There are bigger issues to worry about right now, but for some – particularly those already qualified – there is the question of what will be happening with the Ironman World Championship in 2020. Covid-19 has already impacted on many race plans and season goals. Let’s be honest, if missing a race or not being able to train as you’re used to is all this virus does to you you’re very lucky. With that in mind and knowing there’s no official information yet, I thought I’d look at the numbers for Kona so far this season.
Race dates and numbers correct on 31 March 2020.
Around 2,400 athletes race in Kona each year and as the table above shows there are currently 820 qualified for the 2020 World Championship. In a normal year we would be expecting at least another 1,200 slots to be handed out over the next five months up to the final 2020 qualifier, Ironman Mont-Tremblant, on the 23rd of August.
As the spread of the Coronavirus closes races those numbers begin to change. All of April’s qualifiers have been postponed either to an undetermined date or to ones that fall outside the 2020 qualification window. While May races haven’t been universally postponed it’s realistic to expect that’s only a matter or time. Some of May’s races have new dates that fall within the normal qualification window though. We are also seeing the first postponements in June and it’s likely more will follow.
At the moment there are 250 qualifying slots postponed to dates that put them outside the normal 2020 qualifying window with 150 moving to dates after Kona. A further 195 slots have not yet been given a date. That’s at least a 10% fall in qualifying numbers this year with the potential there for a lot more.
I can only speculate how Ironman will handle this year’s World championship. We know they intend to proceed with the 70.3 World Championship in New Zealand given they’re opening up virtual qualification through their upcoming IronmanVR platform. I don’t imagine they’ll take a similar approach with Kona slots.
Ironman has been approaching legacy athletes (those who’ve completed 12 or more Ironman races, but not been to Kona) and encouraging them to take a spot at the 2020 World Championship. Increasing the number of legacy athletes racing would allow Ironman to maintain numbers even with fewer qualifying events in the 2020 calendar. This suggests their intentions are to continue as planned with the Ironman World Championship in October.
If the racing season returns soon enough the impact on qualification numbers may not be too severe. If races happen in June, or postponements allow enough races to happen in July and August then the losses so far would be around 15-20% of the field. Ironman could also maintain numbers by transferring some of the 2020 slots to other races and increase the number of qualifiers at events. I imagine this move would prove unpopular though.
That’s a lot of conditionals to consider. If Kona is cancelled in 2020 there will be 820 athletes to transfer to the 2021 World Championships, or to upset by forcing them to re-qualify. Major changes to the race would be needed to squeeze in an additional 800 athletes and in this case Ironman might need to reduce qualifying slots at 2021 races to avoid oversubscription.
I suspect the most likely option if race cancellations continue into the summer and Legacy uptake is weak is to postpone the World Championship and extend its qualification season. This could lead to a mix of postponed 2020 qualifiers and regularly scheduled 2021 qualifiers on the calendar, but would would maintain qualification numbers at each race.
We’ll have to wait for official news on this. The question for coaches and athletes is how they plan their season with so much uncertainty. For my already qualified athletes I’m currently continuing largely as planned, at least to the extent lock down safely allows. For those looking to qualify it really depends on whether their race is postponed and how likely we think it is that it will be postponed. Where possible we continue, but in many cases we’re starting to replan seasons to try to be ready to race when the time eventually comes.