Triathlon’s New Kingdom

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 06: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Competitors begin the race at the swim start during the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

Bahrain’s entrance into triathlon may significantly influence the sport’s future. A profile of two key figures shaping the new partnership.

Upon first glance the Middle East seems an odd location for establishing multiple long-distance triathlon events. The lack of water obviously restricts the placement of events to a few locations. The climate is similarly a problem. Already the 2022 World Cup of soccer football has been rescheduled as a winter event due to concerns about summer temperatures in host nation Qatar. Yet perhaps the greatest barrier to event production is the region’s political landscape.

The Middle East is a field that produces vast wealth and earth-shaking events on a regular basis. Those who set out to harvest business or diplomatic opportunities must tread lightly to avoid its innumerable rabbit holes. With tensions between Israel and Palestine, a war against ISIS raging from Iraq to Syria (and Egypt and Libya), and a cold war of sorts between Iran and everyone else, it’s nearly impossible to stay on topic even if your topic is something as relatively innocuous as triathlon. As if to demonstrate this exact point, just last month plans to hold the inaugural Challenge Oman Triathlon were scrubbed due to the intensifying conflict between Houthi rebels and government forces in Yemen.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 06: Bahrain Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (right) and Bahrain Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (left) at the awards presentation after the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN – DECEMBER 06: Bahrain Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (right) and Bahrain Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (left) at the awards presentation after the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

Had the Oman event gone forward, it would have made 2015 the first year of the Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa Triple Crown Triathlon series. Challenge Dubai already went forward in February and Challenge Bahrain is set for its second running in December, this time with a grand final prize purse of $1 million.

With an unprecedented amount of money on the line, the Middle East will become as much the focus of the triathlon world’s attention as the political. Indeed, the full scope of Bahrain’s sudden involvement in triathlon holds the potential to shift attention to the region for more than a weekend. The wealth and power driving this emergent series can’t be understated. Almost anything could come of this, but the trajectory of developments will be largely decided by key figures within the ruling family of the Kingdom of Bahrain and the leadership at event producers Challenge Triathlon.

Saqer al-Khalifa

On the Bahraini side is Saqer al-Khalifa, the 35-year-old founder and head of the Bahrain Triathlon Association. His position and determination to grow endurance sports throughout Bahrain grew from of an unexpected turn of events in his life. A 2002 graduate of the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, Saqer originally planned to become a leader in Bahrain’s military forces. A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in late 2007 brought that pursuit to a close.

He went on to complete his PhD in political science, writing his dissertation on the indirect effect of trust on economic development. After a brief teaching stint he went to work for the Bahraini embassy in Washington D.C. It was during his tenure there that his unique blend of broad philosophical concerns, practical experience and personal investment came together into an idea not only for his own future, but that of his country.

“I did some work at Guilford College in North Carolina while with the embassy in 2011. They have a gym in which all the machines are connected to electrical power, so it helps to keep the lights on and power the televisions. They have a system where homeless people can come in and get some food, but they have to do enough exercise to power the microwaves to heat it up. It’s a wonderful program that helped build people’s health. I was so moved I wrote an article about it, because this is something my country really needs.”

Khalifa himself had begun triathlon and significantly changed his diet soon after his diagnosis. Having seen what his past lifestyle had done to him and how his quality of life had improved since the changes, he’s convinced that there are unseen consequences to poor health in societies and that personal health choices have tremendous impacts on the destinies of entire countries.

In a blog post following the inaugural Challenge Bahrain last year, Saqer wrote: “In this part of the world, GCC states suffer from a number of issues, just like everybody else. Few of which can be traced back to a controversial theory called “Oil Curse”. Because of this curse, the society slowly evolved into becoming independent from economic growth, where imported labor caused physical stiffness and eventually developed us to witness high levels of health related issues.While moving towards an era where oil will eventually become a scarce commodity, our region will face a societal, political, and economic shock if we do not move now and find solutions to those serious concerns racing towards us head on.”

Such commentary is usually found on the pages of The Economist rather than the sports pages, yet for his sophisticated view of the problem, al-Khalifa’s tone changes from academic detachment to that of an impassioned disciple. There’s no doubt in his mind that triathlon is the answer to Bahrain’s health crisis.

“In Bahrain, we have free healthcare. So we’ve developed this mentality that someone will take care of me. People don’t educate themselves about their health or what their choices will do to them. But the problem for us is that our national budget this year was decreased and the future outlook is that social services will decrease as healthcare gets more expensive. Yet the first major cut the government made to spending was to sports programs. This is the problem. We’re trying to save money now instead of investing in long-term solutions to the problems causing the shortfalls. A healthier population will be more productive and reduce medical costs. Bahrain’s destiny is tied to this, and we need a program that will inspire people to get active.”

This was the concept Saqer brought to his distant cousin the Crown Prince, who endorsed it wholly. From taking up triathlon himself and starting the Bahrain Road Runners team to directing the creation of the Bahrain long course event, the Crown Prince has provided the necessary political influence to fully establish triathlon in the country.

The immediate results are already astonishing. Saqer stops to answer further questions at one of Bahrain’s newest multisport stores. Looking through the large storefront windows, one can see a volume and variety of bikes, shoes, kits, and other equipment that rivals American retailers like Nytro or TriSports.

“People often think that supply goes where there is demand,” says Saqer. “But it’s a two-way street, and if we are to turn our economy around we have to think in the other direction. There was no demand for this stuff before. But once we brought the race and the gear– the supply– we created the demand. We have three bike shops in the country now. There was no assurance it would work, but we created the event and believed the demand would happen. It’s part of our philosophy that triathlon is an investment in our country.”

Saqer’s expectations for what Bahrain will reap from triathlon are just as ambitious as the investment. With expanded facilities for training, he hopes that people interested in triathlon’s component disciplines will become more active. In the long view, he sees a national passion for triathlon as the foundation for Bahrain’s first Olympic Medal. He considers what distance the Bahrain federation should emphasize to foster a program for future ITU competition, both in terms of event hosting and athletic participation. The fact that Bahrain triathlon is still in its infancy and the national federation remains small does not discourage him. He’s acting locally and thinking globally.


Challenge Family

Perhaps it’s that approach that’s made for such a happy partnership between Bahrain and German-based Challenge Triathlon. The chief competitor to the Ironman brand couldn’t be more different than World Triathlon Corporation in its plans for growth. Shaping those future plans is Chief Executive Officer Zibi Szlufcik. A former executive with PowerBar, Szlufcik came on board with Challenge in 2011 and has steered the company through the fastest and arguably most tumultuous growth period in its history.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 06: Zibi Szlufcik (left) and Felix Walchshšfer (right) of Challenge Family speak at the awards presentation after the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN – DECEMBER 06: Zibi Szlufcik (left) and Felix Walchshšfer (right) of Challenge Family speak at the awards presentation after the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

From the first time Challenge placed its archway over the finish of the 140.6-mile triathlon in Roth in 2002, the company has grown its inventory to 46 full and half-distance triathlons in 21 countries, with its most recent and aggressive expansion occurring in North America. That’s still small compared to WTC’s 142 full, half, and Olympic-distance events across the globe, yet with the Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa Triple Crown Triathlon series Challenge has suddenly scored a two-for in that they are the frst ones to plant their flag in the Middle East as well as obtaining what portends to be the crown jewel of global long course racing.

But while Szlufcik is elated about the partnership, he doesn’t believe size matters. In fact, he doesn’t really see a competition between the two companies.

“I think there is some competition on a regional basis, but globally there is still a lot of room for growth without overlap between the two brands. Different circumstances require different solutions.”

In Szlufcik’s mind Challenge’s solutions will necessarily be radically different from those of WTC. His view is that Challenge is a company still in the “startup phase” working in a tiny sport. That drives the Challenge approach to growth, which is radically different than the WTC model.

“Ironman is an exclusive thing. The emphasis is placed on the individual accomplishment. And that’s certainly very important, but we like to promote the community aspect as well. We like having festivals and getting the spectators and communities involved in the race. You hear athletes talk a lot about the community, and we’ve really embraced that. Because this is such a small sport, we have to diversify to grow to become Quality Leader. There needs to be a real ‘join or die’ attitude.”

Based on that idea, Challenge established contracts with the European Triathlon Union to become the event organizer for their long course championships even before Bahrain approached them about the Triple Crown series. A privately-held entity teaming up with a National Governing Body is a profound development for any European sporting endeavor. The World Cup is notoriously micromanaged by FIFA, while the Grand Tours of cycling are as famous for their battles between the UCI and the corporate race owners as they are for their uncategorized climbs. Thus far, Challenge has shown unique adaptability and imagination.

Those qualities have shown through in Challenge’s partnership with Bahrain’s royal family. Szlufcik readily admits that getting established in the Gulf States region presented its own set of challenges in adapting to local culture and customs, “We have seven people working in Bahrain for the Joint Venture and one in Dubai and I speak to His Highness’s personal manager on a regular basis. We’re already working on other programs to work in line with the Prince’s vision for triathlon in the country. We’re helping their federation on some initiatives, including how to get more women into the sport. Bahrain already has one of the most developed programs for getting women involved in the sport.”

Added to that is Challenge’s own Chris McCormack‘s efforts to build the Bahrain Endurance 13 team. The brain child of McCormack and the Prince himself, the all-star group has a characteristically ambitious mission. The group is the largest assemblage of professional athletes under a single jersey. Not only will the constituent athletes compete for the Ironman World Championship and the top spot at Challenge Bahrain, they’ll also work to develop Bahrain’s nascent triathlon talent as part of the Olympic and world title vision.

Given the money, the rapid growth, the notoriety and the extraordinary presentation of it all under the auspices of genuine royalty, one does wonder just where all this leads. In a very short time, the royal family of Bahrain has not only put itself on the triathlon map, it’s caused a tectonic shift across the entire world of triathlon. It’s suddenly debatable whether Kona is still the most prestigious race on the planet.

It’s certainly not the most lucrative. And with the monarchy’s backing, all it would take is a snap of the King’s fingers for Bahrain to put on a spectacle that could dwarf Kona and Roth put together. How does that change the calculus for pro athletes and their attendant sponsors over the next ten years?

Both Szlufcik and Saqer al-Khalifa are cautious in their approach to the future. Khalifa emphasizes diplomacy and balance. “We do not want to be perceived as financing some sort of war between Challenge and Ironman,” he says. “I know Andrew Messick personally, and he is a good man and a friend. We have no desire to be involved in an antagonistic way with either company. I also want to emphasize that the Triple Crown is our race, not Challenge’s. They are the organizers, but this is Bahrain’s event.”

For Szlufcik’s part, he believes the Triple Crown makes an impact but he’s not sure if it alters the triathlon world’s center of gravity.

“The Middle East is only one region we’re growing into. Just this year we’ve had 200 requests to hold events around the world. Our priorities aren’t constrained by geography. We make arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Our most important consideration is whether local conditions are compatible with the way we do things.”

At the same time, Challenge Roth remains the series championship and still carries a €73,500 (approx. $82,000) prize purse. For comparison, there are only ten Ironman-branded events with larger purses. Roth also has the distinction of being the course where the fastest finishing time in the 140.6-mile distance was accomplished by both men and women. It’s not without its merits, which means it’s not a foregone conclusion that Bahrain and the other Triple Crown events would replace it. It’s also worth noting that, for all its merit, Roth still hasn’t been able to break the seal between Kona and triathlon’s most prominent media outlets. It’s a good indicator that flash and cash alone won’t carry the Triple Crown to preeminence.

Still, the influence of Bahrain will be on full display late this year when top-flight competitors race in the country’s team kit on Kona, thereby evoking greater interest in the country’s premier event in December. 2015 has been a year of extraordinary announcements and predictions about the future of triathlon in Bahrain and, consequently, the world. That the connections have already been hypothesized means the Triple Crown does have tremendous potential. It could be that it takes another ten years to see it realized. That suits Saqer al-Khalifa. His determination is also matched by his patience. This is a life’s work for him, and the changes in his life that brought him to triathlon are sure to keep him involved for extremely personal reasons.

This is about much more than long distance triathlon’s organizers, its greater industry, or even Bahrain. “It’s frustrating that development is slow sometimes,” he says. “But we need to push forward. People in our government think there are more important things than our national health, but this is not just a local phenomenon. This is a global problem. We have to make changes instead of putting out fires. Obesity and poor health are worst among many countries in this region. If we are to secure a better future for our children, we need to take leadership on this issue.”

That is perhaps the most ambitious objective of all, and there are more than a few rabbit holes in both triathlon and the Middle East he’ll have to negotiate in getting there. His focus is undoubtedly on improving conditions within Bahraini society. What consequences it has– intended or not– on the triathlon world remain to be seen.

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About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.