The most elemental form of sport is the contest
between two men. This is how sport started: two guys squaring
off; may the best man win. One winner, one loser and the matter
of who is the best man is decided. Few things in life are
so clear cut.
This kind of contest harkens back to the days
of the Romans and combat between Gladiators. It is the most
dramatic of human competitions.
In 2007 the Ford Ironman World Championships
in Kona, Hawaii has become that kind of a contest. One man
against another, Normann Stadler vs. Chris McCormack.
There are well over a thousand other men racing
in Kona, so it is more than a two man race. There are at least
six men with a reasonable chance of winning the whole thing.
The idea of six men in contention is less straightforward
than a one-on-one battle so the media and our minds have boiled
it down to two guys: Stadler and Macca.
There is also the matter of the little tiff
Stadler and Macca have had going since last year. Both men
are rabid competitors. To pierce the haze of relentless suffering
required to go around eight hours in Kona you have to be driven.
You have to suffer for months in training, and then endure
some titanic pain on race day. It’s been said before;
the guy who loses is the one who decides second is good enough.
The problem with that philosophy this year is there is no
second place, only first place loser. We seldom see that in
our sport where the ethos is finishing is winning and everyone’s
a winner. This year in Kona, there will only be one winner.
The media has hyped it, stoked it, and even
instigated it. I’m fine with that. It’s about
time we had something straightforward in this sport. Endurance
sports have taken it in the chops this year with the mess
at the Tour de France and the debacle a couple weeks ago at
the Chicago Marathon. Really all we have to show for this
year is Haile Gebrselassie’s incredible marathon record
in Berlin a few weeks ago. The rest of the endurance sports
year has been a jumbled mess. We have a chance for dramatic
redemption with the contest between Macca and Stadler. I hope
that’s what we get.
You and I remember a similar contest 18 years
ago this weekend. It’s become known as the “Ironwar”.
Mark Allen vs. Dave Scott in 1989. I dream of something like
that again. I doubt we’ll see something so polished
Mark Allen and Dave Scott are both gentlemen.
The feel of the contest in 1989 was not one of gladiators
kicking sand in each others faces and goring each other with
swords but more of a gentlemanly duel with pistols at sunset
on the Queen K. They did not sling insults or accusations.
When the gun went off at 7:00 A.M. that year in Kona the two
men found each other in the swim and began a quiet, polite
game of brinkmanship that lasted the next eight hours. The
two men were side by side the entire day. Neither one spoke
to the other. There was nothing to say. They both knew they
would play by the rules, they both knew they were excellent
athletes and fine sportsmen. They both wished each other the
best day they could have. Those things were a given; unspoken.
One insider mentioned the only exchange between the men was
a brief quip about the other's son- a joke when his wife was
seen on the course. The race unfolded and at mile 23 of the
marathon Dave Scott cracked just a tiny bit. That was all
it took. Mark Allen won. After it was over the men had polite
and congratulatory things to say about each other. It was
all very warm and fuzzy.
It ain’t like that with Stadler and Macca.
Depending on who you talk to Macca is a young punk cheat and
Stadler is a self-important, arrogant braggard. Macca drafted
last year on the bike and Stadler flipped someone the bird
at the finish line. It flies back and forth. It is anything
but gentlemanly and definitely has the feel of a hockey fight.
I can even picture an official trying to pull these guys off
each other somewhere on the run if they bumped shoulders.
The duel between Stadler and Macca is decidedly less cordial
than the one between Allen and Scott. Maybe that is a sign
of the times.
Whatever it is this weekend we’ll have
a heck of a race. People seem to have squared off as either
Macca fans or Stadler fans.
Chris McCormack is an Aussie with the attendant
national attitude. He is open and honest in his opinions and
doesn’t play politics. In recent interviews he has done
the math on this year’s Hawaii and is already talking
about his strategy for “absorbing the win”. He’s
won ten Ironmans around the world but never the big one. Macca
wants this one so bad it hurts. It is the one thing missing
from his resume: A Hawaii win. Beating Stadler to get it would
be the icing on the cake. He doesn’t like Stadler. As
far as Macca is concerned Hawaii is just a formality. He’ll
be on the beach in Kona on Saturday, dispense with that pesky
little German and then, and I quote, “I will continue
to race Triathlon events around the world because I love the
challenge of this sport and I love so much the competition
and the people in the sport. I will just be an Ironman World
Champion and that would be pretty sweet.”
So Macca’s ready to party and do his victory lap of
the world with his Kona crown. Macca can win this race. He
himself has argued that he is “The best triathlete in
the world” and he is probably right about that. He has
won at every distance, usually in pretty commanding style.
The problem is he has never won in Kona. In triathlon, that
is a big problem. Macca can ride, swim and run- especially
run. He nearly caught a rather nervous looking Stadler in
the last miles of the run at Kona last year. It was a nail-biter.
A year has gone by for Macca to re-evaluate his tactical decisions,
work on his cycling and generally get pissed. He might win…
Stadler is a quiet man. Dignified to Macca’s
brash demeanor. He also typifies his national character as
a German: Precise, quiet and relentless. Only once did Stadler
display anything other than cool detachment when he flatted
in Kona and threw a brief temper tantrum, understandable for
a man under such pressure. He does have his moments of candor,
and in them he has professed a disdain for the racing style
and audacity of Macca. Stadler thinks Macca cheated last year
on the bike by drafting. Stadler had simply rode off the front
and wailed on the bike so hard he built an unassailable lead.
He’ll probably do the same thing this year. It could
very well work. Again. Stadler is a man who knows what he
has to do. He says he is unaffected by the rivalry between
himself and Macca. He says that, but I doubt it’s true.
Stadler is annoyed with Macca. The Aussie is a like a little
buzzing fly that circles Stadler’s head buzzing on about
“I’m going to win Hawaii! I’m going to win
Hawaii!” You can bet Stadler packed his fly-swatter
for the trip to Hawaii. If Stadler simply rides away from
Macca on the bike and Macca can’t answer it will be
humiliating for Macca and will deify Stadler as the cool master
of Kona, the Kaiser of the Queen K. Stadler has been slightly
more soft spoken that Macca in the media, but when I was in
San Diego two weeks ago where Stadler had been preparing people
said Stadler was melting asphalt with his bike speed. Stadler
isn’t taking chances. He is going to Kona with a new
bike, new racing colors and an old racing style: Pummel the
competition into submission and send them back down under.
I have only met one of the men in question.
Rode my bike with him. That man, I won’t say whom, is
my favorite and I think he will win. The other guy will lose
and look foolish.
Whatever happens we are in for a splendid race,
a gun fight at high noon in Kona. With about 1800 athletes
there will be a lot of great performances, but this year will
likely be remembered as the year one man won and the other
lost. Saturday we find out the names.