St. George wants to host another world-class sporting event

The Ironman brought the region $41 million when St. George hosted it in May 2022.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 43 and 8 Kevin Portmann and Bart Aernouts compete in the Ironman World Championship triathlon in St. George on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

St. George • Asked his opinion about the Ironman World Championship, one of the largest events ever staged in southern Utah, Eric Wilson borrows a line British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered in 1939 to describe Russia.

“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma — not the event itself, but the traffic confusion it caused,” the St. George resident said.

During the Ironman World Championship St. George hosted in May 2022 — the first-ever staged outside Kona, Hawaii — Wilson was trying to drive to Costco but wound up in Diamond Valley, 13 miles north of town on State Route 18, due to all the roadblocks, detours and congestion from athletes and spectators.

So would Wilson like to see the championship come back?

“Absolutely,” he said. “It was St. George’s equivalent of the 2002 Winter Olympics and one of the coolest events I have ever seen.”

Wilson is not alone.

Many locals inside and outside of government share his assessment. That’s why Washington County, working in conjunction with the Utah Sports Commission, St. George and other area cities, submitted a bid in late December to host the 70.3 Ironman World Championships for 2025.

The 70.3 Ironman World Championship is half the distance of the one St. George hosted in May and consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run. St. George has already hosted two 70.3 Ironman world championships, the first in September 2021 and the second last October.

Brittany McMichael, interim director of the county’s Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office said hosting the games again makes sense from a dollars and cents perspective. The economic impact of the full Ironman World Championship last May, she noted, was $41 million.

In addition, the first 70.3 Ironman World Championship the county hosted during the height of the Covid pandemic in 2021 resulted in an economic impact of $18.1 million; the second last October generated an estimated $62 million, drew 5,548 athletes and 18,000 of their family members and friends.

“It was the largest 70.3 world championship on record for Ironman,” McMichael said.

It was even more impressive than that, Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, chimed in:

“Outside of the Olympics, the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in St. George last October was the largest sporting event to ever take place in the state,” he said.

Despite such ringing endorsements and the county’s proven track record in hosting such events, McMichael sounds a cautionary note. She said the county has submitted what amounts to a preliminary bid and faces stiff competition from other would-be hosts. If the county survives the first cut of Ironman hopefuls in several weeks, it will work with state and local officials to further hone and flesh out its proposal.

That said, McMichael asserts Washington County as an attractive site for Ironman competitions for a host of reasons. For starters, St. George’s proximity to scenic redrock cliffs and canyons and state and national parks is a plus. Moreover, St. George’s Ironman course is as tough as it is beautiful.

“As grueling as the course is, [the athletes] have something beautiful to look at while they are suffering,” she said.

Triathlete Arthur LeBaron, a city engineer who works for Hurricane, confirms McMichael’s analysis, saying people around the world know that the Ironman in St. George is a “legit” course that makes competitors earn the title of “Ironman.”

LeBaron and McMichael say the world championship also brings out the best in southern Utah residents, who go out of their way to be hospitable to athletes and volunteer in droves to help make the events a success.

They further tout hosting Ironman world championships as an effective way to further cement Washington County’s status as a major player in endurance events as well as a top-drawer tourist destination. For instance, the two-day 70.3 championship in October drew competitors and spectators from all 50 states and 104 foreign countries, according to McMichael.

And while they came for the competition, many of them lingered for a few days after the event was over to tour Zion National Park and other scenic attractions in southwest Utah. That translated into more hotel stays, the price of which included a 4.25% transient room tax that helped fill county coffers.

For his part, LeBaron treasures the “tons of friends” from all around the world he’s made from participating in the Ironman championships. One of his favorite memories was taking British triathlete Quin Beech mountain biking and to shoot “guns in the desert.”

“He thought that was the coolest thing ever,” LeBaron said. “He’s like, ‘All my mates at home are going to crucify me because I was handling guns. But now I understand how amazing shooting guns is.’ "

Getting back to the traffic caused by the Ironman championships, Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said the temporary inconvenience is a small price to pay to host such globally prestigious events.

“Ironman brings people here from all over the world and enhances our reputation and image as a result of these athletes seeing this extraordinarily beautiful place that we all call home,” he said.

Sidney Morris, a former marathoner who gave up running several years ago due to a bad knee, also supports the bid, although not without some reservations.

“I sometimes feel there is a ‘bread and circuses’ aspect to events like this,” the Washington City resident said. “They can serve as a distraction from the real problems we face like the severe drought we are experiencing. I hope that as we showcase this beautiful area, we don’t neglect the responsibility we share to preserve the resources that make it such a wonderful place to live and recreate.”