By Pete Williams
Lance Armstrong and the World Triathlon Corporation announced a long-rumored partnership this morning that will include the seven-time Tour de France winner competing as a professional triathlete in several Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, including Ironman 70.3 in Haines City, Fla., on May 20.
The deal, one of the endurance sports industry’s biggest rumors for years, came six days after federal prosecutors dropped a two-year investigation into whether the world’s most famous cyclist and his teammates engaged in a doping program during his greatest years. Armstrong has denied doping charges raised for years by journalists and prominent cyclists.
That the most polarizing figure in endurance sports would partner with the most polarizing organization in the industry seemed inevitable from the time Armstrong announced his most recent retirement from cycling a year ago. The 40-year-old Armstrong, who began his endurance sports career as a teenage triathlete, was looking for a new high-profile platform to further his Livestrong Foundation.
WTC, for all of its success selling out its high-profile Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events, has struggled to extend its brand and generate mainstream media coverage. Its 5150 series, which debuted last year, met with mixed results. WTC scrapped a proposed obstacle mud runs series last year and was a late entry into the booming world of half marathon races. Its signature event, the Ironman Kona race, remains under the radar as a tape-delay highlight broadcast. None of the current professionals are known outside the triathlon world.
Armstrong will bring a built-in audience to Ironman, which in turn should put him back in the limelight. His foray into marathon running from 2006-2008 drew little attention and he returned to cycling late in 2008. It was during his marathon training that talk of a WTC/Livestrong partnership began.
James Gills, the Tarpon Springs opthamologist who owned WTC for nearly three decades, sold WTC and the Ironman brand to Providence Equity Partners for a reported $75 million in September 2008, a week before the Lehman Brothers collapse triggered a national financial crisis. Providence moved WTC from Tarpon Springs to Tampa and in May hired new CEO Andrew Messick, who during a four-year stint as president of AEG Sports oversaw the Amgen Tour of California.
Though triathlon has boomed in the last five years, WTC and Ironman have not emerged into the sports mainstream. Under Gills, the company was fiercely private, operating out of a small suite of offices at his medical practice. Many triathletes have a love-hate relationship with Ironman. Though completing an Ironman is perhaps the most sought-after accomplishment in endurance sports, athletes must deal with steep entry fees ($625 average for Ironman events) and ever-changing registration rules.
Armstrong will have a huge advantage in the bike portion of triathlons, which accounts for 56 miles in a 70.3 (half-Ironman) triathlon and 112 miles of the full distance event. As age-group triathletes are quick to point out on popular triathlon industry message boards such as SlowTwitch.com, bike drafting is illegal in triathlon – and there is random drug testing of the pros at Ironman events.
Armstrong will bring a much-needed spotlight to triathlon, which receives little media attention outside of trade publications. ESPN and other sports networks, which rarely feature triathlon, likely will show highlights from his races. Rank-and-file age group trithletes will clamor for a chance to race against Armstrong, even if he will race as a pro in the first wave of every event he enters.
Those will include Ironman 70.3 Panama on Feb. 12 and the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 in Texas on April 1. Armstrong also will compete in Ironman 70.3 in Florida, moved from Lake Buena Vista to Haines City for this year’s May 20 event, and a 70.3 event in Hawaii June 2.
Armstrong will return to France to compete in Ironman France on June 24. If he competes in Ironman’s world championship in Kona on Oct. 13, it won’t be via a celebrity exemption.
He plans to qualify like anyone else.