Eight Things Ironman Can Learn From the Olympics

Lee Gruenfeld offers another of his not-so-serious ways to improve the Ironman.

March 12th 2010

Having just pigged out on sixteen days of Vancouver glory (ask me anything about curling), I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between the Olympics and the Ford Ironman World Championship. There’s much to be learned, so I offer these lessons:

1. Indoors is better than outdoors. This is as obvious as the 1260 Double McTwist. Nearly a dozen Alpine skiing events were postponed in Vancouver, some by as much as a week, by bad weather. All of those events took place outside. None of the indoor events was affected, at least if you don’t count the occasional failure of a battery-powered pseudo-Zamboni. Move the Ironman indoors and it will make for a much fairer race, under repeatable conditions so records mean something year to year. If you’re worried about tradition, don’t be: There’s plenty of tradition for ignoring tradition. Ice skating started out on rivers and lakes, resulting in all kinds of unfortunate incidents involving nature. Once they wised up and moved the rivers and lakes indoors, all that was left to get in the way of keeping to a brisk schedule was the need to clear the bodies off the short-track speed skating rink. So if moving indoors was good enough for Hans Brinker and the Edmonton Oilers, it ought to be good enough for Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander.

2. Give medals to the winners. Now they give wreaths and trophies. Even Miracle-Gro can’t make wreaths last more than a week or two and you can’t wear a trophy. If you wear a medal going through the metal detector at the airport on the way home and set it off, you can slap your head and shout, "Oh, wait! I must have forgotten to take off my Ironman World Championship medal!" at the top of your lungs. And while we’re on the subject, why not award silver and bronze as well? Under the current system, the race has one male and one female winner, with everyone else assigned the status of semi-oblivion. Coming in second or third at Ironman should be pretty cool. The only place I’ve ever been second or third is in line at Dunkin’ Donuts. Wouldn’t it be nicer to refer to Chris Lieto as the 2009 "silver medalist" instead of "runner up?" (Or, if you want to be really cruel,"first loser?")

3. Ignore the age groupers. In fact, ignore everybody below fourth place overall. I grew up on Olympic television coverage. Until I was thirty-four, I thought there were only a few dozen competitors in the entire Games and only two or three who were allowed to compete in any event. In 1984 I remember walking into the L.A. Coliseum and thinking, "Hey…who the hell are all these people!" Turns out, in case you didn’t know, Lindsay Vonn and Julia Mancuso weren’t the only skiers, Shaun White wasn’t the only snowboarder and there were actually more than three figure skaters in Vancouver. There are thousands of people in the Olympics, some of whom train for four years then travel eight or nine thousand miles to the Games only to find themselves edited out, because it works very well for television. Ironman, on the other hand, insists on showing age groupers, which might explain why NBC paid the IOC $822 million for the rights to televise the Games while Ironman has to produce its own show. We’d do a lot better by pretending there are only four or five people in the whole race and then using some creative editing to create rivalries that can seemingly only be settled with knives.

4. Pimp out the Carbo and Award banquets. Contrary to popular belief, figure skating and gymnastics are not the hottest tickets at the Games. Figure skating used to be, but then ticket buyers started figuring out that there are more than three competitors and they didn’t feel like sitting through 150 renditions of "Feelings" or the theme from "Titanic" just to get to the two or three skaters who can actually remain upright for four minutes in a row. Now, the hottest tickets at the Games are the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Back in the old days, the Opening Ceremonies were used to introduce the athletes and the Closing Ceremonies were for Americans to misbehave in front of the Queen. But sometime during the Cold War the organizing committees decided to get into the competitive spirit and see if they could outdo one another in ways that would have made Nero hide in shame. All of these shows are characterized by three things: as many cute, multi-ethnic schoolchildren as it’s possible to cram onto the floor, trotting out the indigenous peoples as a belated apology for having taken away their land in the first place, and raising obscure symbology to a high art to the point where a twig or a piece of burnt toast is claimed to represent man’s inhumanity to man as expressed through the strivings of the proletariat in the early seventeenth century. And people pay hundreds to see it. So what Ironman needs is opening and closing ceremonies consisting of eight thousand Hawaiian dancers, musicians and fire-eaters, an Ironman eternal flame powered by a Saturn V rocket, and the Rolling Stones.

5. Break up the event. In our house, it’s 24/7 Olympics-watching every two years. If you’ve got a good cable lineup and a fast Internet connection, you can watch any event you want from start to finish, with or without commentary, and it takes sixteen days to laugh and cry with the winners as all 27,000 medals are given out. During that time, we’re exposed to 8,000 commercials and so many Up Close and Miserable features that the pimple on Lindsay Vonn’s nose takes on more importance in our lives than earthquakes, tsunamis or the economy. Ironman, on the other hand, is a single day one-and-done. So the first thing we should do is break it up into three events, done on three different days, with gold, silver and bronze winners in each one. Then we come back on Day Four with the "Ironman Combined," where we do them all at once, except everybody gets four runs, just like in the bobsled, and there are multiple distances to boot: sprint, international, Grand Long Course and Super-I. If a speed skater can get five or six cracks at a medal at a single Games, why can’t triathletes get a few, right? Hardware for everybody!

6. Change WTC to FII. That stands for Fédération Internationale de Ironman. Let’s face it: Everything sounds classier in French.

7. Add style points. It shouldn’t just be about who gets from here to, uh, here, faster. We should reward doing it with a little pizzazz. Ten seconds off your total time for the best looking bike, twenty for the coolest uniform, thirty for the slickest helmet, forty for the best crash of the day and fifty for not peeing while running.

8. Add some new sports. How about these:
- Synchronized Ironman
- Three-man team pursuit
- Rhythmic Ironman
- Freestyle (should be way cool on the bike course)
- Bobsled

Give me a little more time to think about it and I can easily get this up to a two-week event.

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