Is Ironman a religion?

Religion:
1. a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
2. archaic :scrupulous conformity conscientiousness
3a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Bowed in IM Prayer.pngDon’t panic, triathletes. I’m not about to criticize Ironman as a cult or anything else. It is a brand name, effectively marketed, that many people admire. But it is also something more. And it’s worth thinking about it.
Because even some triathletes don’t care for the monopolistic methods of the Ironman organization. The Wiki describes it this way:
“The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) is a for-profit corporation, owned by the Chinese conglomerate, Dalian Wanda Group, that organizes, promotes and licenses the Ironman TriathlonIronman 70.3, the 5150 series of triathlon races and several cycling, running and multisports events.[1][2] WTC is also the owner of numerous “Ironman” related trademarks used both in connection with Ironman race series and in conjunction with various goods and services.”
Ironman Victor.pngThe corporate expression of a brand is necessarily possessive in this day and age. That’s how organizations survive. They need to defend their turf lest encroachment steal away the power of the brand or wick away customers.
It can happen to the best organized companies in the world, and the most comprehensive industries. As a member of the newspaper industry for 15+ years, I bore witness to the dissolution of revenue segments one by one. First came Jobs revenue, then Real Estate. Other categories followed. Almost overnight, profits vanished. The religion of newspapers as the Keeper of the 4th Estate was damaged.  So no one is immune to competition.
Competition as religion
What an interesting concept it is that while people compete in Ironman races, the Ironman organization is always competing for market share against all sorts of other events and sports. These include traditional marathon and half-marathon running races. There are also non-traditional rites of passage such as Spartan or Tough Mudder events that challenge people to get tired, dirty and honest with themselves.
The sport of triathlon has generally grown over the last 20 years, but like the sport of golf, it may be hitting some stumbling blocks in terms of the expense it takes to enter and sustain participation in the sport. With the cost of “tri-bikes” soaring into the thousands, it can take $5000-$10000 just to look like you’re “in the game.” Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a big factor in the sport of triathlon. Think how intimidating it is for newbies to show up in transition riding a flat-bar hybrid next to glamorous Shivs and Felts that look like carbon knives to cut through the atmosphere. It takes a bit of self-confidence to work through all that cliquish mystique.
Mistaken identity
But the most fascinating aspect of Ironman as a brand is that while it is a company within the overall sport of triathlon, people often mistake it for the sport itself.
IM cap.jpgThat’s much the same problem as calling all bandages Band-Aids. There is a problem when the brand is confused with the cause or solution such as Kleenex or Xerox. The brand can be weakened in the long run.
More than a brand
There’s an additional facet to the Ironman brand that is perhaps unique to the world of sports. Ironman may be much more than a mere brand to many people. More than one triathlete bears a tattoo on their body showing some form of the Ironman symbol. That signifies the experience has much deeper meaning than a mere 26.2 or 13.1 race.
We can see why this dedication occurs. When people cross the line for the full distance, there is a rite of passage in which the announcer calls out the name of the participant proclaiming, “You’re an Ironman!” It’s a baptism of sorts, even when experienced multiple times. We might better call it a communion, the mark of commitment and belief in the moment.
BAgAnd that’s where Ironman bears a close resemblance to what we might call a religion. And again, this is not an indictment of said designation. It is merely an observation. In an age when traditional church attendance is on the wane, it is perhaps no coincidence that Ironman races are typically conducted on Sundays. That’s a practical response to Sunday having less traffic, perhaps. But there is also a sense that a Sunday morning is sacrosanct in some other way. Not for all faiths, but for all people?
It is hard to argue with the sense of community at Ironman races. The triathlon village resembles a set of Revival tents, and support crews traipse around the campus with athletes. It all forms a pilgrimage of sorts. And when participants finally plunge into the water for the opening swim, there is a baptism of fear and contrition that goes with it.
So while sitting in church yesterday, only a week out from my own wife’s completion of the Ironman Louisville race, I made up a little checklist of ways that Ironman resembles religion. This is meant not as a conclusion, but as a conversation starter. Because if Ironman begins to take collections during the event to pay for the “services” it provides, it will surely have to file for status as an organized religion.
1. Rituals: Preparing for Ironman with gear and such is a consecration of sorts.
2. Community: Training and participating in Ironman delivers a sense of community.
3. Central Doctrine: The philosophy of becoming a “finisher” is reflected in all aspects.
4. Ceremony: From start to finish, Ironman is a ceremonial sport.
5. Transition: Like being “born again,” only into the next sport.
6. Challenge: Accepting hardship is part of any faith.
7. Day Into Night: The length of the event affords time for consideration.
8. Catharsis/Sacrifice: People bring many motivations to the Ironman table.
9. Diversity: Participation is ethnically, racially and culturally diverse. Worldwide.
10. Humanity: Ironman is an expression of both the power and frailty of humanity.
There you have it. Ironman truly does bear all the marks of a religion. That is neither a criticism or a compliment. Having written on religion for more than 20 years, I have both compliments and criticisms for that world as well. It’s just interesting there are so many parallels. It may explain a world of things going on today, or it may not.
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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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