Could Ali Brownlee win Olympic gold and Kona in 2020?
Ironman’s new qualifying system has provided a chance for Alistair Brownlee to fulfil the brand’s motto and achieve a remarkable double in 2020
Picture the scene in 2020. Alistair Brownlee runs to an unprecedented third Olympic triathlon gold in Tokyo, adds the new Mixed Relay title for good measure, and then heads to the Big Island of Hawaii to win the Ironman world title. Fanciful? Perhaps, but also a window of possibility that’s now open just a little thanks to a change in the qualifying criteria for the Ironman World Champs.
Under the existing Kona Pro Ranking (KPR) format, professional triathletes accrue points over 12 months and the top 50 men and 35 women earn their spots at Kona in October. There are exemptions, such as being a past winner, but for the most part athletes need to make a commitment to long-course racing in the European spring and summer.
However, from 2018-2019 qualifying will revert to a slot-allocation system, meaning that if triathletes win a race they automatically qualify for Hawaii.
In Brownlee’s case, he could race the ITU Grand Final in the autumn of 2019, book his Kona berth with victory at a low-key Ironman in November, and then concentrate on Olympic- distance racing through to Tokyo in the summer of 2020 before turning his attention to Hawaii. Some ask, but Brownlee has long stated his desire to challenge on all fronts, and it’s a sure-fire cure to any post-Olympic career blues.
No triathlete has ever won Olympic gold and the Ironman world title in the same year, and you have to go back to the USA’s Karen Smyers (1995) and Mark Allen (1989) to find the only athletes to have won the ITU Worlds and Hawaii in the same season. It would be an historic achievement.
There are other pluses to Ironman’s revised format. It’s better for novice professionals who typically attempt qualification against those who’ve a slew of points carried over from the previous year’s Kona.
In the same vein it’s also better for long-term injured athletes or those returning from pregnancy, such as Rachel Joyce who was forced to race three Ironmans in three months last year to make Kona after becoming a mother. Under the new structure she’d need just one successful qualifying race.
It’s better too for other race series such as Challenge, or the new Ryder Cup-style team event, the Collins Cup, because triathletes are less wedded to the Ironman brand as they scramble for points.
But the new system is not perfect and regrettably does not remove the current blemish of gender inequality in the pro ranks. It does promise a base level of slots for men and women, but additional places are then awarded proportionally to the number of professionals on the start-line – in essence, mirroring the existing age-group system.
Using 2017 figures in the new system, tri statistician Thorsten Radde estimates 59 men and 41 women professionals would start Kona - a marked disparity and archaic message to send to any young women looking to take up a sport that has prided itself on equality between the sexes from inception