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Conviction: Pros And Kona

How do we feel about the ranking system?

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This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

In September of 2010, World Triathlon Corporation did away with the long-standing slot-qualification system for its professionals and instead required them to compete via a new system that tallies points earned at WTC races. The top 50 men and 30 women in the Kona Pro Ranking (KPR) and 70.3 Pro Ranking (70.3PR) would earn start positions in that WTC world championship event.

One year in, how do we feel about the ranking system?

First, a look at the top athletes: For them, the most problematic feature of the KPR is that it requires them to race more.

While athletes can use the previous year’s Kona points and points from up to three 70.3 events—points which can easily put them into top-30 or top-50 rankings—the KPR nevertheless mandates that all athletes complete a “qualifying” non-Kona Ironman during the regular season.

It seems harmless, right? They just have to “complete” another Ironman. What’s the big deal?

The problem is that champions don’t simply “complete” their Ironmans. What defines our sport’s elite is their undying will to compete—their ability to overcome two flat tires and run a race-best marathon to secure a podium spot. Reigning Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae spent months recovering from such an effort at Ironman New Zealand this past March.

Meanwhile, 2008 and 2009 Ironman world champion Craig Alexander has not competed in his usual host of 70.3 events. Instead, he devoted the first part of his season to Ironman Australia, which he pulled out of after coming down with a viral infection. He did not complete his qualifying race until late June, when he won Ironman Coeur d’Alene.

It is certainly exciting for fans to see athletes such as Alexander and Carfrae deliver dominating performances outside of Kona, but losing their presence at multiple 70.3 events has a slightly nullifying effect in a sport where accessibility to the pros is one of its hallmark features.

For the sport’s up-and-coming professionals, the effect of the KPR is a bit different. These athletes are used to racing more than one Ironman per year to qualify for Kona, so it’s not the qualifying Ironman event that is problematic.

Instead, the burden of the KPR on most developing athletes is financial. With hundreds of pro athletes chasing points at Ironman and 70.3 events worldwide, the cost of a Kona start easily approaches the tens of thousands of dollars.

Weak WTC prize money can make that effort hard to sustain. As an illustration, up-and-comer Uli Bromme’s third-place finish at this year’s Ironman St. George earned her $5,500 and 1560 Kona points. Her ninth place at Ironman Arizona gave her 880 Kona points, but no prize money. As of press time, these results have left her two spots out of Kona, meaning she’ll have to race Ironman Germany to attempt to secure a spot.

WTC Ironman and 70.3 payouts are decidedly top-heavy. Even at the world championships they only go 10 deep. By contrast, ITU Dextro Energy World Championship Series triathlons pay to 15th, with series bonuses through 20th. The Hy-Vee Triathlon, the U.S. championship for WTC’s 5i50 series, pays every one of the 60 men and women finishers who qualify to compete via the 5i50 points system.

Requiring athletes to chase points without making significant improvements on the financial side weakens the pool of viable athletes, particularly in long-course races. The ITU points ranking system undoubtedly inspired the KPR and 70.3PR. Why not also take inspiration from the ITU’s depth in prize money and scholarship and development initiatives?

Thus far, WTC’s only nod to development is its standardization of prize purses alongside the points allocations. Races with fewer points offer less prize money in an effort to designate which races will draw less competitive professional fields.

However, what we’ve seen is that athletes tend to choose races based on timing, sponsor interests, the quality of the venue, how the course suits their strengths and other non-KPR factors. If the Ironman or 70.3 is a smaller points race, then so be it. Rising talent Ben Hoffman is earning a steady accumulation of podiums (and points) with this approach.

The overarching goal of the KPR and 70.3PR—to elevate the professional side of the sport—is a good one. WTC’s continued expansion pretty much necessitated a tier-type system such as the KPR, a system that “provides a solid platform for us to race as professionals,” as Hoffman puts it.

Yet whether the system as-is can elevate competition on the big stage remains to be seen—the likelihood of athletes arriving at the world championships injured or overtired has certainly increased.

Furthermore, the new system is not entirely for the “good” of the sport. Some believe WTC likely has some implicit goals with the rankings systems, one being to free up Kona slots to sell to age groupers at its new crop of Ironman events by reducing the number of pros at Kona.

WTC, for its part, denies this: “When the idea of the KPR was first initiated it had nothing to do with age-group slots or total slots, for that matter. It had to do with creating a representative field at our world championship events,” said WTC pro liaison Heather Fuhr.

Another likely implicit WTC goal is to lure professionals away from other series such as Challenge and Rev3. This hasn’t really happened. Those races have remained competitive and grown in popularity.

Finally, WTC’s new continental championships seem intent on drawing big-name match-ups. We can be grateful that such match-ups haven’t occurred, leaving that allure for where it belongs: Kona.

More “Conviction” articles from Courtenay Brown.