Does Ironman’s new qualification system for pros work?

New system that was meant to simplify life for Ironman professionals has left them even more confused. Tim explains…

Credit: Daniel Seex

When Minna Koistinen ran down the finish chute in Mar del Plata near Argentina’s Atlantic coast she was elated. The Finn had secured third place in Ironman’s regional championship and claimed an unexpected final qualification berth for the world champs.


Or so she thought. In the final reckoning the only available slots would go to race winner Sarah Crowley and Britain’s Susie Cheetham, who overtook Koistinen in the marathon. To make the pill just a little more bitter, the men were awarded four spots including one for Germany’s Stefan Schumacher, a former pro cyclist and convicted doper. 

Koistinen is not alone in her confusion. When the primary goal is almost always qualification, it’s mind-boggling that triathletes can arrive at races uncertain where they need to finish. The World Triathlon Corporation that owns Ironman implemented a new system for 2019, but while teething problems might be expected, this feels beyond incompetence.

Previously, and barring a few exceptions such as exemptions for previous champions, professional Ironman athletes relied on the Kona Points Ranking (KPR) for qualification. It was not without controversy due to the refusal to grant an even male-female ratio of qualifiers, triathletes being able to boost points through 70.3 racing, and the way it encouraged those on the cusp of qualifying to race multiple times as the cut-off loomed.

A change was probably in order and when WTC signalled it would be a first-past-the-post system for 2019 it seemed – at face value – to simplify matters. It’s true that the win-and-you’re-in aspect is straightforward, but the additional places are decreed by some unfathomable secret algorithm. The top line is that further spots are issued to either men or women depending on the number of pro starters per gender. But this fails to take into account the calibre of the field and there are countless examples of triathletes racing pro simply to gain cheaper entry. In short, those who will have no impact on the race now play a strong hand in how many qualify.

There are other questionable aspects. With male pros dominating the provision of these floating slots, it feels like a missed opportunity to address the gender equality of numbers on the Kona start line.

Furthermore, because racing continues year-round, a number of places were also grabbed against softer competition while the best athletes were preparing for, or recovering from, racing in Hawaii last year. While the top three Kona finishers from the previous year only need to validate their spots, it means that a number of big names will likely miss out, or be forced to scramble to win a late qualifying race and be too fatigued to perform on the Big Island.


While the system may have been implemented with positive intentions, the overarching feeling is that like so much of Ironman’s attitude to pro’s, it’s been quickly hashed together with too little forethought, communicated poorly and isn’t in the best interests of anyone.