Ironman CEO stumbles in interview as the brand loses some of its sheen

Felix Oates is an Australian long-distance triathlete in Australia, with multiple ironman finishes to his name.

Many hold the Iron-distance Triathlon as being one of the ultimate endurance sporting achievements. The 3.8km open-water swim, 180km bike, and 42.2km run sounds - to most - like some sort of sick joke.

Who would endure such a challenge and what are the motivations for actually taking something like an Ironman on?

The race itself can take some competitors up to 17 hours (if they actually complete the race) and that may not be a fair reflection of the many months, even years of sacrifices made just to get them to the start line.

And yet, thousands now take on the challenge - normal human beings who work day jobs and have families - to prove something to themselves, their friends and family, or simply to try and do something incredible.

Where the Ironman race was once some sort of mythical challenge, the Ironman brand has built a network of global events that empower anyone to take on this mammoth challenge with races in every major global city across the world.

People in recent times have seen the Ironman (and its half distance '70.3' race) evolve into something both accessible and achievable.

Naturally, the Ironman brand has thrived on the back of that, becoming a billion-dollar private company with very few competitors that can match its capabilities when it comes to hosting enormous endurance sports events across the globe.

With that enormous share of market power, though, Ironman becomes more than a brand. It becomes a kind of pseudo-oversight body of the sport of Triathlon.

Whilst Ironman makes up one discipline of the swim-bike-run format, it's responsible for facilitating the biggest base of participation platform within the sport of triathlon, and with that comes enormous responsibility.

But can a billion-dollar brand be trusted to make good decisions for the future and longevity of the Triathlon? Or should it retain its right to be a private company that only serves the function of being a profitable business?

Well, that's the eye of the storm that Ironman CEO, Andrew Messick, found himself in very recently when he was invited onto the popular Triathlon Podcast, 'How they Train', hosted by former pro-athlete and Triathlon enthusiast Jack Kelly.

It's fair to say that Andrew found himself on the back foot very quickly, with Jack taking his opportunity to ask questions that have been on the lips of Triathlon fans around the world.

The first question was blunt, "Why the Kona change?"

It's fair to say that the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, is the holy grail of triathlon. Win here, and you are immortalized in the sport, adored for many years to come.

After 40 years of hosting the World Championship, the state council was forced to rescind the offer to host the 2023 race after experiencing a near-deadlocked island, shut down by the sheer volume of competitors arriving to compete. Inflated accommodation prices, gridlocked infrastructure, and a saturated field of competitors made for a very different experience from previous years.

With the offer to host the race for another year withdrawn by the local authorities on the back of the 2022 race, it's left many fans asking how a sacred relationship could have been mismanaged to a point where the locals had lost their appetite to host the race.

As Messick responded to difficult questions with long, drawn-out answers that diverted the questions - whilst he ate his lunch - his disdain for having to answer such direct questions from Kelly became evident.

With Kelly seeing himself very much as a vehicle for fan sentiment around the world, based on the success of his podcast, he pressed Messick on whether Ironman was overselling entries for Age Group athletes, thus affecting the experience of professional athletes at what is a World Championship Event.

Jack argued that the prestige of the race should be held in high regard, lifting the barrier for qualification, trimming down the number of participants and so improving relations with the Kailuah-Kona community. He also acknowledged that doing so isn't a profitable business decision for Ironman, of course.

Kelly pressed further, navigating around Messicks outrageous claims that Kelly simply didn't like older participants. The next prerogative from Kelly was; if Ironman does act in the best interest of its professional athletes, then why hasn't the prize purse for races risen in 10 years while Ironman's revenue balloons as a result of its amateur participation offering?

Messick insisted that regardless of pay, many professionals would simply not be professionals without the Ironman platform, which enables elite athletes to acquire partnerships with global brands.

Messick's position here is not untenable. However, that position of power shouldn't justify Ironman's decision not to remunerate its professional athletes in a way that accounts for the unbelievable financial cost of actually participating in an ironman race.

Can Ironman simply ignore its obligation to provide financial compensation or even assistance to those professionals who might not have the shoe deal with ASICS or the bike deal with Specialized?

The answer is yes. Simply, because it has no obligation to do so as a private company and that's where Ironman falls a long way short of good custodianship of the sport of Triathlon.

It’s after one too many questions regarding Ironman’s financial position from Kelly that Messick takes matters into his own hands by ending the interview, insisting “this has been so much fun, we’ll talk again”.

Immediately after, he hangs up on Kelly who at this stage is evidently disappointed in Messick’s inability to respond to direct questions.

As a two-time Ironman finisher myself, the interview left a bad taste in my mouth.

Respective sports should empower their grassroots participants to be a part of their sport; absolutely!

But in the same breath, what would sport be without our professionals? The magic of watching a world championship performance inspires generations of participants to come.

Professional athletes can inspire a country, bring together a divided nation and even empower marginalized groups of people around the world.

So put your money where your mouth is, Ironman, and get behind our professional Triathletes before a more ethical sporting entity does!

Felix Oates is an ironman triathlete, who is involved in promoting ethical and inclusive cycling in Sydney, and for the wider community. You can follow his cycling journey at @yorkroadcycling and @felix_oates on Instagram.