WORLD Endurance Africa (WEA), franchise holders of IronmanSA, had much to ponder as they drove home to Nelson Mandela Bay this week.
Their exhaustion was of a new magnitude compared to five previous Ironman 70.3 events. This time two athletes – Kevin Staessen, 29, from Johannesburg, and chartered accountant Berton Bosman, 36, from Pretoria – died publicly and dramatically before a crowd of thousands after suffering heart attacks in the ocean.
This was not expected to happen, although it is highly unlikely a sports business built around the growing popularity of triathlons would have been unaware of research conducted by the sport’s governing body in the United States, USA Triathlon, which found that out of 45 deaths in the eight years up to 2011, 30 were in the swim section and most were from heart attacks.
With IronmanSA showing the same rapid growth as the USA, it seems improbable such a tragedy would escape our shores.
Running an operation of the magnitude of the two Ironman events – the “half” (70.3) in East London and the full Ironman in Port Elizabeth within three months of each other – requires logistics and co-ordination which verges on militaristic.
Among the many strengths demonstrated by WEA are their branding and marketing.
Smart bags, bakkies, banners, T- shirts, sports gear, rocking pop music and non-stop high-performance announcing – the list of branding events, items and activities is long.
From the moment entrants log onto the Ironman website, to the last pre-race seconds standing on Orient Beach, entrants are bombarded with exuberent sports propaganda.
WEA says in their press notes that on the day they will provide over eight hours of “free, non-stop entertainment (with) two announcers who give live updates on the race and a DJ to keep the atmosphere at fever pitch.”
Make no mistake, the public love it.
On Sunday, when the deep choral version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika played and athletes prepared to line up on the start beach, a number of athletes literally stood to attention in their full wetsuits.
Emotions run high. Adrenaline is pumping, says Ironman doctor Fred Oosthuizen.
For a journalist who has reported on politics and mass struggles since 1981, one has to admire the brilliance of IronmanSA’s marketing strategy.
It is lean, healthy, energetic and tough – embodied by pioneering triathlete and Eastern Cape, Port Elizabeth businessman, Paul Wolff, although the urban sports warrior says he has mellowed in recent years.
The sporting company announced that it gifted Buffalo City Metro with direct tourism spend of R62.3-million, and if space could be found along the race route for the 800 athletes who did not make the entry cut-off for the highest-ever and sold out field of almost 3000, that figure could go to R80-million.
IronmanSA is proud of their growth in participating athletes from 864 at the first 70.3 in Buffalo City to 2986 this year. Team entries have grown from 40 in 2008 to 100 on Sunday.
Many come from individual codes – cycling or running – but leading Cape Town triathlete and coach Claire Horner said as many as 80% of her groups had “a story to tell” of how they used their Ironman to break free from illnesses such as eating disorders, or rebuild after broken relationships.
While Ironman uses athletes who look like Greek gods for their billboards, there is a sizeable portion of the field who do not fit the bill; they are elderly, and come in all shapes and sizes. But they have trained those bodies and minds and clearly think they are in with a shot to get them through 1.9km of swimming in the open ocean, 90km of hilly cycling and 21km of running on an invariably hot and sunny Esplanade.
WEA spokesman Michael Flanagan said 259 athletes were hauled off the course when they failed to make cut-offs, or withdrew because of dehydration, heat exhaustion or some other reason.
The two Ironman deaths came as a shock to the executives. But this was only new to them in that the deaths actually happened on the course. There have been injuries and death in the training build-up.
I disclose that my Ironman friend, David Hanton, was hit and instantly killed outside the Grahamstown Golf Club in 2009 by an army sergeant who overtook recklessly, and was later jailed for eight months. Another Grahamstonian was hit by a car and his back was broken as he warmed up in Port Elizabeth before taking part in his first Ironman.
When I reported the Hanton story the response from IronmanSA was, to put it mildly, muted. The impression I got was that this was terrible, but happened outside the company’s ambit and Ironman did not respond.
But on Sunday, that issue – even simple acknowledgement that it happens – could no longer be avoided.
The dead athletes, the relatives, the shocked public, were in the face of the three leading executives, Wolff, CEO of loyal title sponsor Spec-Savers Bryan Dowley and WEA CEO Keith Bowler.
Article source: http://www.dispatch.co.za/ironman-70-3-a-huge-success/