Who are Faster, Europeans or North Americans?

There is a long standing viewpoint – typically among Europeans – that Europeans are generally faster than Americans when it comes to Ironman. It’s a debate that is bound to antagonise some and often descends into discussions of course difficulties and accuracies among other things. That also makes it the sort of debate I’d normal avoid. But with all that Ironman data lying on my hard drive – and because it had been requested – it was easy enough to do a simple comparison of performance at the Ironman World Championship this year. The results are below.

Ironman World Championship 2012: North America vs Europe (and others)

There were roughly 980 North American athletes racing in Hawaii and 510 European athletes present on the island. The chart above shows that proportionally the European field is faster, 30% of Europeans go under 10 hours in Kona, in absolute terms 147 European athletes broke the 10 hour mark compared with 96 Americans or Canadians. It looks like the Europeans are the faster group in Kona, at least this year anyway.

Showing some personal bias I added Great Britain and Ireland along with Australia and New Zealand to the mix (94 and 274 athletes respectively). Less clearly stated than Europe both these groups show similar proportionally faster athletes with the Aussies and Kiwis having a slight edge on the Brits and the Irish. I’ll apologies now to all the nations excluded from this chart, I focussed on the groups I had personal interest in and it felt dismissive to add a ‘Rest of the World’ category on the end; I am open to requests though.

The interesting question is why?

Ironman Slot and Athlete Counts at European and North American Ironmans

Before I speculated wildly about availability of slots I thought I’d check the numbers. The table above shows the number of 2012 Kona slots and the number of North American and European athletes at each full Ironman in those territories. I made a number of choices with the data: race regions are defined according to, I excluded the age group winner slots at Kona itself, I excluded the handful of predominantly North american 70.3s that add over 100 slots to the pool and I excluded all races outside of the territories in question although there would be Europeans and North Americans participating. It’s an incomplete picture, but I wanted an indication as to the accessibility of slots for athletes, limiting the choice ensured I had reasonable data to hand.

The Opportunity to Kona Qualify for North American and European Athletes

Summarising these numbers in the next table shows there are more races and more slots in North America than in Europe. It would seem there is greater opportunity to qualify. However, if we consider the average number of athletes and the average number of athletes per slot then in North American races there are actually more North Americans per slot. More athletes per slot should equal more competition. North American race fields are large, a handful of European races match them, perhaps the relevant question is how many people are racing for Kona at each event? But there are no statistics for that.

Despite total numbers suggesting greater competition for Kona slots between North Americans at their races the results in Kona – at least based on 2012 data – suggest that the standard of North American athlete qualifying tends to be slower than the standard of European athlete. Which is not to say there aren’t slow Europeans and fast North Americans, of course there are, but on average the Europeans appear to be the faster group. The distributions I’ve looked at for Ironman races over the last two years suggest a broader spread of abilities at US races than their European counterparts – the fields are wide, but perhaps not so deep. It gives a sense that potentially – I’ll stress potentially – there is a greater level of competition in Europe for the slots available than in North America and in turn this delivers a faster group of athletes to Hawaii in October.

This is, at best, a cursory examination of the situation and I do have the data to potentially pick out more. Considering relative performances of athletes by territory across a broader spectrum of races and looking to see if there was an actual and significant different in the way they perform. As it stands, to a casual glance, it does appear that the Europeans are going faster in Kona.

All Ironman Results and Statistics

A growing collection of results and statistics for the whole Ironman race calendar.

Find out what it takes to place in your age group or to qualify for the Ironman Worlds Championships in Kona.


  • Russ Brandt

    Hi Russ,
    It looks like there was roughly double the amount of North Americans at Kona than Europeans. Wouldn’t it be a more fair comparison to see how the top x% of NA’s vs Europeans did? I would think the larger distribution of NA athletes will skew the data to the slower side.

  • Hi,

    The vertical axis on these charts are the percentage of the athletes finsihing for a given time. These charts effectively show the distribution of finish splits for the two territories and what we’re visually assessing is whether they are significantly or at least noticeably different. So we can say as a proportion there are more athletes capable of going under 10 hours from Europe than there are from the US – the two groups differ in distribution such that roughly 30% of europeans break 10 hours and 11% of N. Americans do. We can go further because if we take the actual numbers then we know 96 N. americans went under 10 hours, but 147 Europeans went faster than 10 hours, so over 50% more. That would suggest that taking the fastest x% of Europeans vs fastest x% of Americans would still favour the Europeans, but it’s easy to show some numbers too.

    Taking the top quartile, so the top 25% of finishers for each territory gives us:

    • Europe: 127 athletes, average finish time of 9:29:13
    • North America: 246 athletes, average finish time of 10:03:39

    Alternatively were we to settle instead on the top 150 finishers, so matching numbers of fastest athletes from each:

    • Europe: 150 athletes, average finish time of 9:33:26
    • North America: 150 athletes, average finish time of 9:48:33

    The gap is smaller for the 150 fastest Americans versus the 150 fastest Europeans. There are fast Americans there of course.

    I would stress this is one instance of one race, although given Kona is the only time large quantities of Europeans and North Americans race together it gives good volume for comparison. That said because of the selectivity involved ability is skewed. I don’t have figures for this, but there are more US athletes on the lottery/legacy entrance system than there are Europeans so this immediately injects potentially slower athletes into the race as do the media slots and similar. This kind of simple analysis only scratches the surface too, to broadly answer who is faster (and I admit I deliberately chose that title) we would have to look at much more race data to generically say who finishes higher up in the field. This does suggest that at least at Kona 2012 the two populations of athletes had differing distributions of ability despite both going through selection criteria with the European athletes having a greater proportion of faster guys. I’d be wary of drawing any strong conclusions from this though and I’ve not tested the significance of the different distributions.

    I threw in the separate Brit/Irish results hoping they’d show a much slower skew so nobody could accuse me of bias! 😉


  • Ken Wallace

    Hey Russ – nice analysis. Can you exclude lottery winners from the data set and re-run? Is the lottery dominated by NA athletes skewing their results?


  • Ken,

    I can look into it, if I can find a list of both Legacy and Lottery athletes I can eliminate them by name/country to be sure. According to Runtri (who list names for the lottery at least) 78% of lottery slots went to the US: RunTri: Ironman Kona Hawaii 2012 Lottery Winners Analysis. certainly it will add some weight to the right hand side. Although the comparison of the top 150 in both countries show there is a difference at the faster end too.

    I’ll see what I can do.


  • Hi Russ,

    Really interesting, thanks for this.

    Although not entirely related I thought you might like to take a look at something on my site:

    I was interested in finding ‘pound-for-pound’ the UK race that offers the most sub-10 times by athletes. Perhaps indicating or finding which is the most exciting to watch and attracts the higher level of competitor.

  • Hi Rich,

    Saw your piece earlier, nice idea. Would be interesting to look at the distribution of finishing times for those races to get a feel for how those performances fall. Something I’d like to look at doing longer term is find ways to rank differing Ironman distance events for difficulty; not an easy task when you have to account for quality of field as well as difficulty of course. In the nearer term hopefully I’ll produce some better guidelines for Kona qualification.