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Things You Might Not Know: Why IRONMAN First Offered A Prize Purse

Today it’s just a given that the IRONMAN World Championship will have a prize purse. No one would even consider for a moment eliminating it. Sorry pros, come race for fun!

Without prize money there would be no Daniela Ryf or Patrick Lange obliterating world records. There would be no Paula Newby-Fraser winning the IRONMAN World Championships 8-times or my classic battle with Dave Scott in 1989. You would likely never know names like Craig Alexander, Natascha Badmann, Erin Baker, Chrissie Wellington or Peter Reid. These are the athletes who relied on things like a prize purse to support themselves and to be in the kind of shape that serves as inspiration for all of us.

Without the ability to carve out a living, professional athletes would never reach the stratospheric levels that inspire us all to take up a sport and be our best. Natascha Badmann.

Athletes being able to devote all their energies to becoming the best they can raises us all to new levels.

I watch the Olympics not because I want to be the next curling champion, but because I can witness the peak of human potential. And that is inspiring. It connects me to the absolute best part of myself. Seeing others putting together peak human potential after months of devoted training is a reminder to all of us to seek that next level, even if our best is far from world class. It plugs us into that same current of excellence. That’s a place we would never explore if mediocre was the best we saw.

But back to triathlons and prize money!

A little-known part of IRONMAN World Championship history is what sparked the race to offer a prize purse to its top finishers.

In the early years of IRONMAN there was no check to be earned by any athlete. Everyone raced for the same rewards: personal fulfillment, medals, shirts and a chance to be honored at the Awards Banquet.

IRONMAN got away with that for many years. The pros would focus on this one singularly defining race for months. They would forego other triathlons that did offer enough money to pay the rent. The hope was that by racing in Kona they could showcase their abilities as an athlete to high profile sports companies like a “Nike” or a “Gatorade”. Place high in Kona and you’d have a guaranteed nest egg contract coming your way.

Unfortunately, even if you got your 15-minutes of fame on the television broadcast that’s not what happened. Unless you won, the only thing you got out of the deal were credit cards maxed out to pay for hotel, airfare, food and equipment. The IRONMAN experience ended up being a second half of the season void where tons of time and energy gained you zero return.

So why, might you ask, did the pros go to Kona year after year if financially it was putting them in a hole?

Why didn’t they say forget it? Why didn’t they just race at the other events around the world where they could actually make a living? Well, in 1985 we all asked ourselves that very question.

The answer was simple and clear. Without a prize purse, none of us would be at the start line in Kona. En masse we explained to IRONMAN that other races, like the Nice International Triathlon, had prize money as well as prestige. We put a stake in the ground. Unless the IRONMAN World Championship offered a prize purse, there would be no professionals in the race.

IRONMAN thought we were bluffing.

No one argued that the IRONMAN World Championship was the most prestigious race in the sport. But the cost to our bodies was huge. Going for broke on the Queen K Hwy has ended more than one career. And the loss of income because of other races with prize purses that we skipped to prepare for Kona tipped the scales. The overall cost far outweighed the prestige of going to Kona and trashing yourself for a big donut hole.

So in 1985 pros raced events in Europe and Australia and just about everywhere else you could think of where they could earn a living. We raced the USTS Series and its Championship event. We raced the Nice International Triathlon that had both prestige and a prize purse. The race had placed itself on the race calendar in September to go head-to-head with Kona. In 1985 Nice was a who’s who of triathlon royalty.

Relaxed and without challenge, Tinley won IRONMAN in 1985 without a prize purse. The next year would be different!

There was one scalawag who pitched up in Kona.  It was Scott Tinley.

He won. He was never really challenged all day. And although the rest of us were not exactly happy with his decision, Tinley did set a course record. So his race was a valid effort. But the lack of any other notably well-known pros in the field got IRONMAN’s attention.

A year later, in 1986, IRONMAN offered its first-ever prize purse.

It was an acknowledgement that the sport was now at the level where a World Championship is empty without its top people racing. It was a statement saying there was value in what athletes at the very top level bring to the experience. They make it exciting! And they were going to be rewarded for it financially.

It was also a confirmation that the Nice International Triathlon was a powerhouse in the sport. It helped force the prize money hand that IRONMAN was trying to bluff its way out of. And with the race so close to Kona on the calendar it did become a choice: Nice or Kona. The Nice International Triathlon would eventually move to June. But in 1985 is was a huge part of shaping what happened at the IRONMAN in Hawaii.

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