, that was always going to be the case, but in addition to the weirdness we can see—face masks, COVID tests, adjustments to volunteers and changing tents—what will be weirdest is what (and whom) we don’t see. In a time when triathlon is increasingly becoming a global sport, when the world championship has gotten more and more diverse and more countries are represented every year, we will see less of that this weekend than we have in years. 

I got my first hint of this at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, watching the 21 Kona spots be handed out in the men’s 50-54 age group. And I had my suspicions confirmed when friends in Australia told me how athletes were turning down their slots because they had no guarantees of being able to get to the U.S. once they handed over their money. The weirdness of who will and won’t be on the start line is multiplied.

Here’s the problem: Since it went to a two-day format, there have been about 5,000 spots for the men’s and women’s races at the 70.3 World Championships. Those spots, in normal years, have to be earned or qualified for at an Ironman 70.3 race somewhere in the world (with a few exceptions). And so the spots are allocated relatively evenly to each of the 100+ 70.3 races around the globe. (Those spots are then divided up and handed out to each age group.)

However, during this 2021 qualifying period, there were the same number of spots but a lot fewer events at which to hand them out.

Goodbye spots for European and Canadian races—most of which were canceled or rescheduled for outside the qualifying window. Goodbye spots for canceled races in South America and rescheduled races in South Africa. Australia and New Zealand were able to hold events, but travel restrictions continue to heavily limit people from coming or going. Goodbye Australians and New Zealanders who can’t make it to the U.S. In fact, with quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still limiting travel, goodbye to a lot of countries’ athletes. 

What happened to all those leftover spots? They got added to races that were happening. And where are races happening? America. And who can make it to a race in the U.S? Americans!

And so dozens and dozens of 70.3 St. George spots were then added—many times at the last minute—to the American races that were able to go off.

This means more Americans than ever will be at the start line in Utah. While the U.S. always has the largest number of athletes of any nation (though not the largest percentage of podium finishes), they’re typically around just 20% of the World Championship field. While that percentage is higher when the race is in the U.S., Ironman says this year’s field is 70% American. The last few years when the world championship races were held, there was a larger percentage of athletes from outside the most-represented 10 countries than there ever had been—i.e., more countries and a wider range were represented on the start line. That will not be the case this year.

This doesn’t mean anyone on the start line doesn’t deserve to be there. They all earned their spots exactly the way you’re supposed to earn a spot. The reality of the world isn’t their fault, but the reality is also that Ironman has thousands of age-groupers who pay to race—and it is not a cheap event to put on. They need to hand out all of these spots however they can.

And so we are left with a baseball World Series phenomenon: a world championship event that’s heavily American. Once upon a time, it wasn’t weird when the hundreds of people lining up were mostly from the U.S. with a handful of Germans and Australians. Now, it seems weirder than ever.

A version of this commentary originally ran in the Sept/Oct magazine issue as part of the Kona preview.