It is the race, with a lot of help from NBC, that put triathlon on the worldwide map.
Chances are that if you think back to your very first flirtation with the sport of triathlon, you'll recall that the annual Kona Ironman drama played a central role in your initial interest in the sport.
So it is very understandable that each year thousands of age-group athletes harbor the secret (and often not -so-secret) goal of racing in Hawaii at the World Championships.
To do this they must either enter the Ironman Kona lottery, or get one of the coveted Ironman Kona slots by racing at one of the many IM races around the world.
For the sake of keeping this column brief I'll describe the process of getting your gold ticket to Kona in a somewhat simplified manner.
Every Ironman race has a small number of Kona Slots (usually 50-80) that go to the top finishers in each age-group category.
Sometimes these slots will roll down. For instance if one of the top finisher has already qualified for a slot at another IM race, or has no interest and/or ability to travel Kona for the world championships these slots roll down to the next finisher in that age group category.
Kona slots are awarded the day after the qualifying IM race and must be accepted and paid in full...on the spot. In other words if you get a slot ($500 USD) you'll need cash or a credit card to pay for it the day after your qualifying race.
No cash or credit card, no Kona for you!
The real word effect of this slot and roll down slot system is to continuously change the qualifying times to get to Kona. At some races you'll need to beak ten hours (depending on your age group of course ) to qualify for Kona, while at others (in the same age-group) all you have to do is finish the race in legal time (17 hours).
This may be the case in the up coming Ironman China race. Last time I checked there were only several hundred people signed up for the race. This means that getting one of the 50 coveted Kona slots is pretty easy when only a fraction of the normal 2000 athletes show up to race.
In real terms this means that the current slot system assigns a significant number of Kona slots by luck(who's racing on any given day), by wealth (can you afford to fly to China this year), and by chance (how far will the slots roll down).
I believe this system was set-up by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) as a way to promote, control, and grow its business. The WTC uses the World Championships slots as both a carrot and stick.
Take away the Kona slots from a significant number of IM races around the world and you've just about killed that race...IM brand not withstanding.
Give 50 slots to any IM distance race in the world and you've just created a significant new Ironman branded race that will draw triathletes from around the world.
That's a very powerful business tool. Some might even call that (and many have) a Iron monopoly on the Iron distance races.
And that's exactly why I believe the current slot system has to go the way of the Dodo bird.
Every year it becomes painfully more obvious that the current slot system is simply about money. How to make it, how to keep it, and how to make more of it!
It is high time that the Ironman World Championships to join the greatest marathon in the World (Boston) and switch to a system of simple qualifying times for Kona.
I would estimate that it would take about a week for the WTC to come up with a straightforward qualifying time for each age group. With a little number crunching and some padding they could easily hit their target (Kona) race size given all of the numeric data they have at their disposal today.
In other words, they could establish qualifying times for Kona and still keep the race manageable.
This would shift the focus away from the money and on to the athlete by:
1) Giving every triathlete a fair and even chance at qualifying,
2) Creating a set of constant and measurable goals for anyone who wants to qualify,
3) Ultimately increase the reputation of the race, and grow it beyond the politics of corporate control
4) Make a good race great, and let it really become the legend that NBC likes to portray the race as being.
Is it not high time for the WTC to set Kona Free? The race has matured far beyond the early days when a handful of athletes tested themselves against the ocean, the road, and the lava.
With almost all other WTC Ironman races selling out around the word, Kona has also moved far away from the days when it was purchased out of pending bankruptcy.
Kona has even moved beyond the legendary battles of Dave Scott and Mark Allen. The race has outgrown the star athletes, the early struggles of adolescence, and need for tight corporate control.
It is time for the WTC to give-up a small part of their control, do the right thing, and give the race back to the triathletes that make it great.
It is time for the WTC to look beyond its pocketbooks and let the race mature to greatness like the Boston Marathon.
And the only way that can happen is if qualifying for the race becomes Democratic with a big "D" and not corporate with a small "c".