Why Ironman Matters


by Lee Gruenfeld

For those of you competing in it, and those in the business, and those of us who photograph and report on it, Ironman is important, for many reasons.

But it actually matters well beyond the sphere of people who are in direct contact with it. Bear with me for a second and I’ll explain why.

For hundreds or even thousands of years, people have thought that theirs was the most perilous time in history. They’ve all been right, and right now, we’re right, if for no other reason than it’s only been sixty-five years since we gained the power to literally destroy most of civilization. Let somebody prior to the first H-bomb detonation top that one.

A large part of the world’s experience with violent conflict was forged by charismatic, egomaniacal psychopaths: Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Hussein and Ghadaffi are only recent examples.

Yet, most of the people living under their despotic rule had little sympathy for their self-centered ambitions. I lived during the height of the Cold War and remember no personal animosity for Soviets and East Germans, nor did I personally know of anyone who despised Chinese or Iraqis or Libyans. To the contrary, I think most of us felt sorry for people under the thumbs of their leaders, which is why we spoke of liberating, not conquering them.

As proof of this thesis, I offer the observation that the ordinary citizenries of beleaguered nations seemed to spend a lot of time trying either to get to America or to congregate on neutral territory and just be human with one another.

Nowhere is this more evident than in international sporting events.

Or at least it was. The Olympic ideal began fading at the 1936 Games in Berlin, a public humiliation for Hitler and his Aryan vision that might have ramped up his determination to rule the world. The Cold War intruded when East Germany raised the art of cheating to dizzying heights in order to prove its cultural superiority. We boycotted Moscow, they boycotted L.A., and daily coverage still ends with the jingoistic report card of a country-by-country medal count.

And don’t even get me started on nations sneaking over-age players onto their national Little League teams.

Is there no place left where sport remains unsullied by crass nationalism? Is there an event where athletes from competing or even warring nations can race side by side – literally, side by side – without political antagonism raising its ugly head?

As a matter of fact, there is. And you know where I’m going with this.

It doesn’t take much analysis to come to the conclusion that athletes compete for personal glory. “I did it for America!” rings hollow when shouted by a self-motivated competitor who wasn’t forced onto the international scene by a tyrannical government.

But there exists in human nature a kind of egotism that is not only benign but admirable and praiseworthy. It usually manifests among those for whom their own past performances are their best competitors, who strive to improve, to confound expectations, or to demonstrate that longstanding beliefs about limitations are without foundation. That kind of “egotism” is how we discovered that a sub-four mile was possible, as was a sub-eight Ironman and breaking the sound barrier.

How fortunate then, that the exceptional athletes who exemplify individual striving and achievement over pseudo-patriotic displays of superiority have a field of play that matches the purity of their ambition. How fortunate that this field is situated on one of the most remote yet welcoming bits of land on the planet, thousands of miles from the nearest firefight, an ocean removed from the madness gripping their home nations.

Next Saturday, some two thousand athletes, some from countries at war with one another or against their own people, will gather on the lava fields of Kona. Triathletes from Syria, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, Iraq and the Ukraine will compete fiercely, but armed only with running shoes and bicycles. They won’t be eyeing each other warily, because they’ll be devoting their attention to the athlete who’s twenty meters ahead, no matter where he or she is from.

In twenty-five years of covering Ironman events all over the world, I’ve never heard a single “boo” at the finish line or the award celebration. Not one, ever. Nor at the annual pre-race Parade of Nations down Ali’i Drive, a raucous display of cultural pride and traditional dress where the only thing people throw at each other is candy.

I did see frenzied cheering in 2016 for Shirin Gerami, a Muslim and an Iranian who did the entire race wearing a hijab.

And on and on.

I’m not a dewy-eyed sentimentalist easily given to confusing symbol with substance. I don’t believe that Ironman can teach the world to sing or be a vehicle for lasting global peace.

What I do believe, and believe strongly, is that Ironman demonstrates that it’s rarely the populace that harbors the animosity. If you drop a few of them onto an island far, far away and into the world’s toughest endurance event, and you surround them with a multinational cheering section keenly attuned to recognizing individual performance without respect to provenance, antipathies drop away. Sportsmanship and fellowship and bonhomie rule the day.

It gives you just a little taste of what’s possible.

And that’s why Ironman matters.

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