On the heels of Challenge Family’s announcement of the inaugural Challenge Bahrain–a half-distance triathlon featuring an unprecedented half-million dollar professional prize purse slated for Dec. 6, 2014–I had the opportunity to speak with both Zibi Szlufcik (Challenge Family CEO) and Dr. Saqer bin Salman Al Khalifa (President of the Bahrain Triathlon Association) to learn about the race itself and the Middle Eastern venue that will serve as host.
The keen interest in triathlon in this tiny island Kingdom is spurred by the passion of two princes–His Highness Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and younger brother His Highness Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, sons of the King of Bahrain who have taken to the sport as a natural extension of their athletic background in endurance horse riding. Along with other members of Bahrain’s triathlon team, the princes have raced in numerous events around the world in the past year, including Ironman Florida, Challenge Philippines and Ironman South Africa.
Al Khalifa–who earned an undergraduate degree at The Citadel, a masters at American University and a Ph.D. in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University before serving as Bahrain’s media attaché in Washington D.C., and who is also a member of Bahrain’s extensive royal family and an avid triathlete–explained the impetus for creating a large-scale international race in the country (Bahrain already hosts a handful of local sprint and Olympic distance triathlons). “His Highness Shaikh Nasser is the president of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and he has a vision for how to develop our youth and our sport together. When I was appointed president of the triathlon association he told me, ‘Don’t have limits to your ambitions. Make sure that you’re not just targeting local races. It’s very easy to be the first in the region, but that’s not where the standards have to be. This is a well-integrated world, so make sure that you’re targeting triathlon internationally. If we’re going to accomplish things, let’s make them real accomplishments–big ones, better ones.’ So we went to different triathlons of different distances and in different places and then we said, ‘We can do this! We can do this for our people. We can also do this to invite guests. We believe in Bahrain. It’s a beautiful island, so why not do this in Bahrain?’ It’s an investment we’re making for our people to spread the sport of triathlon, to make sure that people are healthy and active and finding new hobbies. We believe this is the perfect hobby to have–it’s very interesting, you never get bored of it and you can live with it forever.”
After considering opportunities with other event partners, Al Khalifa felt a solid alignment with Challenge Family. “We’re both interested in giving the athlete a very unique experience,” he said. “It’s not about just doing the race; it’s more about having fun. We’ll see that we’ve done a good job when we’ve put a smile on a participant’s face.”
After being in discussions with the team from Bahrain for several months, Challenge Family also felt an intuitive fit in terms of both parties’ objectives. “We reviewed our core values and there is a brilliant overlap in what we are aiming at and what they are aiming at: growing the sport on a global scale, adding value to the local communities, using triathlon as a bridge between professional athletes and the general population and between the general population and a healthy lifestyle and really making a long-lasting footprint that incorporates families and communities,” said Szlufcik.
The 113-km race–incorporating both individual and relay divisions–will not be an isolated event. As at all Challenge Family triathlons, the venture will incorporate a multi-day festival. In Bahrain, athletes can expect to enjoy a sports and fitness expo, a Challenge Women’s run and a Junior Challenge youth race in addition to rock concerts, international cuisine and a unique cultural experience. The government of Bahrain is also investing in the development of a world-class triathlon training center to ensure their long-term involvement in multisport.
“When the decision involves investing in the people of Bahrain, It’s a very easy decision to make. I think it was a very good call when the leadership told us to think about developing world-class facilities for this sport. Because when you do something for triathlon, you’re doing something for cycling, you’re doing something for swimming and you’re doing something for running–not just for triathlon,” said Al Khalifa.
“In terms of tourism this is also the best way to experience a country–to train and race in different climate, to mix with the people and to experience a different culture,” continued Al Khalifa. “We don’t want people to come to Bahrain to go to nightclubs. We don’t want them to come to Bahrain to go shopping. We want them to come to Bahrain and sweat like we’re sweating.”
According to Al Khalifa, female participants–both expats and locals–make up approximately 10-15% of every race field currently in Bahrain. “We do have a growing number of Bahraini women that are doing it, which is much better than any other country in the region here,” he said. “In fact, we know of a Kuwaiti lady who is training to do the Asian Olympics in September. She came to Bahrain to do a sprint distance a couple of weeks ago. I also heard of a Bahraini lady that is an excellent swimmer, so I contacted her and invited her to come do the sprint. She came and I gave her my bike to borrow on that same day and she beat the Kuwaiti lady by miles! Now we are going to train her for the next few months and send her to the Asian Olympics so that she can get a feel for what triathlon is about.”
As I spoke with Al Khalifa via Skype, he took an evening stroll around his neighborhood, occasionally pausing to show me the sights. (“I don’t like to just sit down,” he said. “May as well be outside and burn some calories!”) The visual accompaniments to our conversation included a beautiful mosque and an interesting expanse of earthen mounds, which Al Khalifa explained as the oldest historic burial ground in the world, dating back 4,000 years. “The older dynasties in Iraq believed that Bahrain was paradise, so they would bring their deceased and bury them here,” said Al Khalifa.
The Dilmun Burial Mounds is but one of a number of points of cultural interest that athletes will view during the race. The swim, in a protected saltwater bay, will take place below the ultra-modern skyline of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. Athletes will experience an extremely flat, fast ride from Manama in the north to the southern part of the island, nearly cycling the country’s full length and enjoying an almost guaranteed tailwind the entire way. Touted as a “journey through time” the bike course will pass by the financial district, the Bahrain National Museum, the National Theater of Bahrain and the impressive Al Fateh Mosque before traversing across the desert to complete a lap of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), Bahrain’s Formula One race track, home to T2 and the triathlon finish. After transiting through T2, runners will complete a 5-km leg before entering the Al Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve and circling the reserve’s 10-km tourist bus loop. Be prepared to see all variety of wildlife native to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, including leopards, hyenas, gazelle, oryx and giraffes. Ever wanted to test your foot speed against an ostrich? Here’s your chance, as the majority of animals roam freely in the reserve. Athletes will then return to the BIC for what Szlufcik anticipates to be “one of the greatest final stretches in the history of triathlon.” Bahrain’s humid climate will be balanced by moderate heat–the average high in early December is in the low 70’s.
Of special interest to professionals considering Challenge Bahrain is the race’s high dollar prize purse–the largest on offer for a half-distance event. (In comparison to Challenge Bahrain’s $500,000 purse, the Ironman World Championship full distance rewards pros with $650,000 and–newly increased for 2014–the Hy-Vee Elite Cup will put up $620,000 and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship will offer $250,000.) Al Khalifa is adamant that professional triathletes should be well rewarded for their efforts and for the full impact of their participation. “We race and we understand how hard it is! The professionals deserve to get the spoils of their hard work–they go through a lot in order to reach that level. It does not make sense for a professional to have to gamble on the sport. They have to think, ‘OK, if I go race in Japan I need to finish first or second just to secure the cost to get there.’ It shouldn’t be like that! They’re coming all the way to Bahrain and they’re going to race in front of us Bahrainis so that we will be able to see and learn from them. And this is our promise–that every single professional that comes to Bahrain will not leave with a loss. If we want to be serious and take triathlon to the next level, we need to be pioneers in this thing. If we want to put ourselves on the triathlon map around the world we need to put our money where our mouth is. And yes, it’s half a million dollars, but not one cent of that is wasted because we’re giving it to good people. Triathlon has really good people, just lovely people.”
Szlufcik agrees. “We need to provide more opportunities and more respect for professional athletes, and hopefully this race will help us do that. We want to improve the sport on a global scale, and part of that is improving the situation for professional athletes. It’s also providing a higher professional level of experience and service for age group athletes.”
Challenge Bahrain will introduce travel and amenity packages to assist age groupers in traveling to Bahrain and maximizing their race experience (think dedicated travel assistance, high-end finisher shirts, uniquely crafted medals and a festival atmosphere). Another bonus will be expedited visas, a clear benefit of the government’s backing of the race. While U.S. and European Union citizens can already obtain a visa on arrival in Bahrain, “every participant, even if you are a national of the moon, is going to have a visa upon arrival just by registering for the race,” said Al Khalifa. “Just come to the airport, show the authorities your registration and you’ll come right in.”
Another perk of the palace’s backing is course accessibility–often a problematic matter for race organizers in terms of road closures and permitting. “We have the highest authority in Bahrain supporting this event, so we are very lucky. We can close the roads as much as we want,” said Al Khalifa. “And we want to make traffic stop. We want people to get out of their cars and wonder what is going on and get excited about triathlon.”
“This is only an introduction, a first step in the Middle East,” said Szlufcik. “The relationship is a long-term project, and we’ll see how this evolves. We don’t want to attract only foreign athletes and expats; we want to attract national and regional athletes. After this we will advance to the next level and consider options in terms of how to continue using triathlon as a bridge between the local community and the global triathlon family.”