Ironman World Championships triathlon to leave Hawaii for Utah because of COVID-19 concerns

Pandemic forces event to move out of Kona, Hawaii, for first time in more than 40 years

The Ironman World Championships — the iconic long-distance triathlon race that has been held Hawaii since its advent in 1978 — has a new home this year:

St. George.

Organizers announced the move for its 2021 race — which will actually take place on May 7, 2022 — on Thursday, less than a week after the southern Utah city hosted the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

“The honor to host the first Ironman World Championship outside of Hawaii is as humbling as it is thrilling,” Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office, said in a press statement. “There are few events that hold the prestige and respect of the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

“I think we understand the weight and responsibility we now have to carry forward the cherished significance of the Ironman World Championship and we don’t take that responsibility lightly. We have the deepest respect for the Ironman World Championship’s legacy in Hawaii and all that has gone on before — the passion, the dreams, the gut-wrenching persistence, and the human spirit of caring for one another as we push forward to be the best version of ourselves.”

The full-distance Ironman World Championships, which includes only the fastest athletes from Ironman qualifying races held around the world each year, was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19. Last month, as coronavirus cases rose and travel restrictions tightened in Hawaii, organizers announced the 2021 race, typically held in October, would be pushed to February 2022. It has become increasingly clear, however, that not enough will change by then to allow the race to be held in Kona, Hawaii, its home for the past 40 years (it was first held in Oahu).

Though coronavirus cases are also on the rise in Utah, St. George would not be as overwhelmed as Kona if another surge occurred because it has access to more hospital beds and medical facilities, event organizers said. In addition, the state has taken a more hospitable stance toward hosting large events than Hawaii has.

Hawaii requires an extended quarantine for most visitors, allowing only a few exceptions for vaccinated travelers from very few countries. In contrast, Utah requires no quarantine for travelers and has been hosting large-scale events since spring. One of those was the Ironman 70.3 North American Championships in St. George in May.

“This isn’t our first large-format event during COVID. We’ve been hosting events with enhanced safety protocols for several months,” commissioner Gil Almquist, chairman of the Washington County Commission, told Triathlete magazine. “We have stayed open in Washington County while exercising all precautions at large events. With the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship, we showed our health department, citizen volunteers, spectators, and participants that an outdoor race can be held with minimal health risk.”

The race last week hosted about 3,000 of the approximately 5,000 athletes who qualified. Several athletes were not able to attend because of border restrictions the United States has imposed due to the coronavirus. About 2,500 athletes qualify for the Ironman World Championships each year.

While the 70.3 world championships rotate among host cities, that will not be the case for the full-distance race. It is slated to return to its traditional home in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 6 and 8, 2022, once the threats and restrictions caused by COVID-19 are expected to have passed.

“We expect the races in October of 2022 to be unique and historic,” Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said in a press statement. “Two days of racing in Kailua-Kona addresses the overwhelming demand from athletes to race in a World Championship and will allow us to host our deferred athletes and place more emphasis on showcasing our women’s and men’s professional races.”

Full Ironman triathlons consist of a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon. German Jan Frodeno is the defending men’s world champion. He broke the Kona course record with a time of 7 hours, 51 minutes, 13 seconds in 2019, when the race was last held. Anne Haug of Germany won the 2019 women’s title in 8:40:10.

Completing an Ironman is an athletic feat in itself, and many participants make it their life’s goal to reach the championships.

“Probably it’s one of the biggest events after the Olympics as far as a world-wide, marquee brand,” said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, which lobbied for the move.

Messick floated the idea of moving the world championships last week while speaking to the press prior to the 70.3 event in St. George.

“We’re exploring every option. That includes potentially taking the race out of Kona,” he said at the time.

St. George will now host three Ironman world championships in the span of 14 months. The 70.3 event held last week was originally scheduled to be a two-day event, but was reduced to a single day to lessen the impact and potential spread of COVID-19 in the community. The area will also host the next Ironman 70.3 World Championships in October 2022.

Utah has been hosting Ironman races since the early 2000s, when a full-distance race was held around Utah Lake and Provo. That event brought an estimated $3 million to the county over race weekend.

The Ironman World Championships is expected to have an economic impact of more than $40 million for the state, Robbins said, and a media value of nearly as much.

It also puts a bright plume in the hat of a state preparing to bid to host its second Olympic Winter Games, perhaps as soon as 2030.

“Events like the Ironman World Championship that attract athletes from every corner of the world are great examples of our state’s high level of engagement in global sport,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in a press statement. “The significant economic impact and the media value will be of great benefit to St. George, Washington County and the entire state.”

Correction: Sept. 24, 2 p.m. >> An earlier version of this story said Utah’s first Ironman triathlon was held around Provo Lake. The correct location is Utah Lake and the Provo area.