Can Lance Armstrong’s positive effect on off-road triathlon transfer to long-course?
This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
In the Nov./Dec. 2011 edition of this column, I celebrated Lance Armstrong’s return to our sport as a potential godsend for the floundering Xterra off-road triathlon series. Lance raced the 2011 Xterra USA Championship in Utah, then the Xterra World Championship on Maui. Appropriate media frenzy followed (as well as a cover shot on the 2011 Xterra Annual Report).
But counter to my (and others’) hopes, Lance didn’t buy the Xterra series. Nor did he put any off-road triathlons on his 2012 race schedule. We’re back to normal, back to the Xterra status quo of watching Conrad Stoltz beat everyone all the time.
Still, “normal” might be better than it was before. Xterra reported that fewer than 10,000 racers worldwide participated in its off-road triathlons in 2011, a fraction the size of the triathlete pool in the U.S. alone. USA Triathlon reported more than 146,000 annual members in 2011. All these license holders could potentially be Xterra athletes. Lance’s short stint in the dirt seemed long enough to have drawn some of these potentials to Xterra.
For example, the Xterra West championship in Las Vegas had 354 entrants in 2012, up nearly 30 percent from last year. Xterra Jersey Devil saw a 70 percent increase over 2011. Some numbers are even with last year, such as the Xterra East Championship in Richmond, Va., and Xterra Moab, but given the steady downward trend in previous years, holding steady is a welcome change. And the biggest recent cause for change in Xterra has been Lance.
So, setting aside the implications of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations against Lance that were announced in June, could he have the same impact on long-course triathlon as he seems to have had on Xterra?
Yes and no. In terms of race participation numbers, long-course is not exactly in need of a boost. The World Triathlon Corporation’s Ironman and 70.3 events regularly sell out. However, two races Lance entered this year that weren’t sold out did see a record number of entrants: 70.3 Honu and 70.3 St. Croix. Yet it might not all be Lance—unlike Xterra, road triathlon has been steadily growing in recent years. Alternative series such as Challenge and Rev3 continue to expand their offerings even without Lance in their corners. All of these races use existing pros to promote their series, whether overtly—such as the Rev3 Racing Team—or more covertly—such as the contracts WTC has in place with select marquee athletes to post tweets praising its races, although these athletes are not restricted to competing in WTC events nor do they sport a WTC logo on their uniforms or websites.
Basically, it seems that conditions are not as ripe in the long-course world as they were in Xterra for Lance to have a significant impact for the good of the sport. To be fair, his stated goal in resuming his triathlon career has never been to improve the sport—if it were, he’d be doing things like participating in the Professional Triathlete Association or advocating for a worthy U.S. 70.3 championship that doesn’t take racers through a concrete airport strip in Galveston, Texas, three times on the run. His goal has been to raise money for cancer awareness and to race Kona in the process. Triathlon is not a selfless pursuit for any of us—Lance included.
I’m not turning a blind eye to economics here. Lance’s obvious short-term appeal is the additional media exposure and associated funds his name brings to the sport and primarily to the races he chooses. This is an unmistakable reason why, in addition to their claims of respect for due process of law, various race series have opened their arms to Lance even as WTC abides by its existing policy of imposing competition bans on athletes who are under investigation for doping violations. Lance brings money. Whether Lance brings longevity—to a race series or the sport as a whole—remains to be seen.