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We checked in with WTC CEO Andrew Messick on the eve of tomorrow’s Ironman World Championship to see how he’ll be spending race day, hear his thoughts on WTC’s new events for 2013, their commitment to anti-doping in triathlon and more.
Triathlete editor-in-chief Julia Polloreno: What is your role tomorrow? How will you spend the day?
Andrew Messick: From the time when transition opens until it closes, I’ll be there talking to athletes and making sure everything is on-track. We have a really strong operational team, so there’s very little that needs to be done. I think it’s important just to be around, talk to athletes—I know a lot of people doing the race as everyone does who’s been involved in the sport for a while—so it’s good to catch up. I’ll be standing next to the guy from Whistler when he shoots the cannon to start the pro field. We made the announcement yesterday that Whistler will be the new home for Ironman Canada. I think it’s going to be terrific for Ironman, it’s going to be terrific for western athletes. It’s a great, great venue. Whistler has the same look, feel and vibe as Mt. Tremblant—one of the best venues I’ve ever been to, so I think we’re going to have a really good experience. It’s easier to get to than Penticton and will draw a little bit better internationally. There’s more recognition and reputation of that.
Then I’ll go on the bike course for an hour, or hour and a half and go up to Hawi on a moto and make sure everything is okay at the turnaround and I’ll be back before the first pros come in. Over the course of the next few hours I’ll spend two to two and a half hours in the production tent and working with the production team on the coverage. I have a very strong point of view on how we report the race, on how we tell the story of what’s happening on the racecourse. Almost everyone who is consuming our live coverage—how we tell the story and the crispness and clarity in which we describe what’s happening on the race course—it’s really the narrative that most people consume. It’s important that we get that right, and I care a lot about it and so am in the truck a lot. I try to let the guys do their job but I have a lot of strong points of view about how we talk about the race and the extent of which we’re telling a compelling story of what’s happening in the men’s and women’s races.
Our viewers, like all triathletes, have an extraordinarily high appetitive for detailed, factual information—wattage, splits, all of it—and the job of our production team on the live side is to take all that data and be able to turn it into a compelling narrative about what’s happening on the racecourse. We don’t have enough cameras to have a camera on every one of our top-10 athletes, so we need to be using spotter information, split information to really be able to divine what’s going on on the racecourse. That’s an area where I think we’ve gotten a lot better in the last year, but it’s an area where I think we can still get a lot better.
I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. But I do know that the narrative of who wins is going to be about whether the super-strong bicyclists can hang on—and whether the guys (men and women) that get off the bike with some gap are able to run the guys in front down. Our obligation is being able to tell that story in a really exciting and compelling way. So I’m generally in the truck trying to help us be a little bit better in that respect.
Then I’ll come out for the men’s and women’s winners and stay in the finish area for an hour or so then go back to the truck and make sure we transition to the age group finishing. I’ve got a lot of guests that I will entertain in the afternoon; I’ve got a couple people I’ll be having dinner with—Marisol Casado from the ITU arrives tonight, so I’ll spend some time with her tomorrow. My goal is to get back to the finish line by about nine o’clock and then I’m there until the finish.
JP: Do you stay until the last finisher crosses?
AM: Absolutely; I wouldn’t miss that for the world. Almost all of us are there until midnight. Then there’s a closing ceremony about 12:15 and then I’ll do a walk-around with [race director] Diana Bertsch to talk to our staff, volunteer and the crew that’s breaking down the race and I’ll generally get back to the hotel about 2. It’s a good 22-hour day. But you’re watching the greatest race in our sport, and it’s a great opportunity for me to see a lot of our staff from all over the world who are here, a lot of our partners, and just catch up with a lot of folks.
JP: We were at the pro press conference yesterday and I think a lot of people were wondering where Macca was, why he wasn’t on the panel.
AM: He declined. We invited him, and he chose not to participate. That’s his right.
JP: Would you like to speak to the announcement by the Challenge series about partnering with Macca—the timing of that announcement?
AM: I’m flattered! Felix Walchshöfer flew all the way to my race to announce his partnership. Look, it’s the power of Kona, right? If people want to get attention in our sport, this is the place they come to. Macca has been a great champion for us. He’s racing Noosa, our race, he’s racing Mooloolaba, he’s racing Ironman Cairns next year. He’ll be participating in a lot of our races; he’s free to do as much stuff with Challenge as he wants to.
JP: Let’s talk about the separate start for the women this year. Where did that groundswell come from, and when was that decision made? Is there any talk of increasing that from 5 minutes to perhaps 8-10 minutes?
AM: The whole question of a separate women’s start has been percolating around the sport for a while. It came to a head in Boulder in early August. I was at a World Bicycle Relief fundraiser there right before the Boulder 70.3 and Mirinda and I started talking about the race and that conversation morphed into a conversation the next day with Melanie McQuaid and Leanda Cave about whether we should have a separate women’s start. It was less about the separate women’s start and more about the way that having the pro women and the pro men start together influenced and affected the race. In both the swim and the bike, it really changes the race dynamic a lot to have the women starting with the men. For some of the women to be able to get into the lead group of men on the swim and then to be able to ride for some period of time with the pro men as well. It’s legal but it changes the race for sure. I think the main ethos of the sport of triathlon, especially at the pro level, is the women should have their own independent race to the greatest possible extent, and the men should have their own independent race to the greatest possible extent. And I felt like it was worth trying—to see what happens. The question about the timing sequence is really a function of when it gets light and when the top age-group men are going to start catching the women. So we spent a fair amount of time and effort looking at ‘What is the right amount of time between the pro women’s start and the mass start for age-groupers?’ and ‘At what is the pointy end of the age-group race going to start overtaking the women?’ As that happens, the pro women who are getting caught start getting an advantage, so we wanted to make sure that the gap was big enough so that the pro women who are really in the hunt don’t start getting overtaken by the age-groupers until probably about mile 85. We think that with a 25-minute head start, that’s where that will start to happen based on all the historical timing data that we looked at. I don’t know whether five minutes is the right amount of time; it’s hard to start the men’s race before 6:30, just because the light’s not very good. I think everyone wants to see the spectacle of the pro men. So we’ll see how it works. But I think it’s good for women’s racing, and I’m intrigued to see whether it changes how our female athletes race. It should be a more fair race.
JP: I noticed your hat [embroidered with “Say No to Doping”]. Yesterday you guys sent out a press release acknowledging your commitment to a doping-free sport as a WADA signatory. Can you speak about sending this message at this race, at this time?
AM: We’ve been WADA signatories since 2006 and we have partnered with WADA the last few years. They’re involved with our kids’ race that takes place on Tuesday [before the race]. We think that part of the message we want to send to the kids—and part of WADA’s main mission—is to ensure that the next generation—our kids—aren’t put in the position where they have to make the types of choices that were certainly outlined in the USADA report. And that people are free to be able to compete to the best of their ability and not do what apparently a lot of the cyclists had to do. We believe in our relationship with WADA, we’ve been partners with them for a long time. USADA does most of our testing implementation around the United States and I think we’re committed to doing everything we can for triathlon to stay clean. I think it’s one of the great things about the sport of triathlon—the culture of our sport is very different than the culture of cycling. Just in the last week or so that’s become increasingly obvious. I believe that people have an ability to win and people can and do win clean in the sport of triathlon. The Lance thing has been a challenge for all of us. We believe that we did the right thing—suspending him and then upholding his suspension once the USADA sanctions were levied. For those of us who love the sport, we’re never going know if he could have won Kona. He went from being a professional cyclist to a retired professional cyclist to a world-class triathlete. When he won out here in June, course records and all of that, there’s absolutely no doubt that he was one of the very best long course triathletes in the world. Whether he was good enough to win here, I don’t know. It looks like we’re never going to know. But as somebody who loves sport and loves competition, I really, really would have like to have found out. Ultimately though we have rules because rules are the only way you can guarantee a fair competition.
JP: Any plans in 2013 to introduce new races?
AM: We have two new full-distance races that we haven’t announced yet. And I’m not going to tell you what they are. One we are expecting to be in September of 2013 and the other in October. They only clue I will give you is that they are not in North America. I will tell you first though, how about that? I suspect we will pull the trigger in January.