A group of long-distance triathlon fans has raised funds for an unofficial finishing prize at Sunday's Ironman Lake Placid. They've done it, one of its leaders says, in protest of Ironman's shitty prize structure at some of its races. And now even Lance Armstrong is in on it.
"I support the hard working pro triathletes struggling to pay the bills," Armstrong, currently under a lifetime ban from USADA, wrote to Deadspin in an email through his publicist. On Friday Armstrong donated $549, which pushed the final amount over $6,000 total. "I thought it was a great stunt to bring awareness to their low pay while competing in an insanely hard ass sport."
Ironman Lake Placid is one of several Ironman races that has a less-than-lucrative prize structure. A purse of $25,000 is split equally between the men and women, with men and women's winners taking home $5,000 each. It sounds half-decent—until you learn the event costs $725 just to participate. Minus a plane ticket, lodging, and food, there's not much left to live on, even if you were to win.
"Professional pay is notoriously bad in long distance triathlon, and it's been an issue for a long time," says the man behind Twitter parody account The Real Starky, one of the fundraiser's three organizers. "We felt like you shouldn't lose money finishing second place at an Ironman triathlon, particularly when the parent company is extremely profitable."
Ironman events vary their prize money (the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, pays out $650,000), but Lake Placid, the oldest event in North America, is tied for the lowest purse with eight other races this year, including Louisville, Florida, Chattanooga, Mallorca, Wales, Wisconsin, Wales, and Japan. This contrasts with the profitability of the World Triathlon Corporation, the owner of the Ironman brand along with several others races, which generate over $150 million each year, according to Fortune. In June, WTC took out a $240 million loan, $220 million of which was used to pay dividends to its parent company Providence Equity Partners, which purchased WTC in 2008.
The point, the Twitter troll says, is that while Ironman is printing its own money, little is going to its best athletes.
On Sunday, each seventh-place finisher—the first that Ironman doesn't pay—will make around $3,000 raised by the grassroots group of fans. Granted, it's not a lot. But it's more than Ironman gives to all but its top man and woman. The bottom line, in Lake Placid it's more profitable to finish seventh than it is to finish second, which should make for an interesting race-within-a-race.
The reaction from the triathlon community itself has been heated. Fans have spent days debating its merits on the message board of SlowTwitch.com, and several pro triathletes have spoke out in favor of the initiative through social media. Ironman itself did not respond when asked for comment.
"Our point is that professional athletes that train 30-plus hours a week are used for marketing purposes by a company that makes millions of dollars every year," The Real Starky says. "The athletes have to seize this opportunity to come together and give themselves some leverage, because right now they're getting their asses kicked."
[Photo: AP Images]